Don’t Admire the Big Man

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014 (Kremlin)

Surprisingly many Westerners admire the authoritarian leaders of other nations.

They should be careful what they wish for.

Accepting dictators as a necessary evil in the absence of an immediate alternative is one thing. Respecting them for what they are is quite another.

Comedian Jon Stewart ridiculed American rightwingers’ obsession with international strongmen on his The Daily Show Tuesday night, contrasting their fawning praise of Jordan’s king, Abdullah, Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin with their indignation whenever their own president, Barack Obama, oversteps the constitutional restraints on his office.

But there is more at play here than hypocrisy. It’s not just that those demanding “strong leadership” would — rightly — complain when it is exerted at home; their protestations reveal an unhealthy desire to be led and a misjudgment of what makes a political system sound.

A psychologist might have more to say about the former, but the fact that it is evidently still widespread in Western societies is worrisome. If only because those very societies have made the most progress in empowering the individual.

Who needs strong leaders?

A society with citizens who are informed and willing to take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t need “strong leadership.” It needs a leadership that respects personal autonomy and privacy.

Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens (and businesses) to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s private lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

It may be unfair to put King Abdullah in this category, but Sisi and Putin clearly belong here.

It’s clear from when Sisi told Germany’s Der Spiegel this week that without him, Egypt would have slid into civil war and “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.”

It’s clear from when Putin warned in 2012 that ethnic tensions would have torn Russia apart if it weren’t for him.

These men believe they’re the only ones who can save their an helpless people — a delusion that befalls dictators everywhere.

The delusion of one-man rule

If a country’s stability does hinge on the ability of one man, it has a big problem.

That’s the second thing Sisi’s and Putin’s admirers in the West fail to recognize.

One-man rule may offer the mirage of stability, but it is always structurally rotten.

What Egypt and Russia need is not stronger leadership, but a strong citizenry. They need a civil society that nurtures critical and informed citizens. They need bureaucrats who are competent and politicians who are accountable. They need a political system that channels grievances and settles disputes peacefully. And they could do with more entrepreneurs who create jobs independently of the state.

This doesn’t have to look like liberal democracy in the West. But if Egypt and Russia and countries like it are to escape from corruption, economic malaise, personal oppression and political ineptitude, they can’t continue to rely on “big men” who have so often failed them in the past.

Lesser of evils

What makes even less sense is for Westerners — who have all the things so many other countries need — to reject their traditions of representative democracy and rule of law and call in the man on horseback instead.

Sure, Western leaders can be feeble. But then does it make sense to them the power to act on their every whim?

Yes, Western leaders can be incompetent. But at least we can vote them out.

Given the choice between the spectacle of compromising, fudging and trepidation that we call politics in the West and the jailing — or worse — of dissidents, the expropriation of private property and the invasion of other countries supposedly “strong” leaders in Egypt and Russia are responsible for, I know which I’d prefer.

Putin’s Holy War: A Challenge the West Underestimates

Russian president Vladimir Putin lights a candle during a visit to the Saint Sergius of Radonezh Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo, December 8
Russian president Vladimir Putin lights a candle during a visit to the Saint Sergius of Radonezh Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo, December 8 (Kremlin)

The West is in new cold war with Russia, argues national-security expert John R. Schindler. Beyond the geopolitical standoff in Ukraine, where the two blocs support opposing sides in a civil war, Russia and the West advance rival visions of the world.

After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean from Ukraine in March, America’s president, Barack Obama, insisted his country was not entering into another cold war with the Russians. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology,” he said.

Schindler disagrees. A former National Security Agency analyst and former professor of national-security affairs at the United States Naval War College, he argues at his blog that Russia should be seen as “the vanguard of the diverse movement that is opposed to Western postmodernism in its political and social forms.”

During the last couple of years, the contours of that movement have become more defined.

Nationalist revival

Where Putin cautioned against nationalism shortly before his reelection in 2012, warning that Russia’s multiethnic society would lose “strength and durability” if it was “infested” by it, his regime has since revived medals and military parades from the Soviet era and mandated the increased use of the Russian national anthem and flag. Relations between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church have also warmed.

This nationalist revival has seemed design to shore up Putin’s popularity.

Urban and middle-class Russians, whose economic prospects had improved during the early, more liberals years of his rule, have grown dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top of Putin’s “power vertical”.

Rural and working-class voters, by contrast, have seen little economic improvement and are starting to turn to communist and nationalist, rather than leftist, opposition parties.

Putin’s appeals to Russian patriotism and tradition, including his infamous ban on gay “propaganda,” look like attempts to charm those constituencies.

Russian exceptionalism

The rehabilitation of the Church, after many decades of suppression under communism, echoes in Russian foreign policy. The country has become more vocal about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where Russia’s ally, Bashar Assad, is fighting an uprising of mostly Sunni Muslims against his secular dictatorship.

When Putin informed parliament of the Crimean annexation in March, his speech contained various appeals to Russian nationalism and Orthodox mysticism, including citations of saints from the distant past.

“This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy,” according to Schindler.

Russia defended its role in Ukraine by arguing that Russian “compatriots” in the former Soviet republic were in danger from a new, pro-Western government.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, argued at the time that Russian propaganda revealed “a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilization has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenizing Western influence.”

Where anti-Westernism was previously a means to an end — to rally public support for Putin’s policies — it became an end in itself, according to Galeotti.

Imperial ambitions

But this also presented a problem, as the Atlantic Sentinel reported: Russia’s appeals to ethnic nationalism necessarily excluded the millions of non-ethnic Russians who live in the country and its “near abroad.”

This website predicted that Russia’s regional integration schemes, like the Eurasian Union, which is due to go into effect next year, were now more likely to be seen in neighboring countries as attempts to reconstruct the Soviet Union.

“The price of a prouder, stronger Russia may well be the defeat of Putin’s imperial ambitions,” we warned.

Alternative worldview

Infusing Russia’s alternative worldview with religion could preempt that. The Orthodox Church is transnational and it has “become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin,” writes Schindler — “a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.”

[Church] agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while [Russian Orthodox Church] spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family and nation.

Whether or not Putin really believes all this is immaterial. His regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology that justifies its actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.

Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.

This is an ideology that resonates beyond Russia. Some Europeans, like French nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, sympathize with Putin’s outlook.

Schindler warns, “As discontentment with American-led Europe spreads, the Russian option may look plausible to more Europeans, worried about immigration, identity and the collapse of their values and economies, than Americans might imagine.”

Putin Doesn’t Care About the Rules Anymore

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin arrives in the Leningrad region to observe military exercises, March 3 (Kremlin)

The United States on Monday accused Russia of violating a Cold War arms treaty governing both powers’ use of intermediate range missiles. If true, it marks the latest in a series of Russian breaches of international norms since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.

Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits both America and Russia from deploying ballistic and cruise missiles that are launched from the ground and have a range of between 500 and 5,000 kilometers, was first reported by The New York Times in January. An American government official confirmed the transgression this week, saying, “This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now.”

While the official did not elaborate on how Russia had violated the treaty, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said in May the country was developing a new ground-launched cruise missile. Read more “Putin Doesn’t Care About the Rules Anymore”

Why Even an Airplane Crash Won’t Make Putin Back Down

Russian president Vladimir Putin arrives in the Leningrad region to observe military exercises, March 3
Russian president Vladimir Putin arrives in the Leningrad region to observe military exercises, March 3 (Kremlin)

Since a commercial airliner crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday — brought down, in all likelihood, by a pro-Russian militants — Russian president Vladimir Putin has cast the blame solely on Ukraine’s government, saying it “bears responsibility” for the deaths of close to three hundred passengers and crew.

With the separatist insurgency seemingly at an impasse and Russia’s most important European trading partner, Germany, warning on Saturday that this is Putin’s “last chance,” after it previously resisted sanctions, why won’t the Russian leader back down?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea in March, following mass protests in Kiev that toppled the relatively pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, it has accomplished little more than uniting the vast majority of Ukrainians and world opinion against it.

In the months leading up to Yanukovich’s resignation, Russia had tried to dissuade Ukraine from entering into an association agreement with the European Union, hoping to lure the former Soviet republic into its own Eurasian Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan instead. When Yanukovich budged to Russian pressure, he was promptly ousted. His successor, Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May on a promise to put down the uprising in the east, signed the European treaty last month, putting Ukraine on a track to membership.

The separatists in southeastern Ukraine, inspired by what happened in the Crimea, still hope Russia will annex them. But Putin has given no indication he intends to. Rather, he formally renounced the right to intervene militarily in Ukraine last month, a permission he had been given by the Russian Senate, although Russian support for the rebels appears to have continued since.

To what end?

Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, argues at The Restless Realist that Putin finds himself trapped. “There is no clear political objective behind the separatist campaign that Moscow can sell as a victory,” he suggests, “but their abandonment would almost certainly lead to a clearcut defeat.”

A defeat for the rebels, or a withdrawal of Russian support, would be seen as a defeat for Russia as well, “roughly equal in significance to the victory in Crimea,” writes András Tóth-Czifra, a political scientist who blogs about Russian politics.

Russian propaganda has so strongly made the separatists’ case, claiming they are rightly fighting for their identity and language in the face of a “fascist” regime in Kiev bent on oppressing them, that one in four Russians would support military intervention in Ukraine — up from 31 percent in May.

Western condemnations are unlikely to change those numbers. Many Russians support Putin’s policy because they see him as standing up to their old enemy, the United States.

As Tóth-Czifra puts it, “Vladimir Putin has no choice, internationally, but to immediately and distinctly cease supporting separatism in eastern Ukraine. And he has no choice, domestically, but to cling on to it.”

The Malaysia Airlines crash has only put Putin in a tougher spot, adds Berman. He must now decide “between appearing callous and strong or compassionate and weak.” His statements blaming the Ukrainian government and Russian media’s conspiracy theories suggest he has opted for the former. Putin might know it were the rebels who shot down the plane but there is nothing he can do about it. Russia has lost control over the insurgency it helped create.

“What he can do,” according to Berman, “is give the impression that Russia neither cares nor can be touched by the fury of foreigners, which will serve the purpose of focusing the Russian public’s anger at the Western countries who will condemn Russia’s actions rather than on the policies that brought about the downing.”

Federalization is Russian Design to Weaken, Not Save Ukraine

Vladimir Putin Sergei Lavrov
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Sochi, March 10 (Kremlin)

Russia’s proposal to federalize Ukraine can hardly be seen as a sincere attempt to solve the crisis in that country. If implemented, such a scheme would almost certainly expand Russian influence into its former satellite state and probably prevent it from deepening relations with the West.

President Vladimir Putin vowed in a television interview on Thursday to “do everything” to help the people of southeast Ukraine “protect their rights and decide on their fate. This is what we are going to fight for.” He reminded viewers that the Russian Senate had given him permission to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect the lives of Russians and Russian speakers there. “But,” he added, “I sincerely hope I will not have to use this right.”

He did in the Crimea last month which had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Russian troops occupied the peninsula and later annexed it, after Crimeans voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and return to Russia. Read more “Federalization is Russian Design to Weaken, Not Save Ukraine”

Defense of Ethnic Russians Complicates Putin’s Eurasia Agenda

Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013
Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Kremlin)

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s justification for annexing the Crimean Peninsula is at odds with his stated ideology, which was closer to Eurasianism than Russian nationalism.

Although Putin has denied sending troops into Crimea, a peninsula Russia formally annexed from Ukraine this week, he did vow to protect Russian speakers and Russian interests in the region. The Russian senate also gave him permission to use force in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens in the former Soviet republic and their “compatriots.”

This emphasis on ethnic Russians, who constitute the majority population of the Black Sea peninsula, defies Putin’s earlier warning that nationalism would weaken Russian society. Read more “Defense of Ethnic Russians Complicates Putin’s Eurasia Agenda”

Putin Denies Troops in Crimea, Says Force “Last Resort”

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013 (Kremlin)

Breaking days of silence since his forces entered Ukraine’s Crimea last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied in a news conference on Tuesday that the soldiers there were Russian. The uniformed troops, who carried no national insignia but spoke Russian and drove vehicles with Russian license plates, were “local self-defense forces,” he claimed.

“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need but such a possibility exists,” said the Russian leader. “It would naturally be the last resort.”

Putin justified the possibility of military intervention by saying there had been a coup in Kiev and Ukraine’s legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovich, had asked for Russia’s help. Read more “Putin Denies Troops in Crimea, Says Force “Last Resort””

Crimea Invasion Putin’s Mistake? Too Soon to Tell

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013 (Kremlin)

Since Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea last week, there has been no shortage of advice from Western commentators who believe the whole enterprise is a catastrophic mistake on the part of President Vladimir Putin.

Newsweek‘s Owen Matthews believes the Russian leader “has come to believe his own propaganda — that he is has really succeeded in resurrecting the power of the Soviet Union.”

The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius also sees Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as springing “from a deeper misjudgment about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of Soviet Union in 1991.” Putin’s “revanchist” strategy moves the country closer to “corrupt Oriental despotism,” he writes, whereas Russia can only reverse its alleged “demographic and political trap” by moving closer to the West.

The demographic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was actually halted in 2009 when the Russian population grow for the first time in fifteen years. As for its “political trap,” if that means Russia’s lack of democratic traditions, it is difficult to see how more amicable ties with the West would enable it to break out of that.

Russian public opinion does not seem altogether appalled by the notion that one man might just have plunged Europe in its worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Rather, many Russians approve of Putin’s invasion of the Crimea which they consider an appropriate response to an imagined Western conspiracy to snitch the Ukraine from their sphere of influence. Russia’s paranoia, which goes a long way toward explaining why the country still has something resembling “Oriental despotism” in the twenty-first century, will not simply fade away when it moves into the Western sphere — assuming Western countries even want it there.

However misguided Matthews and Ignatius might believe Putin’s motives to be, neither does actually explain how invading the Crimea can objectively be considered to have been a mistake.

Mary Mycio makes a far more compelling argument in Slate where she explains how Russia would struggle to keep an independent Crimea float. The peninsula is now heavily dependent on electricity, food and water from Ukraine.

That’s why the Crimea is even a part of Ukraine. Don’t believe that myth about the peninsula being a “gift” from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. For laughs, people often add that he did it when he was drunk. That story was actually concocted during the early 1990s when Russia first started making mischief with pro-Russian separatism.

If Putin intends to annex the Crimea or install a client government there, Mycio’s criticisms will make sense. But as Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, points out as his blog, there is also the possibility that Putin has occupied the peninsula to put pressure on the new authorities in Kiev. He writes, “there is still scope for a political resolution, one that will allow Putin to pull the boys back, claim victory over a cowed Kiev and a handwringing West and await the next well meaning invitation to a ‘reset’ of East-West relations.”

It is too soon to tell whether the Crimean incursion was a mistake for Russia or not. Whoever claims to know at this point is probably not actually making the argument that Putin was in error but that his behavior is morally reprehensible — which is not the same thing as being mistaken.

Flying Russian Tricolor Part of Putin’s Nationalist Revival

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday backed a law that would increase the use of the Russian national anthem and flag. Claiming he wants to boost patriotism, “especially among the younger generation,” the move is Putin’s latest appeal to conservative values and an attempt to lift his popularity ratings.

The Russian leader, who was elected to a third term last year with 63 percent support, told university law teachers at his residence west of Moscow he had sent a bill to parliament that would widen use of state symbols such as Russia’s tricolor in schools.

Putin earlier revived Soviet-style military parades and a labor medal that had been introduced during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Since his most recent reelection, ties between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church have also warmed while Russia has taken an increasingly adversarial stance in world affairs to its former Cold War rival America.

The nationalist revival seems an attempt to shore up Putin’s working-class support. Read more “Flying Russian Tricolor Part of Putin’s Nationalist Revival”

For Russia, Syria the Last Straw in Long List of Grievances

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter's dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Russia’s resistance to American military intervention in Syria’s civil war is the latest indication that a relationship that was supposed to be “reset” in 2009 is unraveling.

Russia’s relations with the United States were most recently tested when it granted asylum to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden who revealed embarrassing details about America’s global surveillance efforts to a number of Western media outlets, notably Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. President Barack Obama canceled a bilateral summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in protest to that decision.

The New York Times reports that such tussles are less to blame for souring American-Russian relations than are “radically different worldviews revealed by the Syria dispute.” Whereas Obama feels compelled to take action in the country after the regime of President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, Putin “sees American imperialism at work again.”

The Russians fear a repetition of what happened in Libya two years ago. They consented to a United Nations Security Council resolution at the time to protect civilians whose protests to the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were brutally suppressed. But as the Russians see it, NATO and Arab allies seized on the mandate to engineer regime change in Tripoli. Bombings of government and military assets enabled the rebels to murder Gaddafi and displace his regime.

“The Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya,” Robert Gates, Obama’s former defense secretary, told The New York Times. “They felt there had been a bait and switch. I said at the time we would pay hell ever getting them to cooperate in the future.” Read more “For Russia, Syria the Last Straw in Long List of Grievances”