Overestimating Putin: Russia’s Strongman May Be Anything But...

Amid the media response to the ongoing crisis in Crimea, a surprising theme has emerged in certain political circles: Putin-envy. The Russian president who has strived to cultivate a macho image has garnered praise for authoritative leadership and strategic acumen, ostensibly in contrast to his chief international rival, President Obama.

Perhaps on some level the accolades are justified. Since the beginning of the Crimea crisis Vladimir Putin has stunned the international community with his unilateral actions and unwavering rhetorical justifications.

But in ascribing Putin’s decisions to strength, western commentators are falling for the old fallacy that strongmen enjoy as much support as they like to pretend. The reality is Putin’s actions in Crimea are best explained as part of his personal struggle to remain relevant to a Russia which is at a socioeconomic crossroads.

Putin as Visionary, Putin as Revisionist

President Putin has attempted to chart a divergent course for Russia in the 21st century. On the one hand, he steered the nation back from the brink of the economic ruin it experienced in the 1990s, and brought Russia back onto the world stage. At the same time, he has followed a path of Cold War revisionism domestically and internationally.

Under Putin’s first presidency (2000–2008) the Russian GDP doubled, industry grew by 75%, and investments soared by 125%. How much of Russia’s resurgence can be attributed to Putin’s policies is debatable, but today the nightmares of post-Soviet Russia are a distant memory and Putin has managed to tie himself inextricably to the nation’s international reemergence as an economic and political powerhouse.

Along with economic liberalization, Putin’s Russia has sought international prestige including involvement with the G8, playing a larger role in the UN Security Council, and playing host to international sporting events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 FIFA World Cup. While not entirely European, this is a Russia that sees itself as a viable alternative to the EU both politically and economically.

Putin’s course for Russia has also entailed a heavy dose of revisionism. As former officer of the KGB, his recollections of Soviet Russia are rose-tinted, to say the least. His market reforms have been undercut by paradoxically anachronistic domestic and foreign policies. Restrictive social lawsnationalistic media, and transparent efforts to exert influence in the old Soviet sphere all cast harsh shadows on Russia’s modernization efforts.

The end result is that Russia today is in many ways as conflicted about its future as it was in 1991. Caught in the tension between the old and the new, Putin has apparently decided to hedge his bets on the old.

Kremlin Made of Sand

Just two months prior to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Putin’s approval rating hit its lowest level in over 13 years. While most western leaders might be quite content with a 61% rating, for Putin it represents a massive slide from the days when his public approval peaked well above 80%. The slump can be attributed to a slowdown in economic development as well as internal uncertainty over Russia’s future. Progressives see Russia in a domestic and international backslide, while nationalists regard Putin’s financial relations with the West as selling the nation’s soul to the highest bidder.

If approval ratings were Putin’s goal, his Crimea strategy is paying off. Following Russia’s quasi-invasion of Ukrainian territory, the Russian president’s approval has rebounded to 67.8% and will likely continue to rise in the coming weeks. Even with these surging numbers President Putin is no doubt very aware that swift shifts in public opinion have been the undoing of numerous Russian leaders throughout the 20th century.

While a loss of popular support would certainly hinder him, Putin’s real weak point is the support of the Russian oligarchs. In boosting Russia’s natural gas exports the president has effectively turned the nation into a petrostate, with the majority of both wealth and power in the hands of the few. The West would do well to realize that the easiest way to put pressure on Putin is to hurt the oligarchs’ bottom line.

Western allies are displaying considerable hesitancy and division over what kinds of sanction, if any, to deploy in response to the Ukraine crisis. The US has led the charge, imposing limited visa bans and asset freezes, and threatening further economic measures to be deployed as the need arises. The decision for President Obama is somewhat simple, US–Russian trade amounts to $40 billion, a relatively small sum, which the president is willing to risk if it means drawing a firm policy line with the Russians. Germany and Britain, however, appear unwilling to weather the financial storm and potential energy crisis that would result from a trade war with Russia.

Sanctions always carry a heavy risk of boomerang repercussions, but in this case the economic risk is well worth it. President Putin has far more to lose from severing trade ties with the West than his European counterparts. His oligarchic support base would quickly wither in the face of punitive economic measures, which could force deep concessions when it comes time for the negotiating table.

Invading Ukraine was a move of desperation by President Putin designed to shore up a fractured support base. The loss of Ukraine would have hurt his populist support among nationalists as well as damaged the economic future of the Eurasian sphere. In attempting to play to both factions Putin has dangerously overextended himself. But the West need not respond by redrawing Cold War battle lines. By pushing forward with economic sanctions and isolation from international institutions like the G8, the US and EU can make the Russian president feel the weight of his actions. It’s not Russia that needs containment, it’s Putin.

Patrick Tyler Haas is a Development Operations Associate at Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to literacy and gender equality in education.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header image: The lady put the bag on the discharge from the pedestal "hammer and sickle". December 25, 2011 was the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. | Alexander Nemenov, AFP,Getty Images.