Far from being a caricature Bond villain, Putin is seen as a national saviour, a la Reagan.
The the late 1970s the United States was deep in what Carter called a malaise. The economy was in recession, unemployment remained stubbornly high, memories of Vietnam were still painfully fresh, and across the world American primacy was being challenged, a challenge epitomised perfectly in the Iranian Embassy hostage crisis. Russia in the late 1990s was similarly afflicted by domestic and international woes; the economy staggered from one crisis to the next, living standards had stalled and in many areas were declining, Chechnyan rebels embarrassingly run rings around what was meant to be the colossus of the Russian army, Americans were unchallenged and remaking the world in their image, while the recent memory of Soviet greatness gnawed deeply.
Both Reagan and Putin were, to some extent, a response to market forces. America was suffering a crisis of confidence and a lack direction, and Reagan beamed with optimism, with the disarming Hollywood smile and a belief that America’s best days lay ahead of it. In a Russia beset by instability and a sense of loss, Putin was the strongman, with a seemingly permanent scowl (compared to Yeltsin’s jolly buffoonery), and an unapologetic commitment to restore Russian prestige and standing.
Fear of the other side were salient catalysts in the rise and legitimacy of both leaders. In the late 1970s most analysts agreed that the Soviets had surpassed the US in both conventional and nuclear forces. Soviet proxies were engaging in their own regional bids for dominance, and the Soviets themselves were on the march, this time in Afghanistan. In the late 1990s, it was Russia’s turn to be on the backfoot; US primacy was the dominating factor in all diplomatic engagements, US bases peppered the globe, former Warsaw Pact members were now in Nato, and US brands and media were saturating Russian culture, especially in the larger cities.
Once in power, Reagan and Putin both quickly set about massive investments in defence procurement and modernisation. This was in part for the practical reasons of force projection, part as an economic stimulus, and part to restore national pride in militaries still smarting from defeat at hands of much weaker enemies.
Putin and Regan share also an approach to diplomacy. Reagan was determined to end what he perceived as the one-sided detente with the Soviets, whilst putting in place his new concept of ‘rollback’, steadily reversing Soviet gains rather than merely containment favoured by his predecessors. Reagan re-energised alliances, increased support for pro western guerillas and states, and intervened in Grenada, Lebanon and Libya. Putin followed a similar pattern, vowing to reverse US intrusion in eastern Europe. Putin renewed and deepened links with Syria, Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. Pro Moscow strongmen were propped up in the Caucuses, while Putin’s Russia intervened in Georgia, Chechnya, and now Ukraine.
Of course there are differences between the two; Regan had a fixed term of office, preferred free markets to oligarchy, and had no overt territorial ambitions. But the two leaders share more than either of their supporters would care to admit.
And rather deliciously, both leaders had their time of being feared and distrusted by European governments.