James Evans reflects on Vladimir Putin’s enduring political skill.
September: the season of conferences and political waffle. Behind the scenes, however, one politician has been doing most of the business – Vladimir Putin. As Assad struggles to win a civil war which is increasingly being waged between rival terrorist groups as seven million ordinary Syrians flee for their lives, Putin has emerged as the great global power-broker. As the bleats of the liberal interventionists subsided in a clamour of anti-war sentiment, the camera returned to Putin, standing above and before his peers as host of the G20 summit.
Putin’s ascendancy to the pinnacle of world politics is a story that the media have largely refrained from writing about, which has helped a man who, as former KGB chief, is used to operating in the shadows. Over the last few years, the spotlight has tended to focus upon the ‘first black president’ Barack Obama, or the emerging might of China and the BRIC economies. One highlight of Sasha Baron-Cohen’s recent film ‘The Dictator’ encapsulates our West-facing tendencies: ‘Ah America’, Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen opines, ‘built by the Blacks and owned by the Chinese’! Debate on the problems of Russian society has largely been eschewed, although recently Stephen Fry and others have sought to persuade nations to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi over Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Debate on the problems of Russian society has largely been eschewed…
In fact, our media often makes fun of Putin’s carefully-cultivated media persona. Iconic images of the great leader, on horseback, bare-chested, or dressed to kill like some latter-day Rambo, are often mocked by online writers. Benito Mussolini, the twentieth-century Italian fascist dictator, was also a fan of torso-driven publicity! Bizarrely, I also remember hearing that Putin’s sex appeal in Russia skyrocketed after his wife told interviewers what a cold, dispassionate man he was!
People mock what they don’t understand. The fact is that Putin is Russia’s great political survivor. He has been in power in Russia, as Prime Minister (1999-2000; 2008-2012) and as President (2000-2008; 2012 onwards) for far longer than his democratically-elected contemporaries in the UK and the USA, and is likely to outlast them all. Whilst some may cast aspersions at his domestic publicity campaign, the image of the macho military man clearly works for him in Russia – the only market that actually matters. It is true that Russia has a great deal of corruption below the surface; it is likely that the President has to make accommodations with powerful mafia interests. However, it is undeniable that he has fought Mother Russia’s corner and tried to get the best deal for his people, for example over GazProm in 2000-2003. Ironically, he may need to pull off a similar coup to save his reputation now that the company is in dire straits.
The fact is that Putin is Russia’s great political survivor.
Putin’s status as the apotheosis of world politics has come with the collapse of interventionist politics over Syria. He is the winner in the Syria crisis because he has held his ground and maintained a cool-headed, rational stance. Most citizens in the USA and the UK are weary and wary of war after recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the ‘hawks’ accept the need for convincing evidence and UN support before action is taken. Perversely for a leader who is so militaristic in personal appearance, Putin has been the voice of peace in this debate. In fact, Putin and his nation are wise to the effects of war in a way in which our liberal internationalist leaders do not always seem to be: war in Afghanistan was the disaster that broke the USSR; today, ‘counter-terrorism operations’ continue in Chechnya…
In ‘The Prince’, the much maligned political philosopher Machiavelli reflected on the fickle nature of fortune in political affairs. Whilst he was prepared to accept that events are to a certain extent outside the control of human leaders, nevertheless, he believed that ‘fortuna’, being a woman, was more inclined to favour an ‘impetuous’ (male) approach than a ‘cautious’ one. Perhaps Putin’s diplomatic victory on Syria shows that he is the standard bearer for a new political machismo.