The Dangerous Mr. Putin
The American Interest
by David J. Kramer
President, Freedom House
Over the past several months, President Obama and his Western colleagues have engaged with Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions to try to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Obama and Putin have spoken nine times and met briefly in France in June; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken with Putin on close to 40 occasions and met him in France as well as in Brazil during the World Cup.
The problem is not lack of dialogue with Putin. The problem is the leader in the Kremlin who seeks to destabilize his neighbors and prevent them from democratizing and integrating more closely with the West at the same time he cracks down in ugly ways inside his own country.
Were Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries in the region to succeed, their progress would pose a serious challenge to the thoroughly corrupt, authoritarian system Putin oversees in Russia. This is why Putin intervened with Ukraine’s plans last fall to sign agreements with the European Union, and why he invaded Ukraine in late February after Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. Nothing scares Putin like the ouster of like-minded authoritarian leaders by popular movements calling for an end to corruption and a brighter future with the West. That was true in 2003 and 2004 with the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, with his ongoing support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria after several other tyrants in the Arab world fell from power in 2011, and now again with Ukraine.
With record-high popularity ratings, one would think Putin would feel more secure in his position. But before his move into Ukraine, Putin’s numbers, while still relatively high compared to many Western leaders, had plateaued. The Russian economy was already in trouble before the West started imposing sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian system is completely corrupt, with estimates of Putin’s own worth reaching the tens of billions of dollars. (Should Russians see their standard of living decline and food products they’ve grown accustomed to buying become scarce because of the ban put in place in response to the West’s sanctions, Putin’s support could drop.
For more than a decade, Putin has perpetuated the myth that the West and the United States in particular are Russia’s top security threats. He does this to justify his repressive means of control over society, bolster a narrative that his leadership represents the best bulwark against such a threat, and deflect attention from domestic concerns. This is not new. Following the tragic hostage-taking of a school in Beslan in southern Russia in 2004 in which some 300 people were killed, largely at the hands of a bungled rescue operation, Putin said, “Some want to tear off a big chunk of our country. Others help them to do it.”
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