And why not? That dark aura of evil genius is one of the reasons Putin is regularly depicted as one of the most powerful men in the world. Even in his status as a frequently hilarious meme king, Putin is beguiling in the way Darth Vader is beguiling — yeah, he’s a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy you can’t take your eyes off of. When people hear that I recently came back to the States after spending seven years writing in Russia, about Russia, their eyes frequently go wide and they say things like, “So is it true that Putin secretly rules the world?” and “How did you manage to not get assassinated?” (The answers are: No, and, Like most people, I’m too boring to get assassinated, respectively.)
Yet we rarely stop to think about why Putin might be interested in promoting his image of strength and fearsome power. The reality is that the system he has built over the past 18 years of rule — the system that, we fear, may have done irrevocable damage to our democracy — is remarkably fragile.
George W. Bush may have seen in Putin “a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” but that isn’t quite right. Putin’s real commitment is to the best interests of his friends and their friends and anyone else who didn’t mind being useful to the Russian president while growing fantastically rich in the process. That helps to explain why Russia is the world’s must unequal major economy.
Inequality breeds instability, and it doesn’t help that after nearly two decades in charge, Putin has emerged as the only politician whom Russians take remotely seriously, so seriously that they regularly petition him to solve problems that their local officials ought to be dealing with instead. I’m talking stuff like new roads, playgrounds, better cancer wards — anything that makes life just a little bit easier.
If we don’t ponder it too deeply, we may think that this exemplifies Putin’s strength. In fact, though, this is a terrible way to run a country of 144 million people in the 21st century. Next week’s sham presidential election makes no difference either way, of course. Everyone knows that Russia will still be “The Putin Show,” 24/7 — and that this does nothing to modernize a ramshackle economy that depends entirely on the sale of natural resources.
Russian governance is corrupt and inefficient. A government and a national idea that rest on the shoulders of one man, even one routinely described as a “strongman,” are inherently wobbly. The fact that Putin seems to have planned for none of this, while also indulging in impulsive adventures such as stealing Crimea from Ukraine at an immense cost to the Russian state, reveals a simple truth: He has no long game. He has certainly always had one for himself, his assets and his friends’ assets (as the Panama Papers show), but that’s not the same thing as caring for the fate of an enormous, chaotic and socially atomized nation.
We all know about the essential flaw of popular villains: Right when it seems as though they’re about to win, they stand around and start monologuing. They explain their dastardly motives, maybe, or else cackle as lightning flashes in the background. This gives the hero or heroes the window of opportunity they need to make their move.
Ever since he took Crimea, started a shadow war in eastern Ukraine and threw his weight squarely behind mass-murdering dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin has been engaged in one prolonged cackle — even as Putinism itself is on the decline back home. Recognizing this situation for what it is will help us formulate better policies toward Russia.
And another thing: Unpleasant as it is, Putin’s revanchism against the West does have its roots in American triumphalism that immediately followed the collapse of the USSR. There is a lesson for Americans here, especially considering the fact that leading Russian academics suggest that the pendulum that is responsible for strident anti-Americanism in Russia could very well swing in the opposite direction.
Should we have the opportunity, we must do better next time. The Russian state has plenty of troubles yet to come.