Putin’s Return: Does it mean anything?

Putin is back, and now that all the shouting is over, both we and he can get back to business.


Those crazy kids nowadays.

Like, say, arresting the members of Pussy Riot, the all-female punk band that annoyed Putin last week by calling on the Virgin Mary herself to get rid of Putin. Three things should be noted immediately.

1. Yes, they really are called that. They use the English words as their name.

I was an Orthodox altar boy, and I don't recall this being in the training manuals.

2. They were arrested for “hooliganism,” which is a Soviet-era criminal charge which often means “drunk and disorderly” but often also means “being a general pain in the regime’s ass.”

3. When female punks named Pussy Riot call on the Holy Mother at the city’s biggest cathedral to take out the President, you know you’re in Russia.

Now then. The usual “what does it all mean” head-scratching has begun. Putin won with about 60% of the vote, which for him counts as a “squeaker,” but make no mistake: for a variety of reasons, including the complete fecklessness of the Russian liberals, he’s still popular and likely won that term legitimately. (Not a pretty election, but the results were probably what a majority of Russians wanted.)

I know it was you, Fredo.

Whether that translates into real power is another matter entirely. If Putin were an American president, we’d say his base is out there in the boonies of the Red States; the one place he’s unpopular is in Moscow. As in most places, Russia’s cities are more liberal than its rural areas. For Putin, this isn’t good: it says that the people who actually have to run the place, and make the system work, are the people who want him gone.

So he’s in for another six years, but whether he’ll be able to run again for another six is impossible to know. Six years in a democracy — even one as completely screwed dysfunctional as Putin’s Russia, is a long time. Anything can happen. (Just ask Richard Nixon.)

Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post made a good observation last week:

The question of the moment in Moscow is: How long will [Putin] last?

Not long, according to some of the more fevered spokesmen of the surging opposition, who predict the swelling of post-election demonstrations. More sober analysts figure the strongman and his circle might hang on for a couple of more years, provided they choose to appease a disgruntled public with political and economic reforms.

The pessimists think Putin may survive for a full six years as president ­ but not for the second six he was clearly counting on when he announced his return to the job last September. Russians I spoke to in the past several weeks voiced a common refrain: The autocracy that dominated the country for the last decade is already dead. The only question is what will follow it, and when.

I think that’s right. The election campaign, I think, shocked Putin and his cronies on several levels.

Official police estimate: 32, and a couple of squirrels.

First, while Putin knew he was unpopular (the Kremlin does good polling, they just don’t talk about it), I don’t think he knew how unpopular he really was with the middle class.

It’s not that he didn’t get the data; rather, there is a deep cynicism bred into the older Soviet-era citizens, and Putin may have just dismissed the initial opposition to his return as just more of the old-style bitching about The Boss that is a Russian custom. When the younger guys hit the streets, that was clearly Putin’s “uh oh” moment.

Second, it really shows that Putin and his coterie just don’t get it about information technology in the 21st century. Going after bloggers, or punk bands, or almost anyone under 50 in Russia means risking a serious coast-to-coast blowup in an hour. To this day, that whole concept seems to befuddle the Russian President.

Putin put out some slick commercials, to be sure. And if this were 1992 instead of 2012, that would have been great. But everything goes viral in this age; I’d never heard of…erm, Pussy Riot until last week, and now I’ve seen their videos. Busting people like that and then putting them in jail creates brushfires, it doesn’t extinguish them.

Did someone call me? No? Really? No, come on, it's cold out here, someone must have....no?

Diehl then goes off the rails to make some kind of grandiose comparison with China and the Arab Spring, and whether Putin will end up being Gorbachev or Mubarak. (Whatever writing spasm Tom Friedman has, it’s apparently contagious at times. Gorbachev is a ridiculous comparison.) That’s all just so much overblown globalist big-think, but the central point is valid: that Putinism as we knew it, circa 2006, is over. (So five years ago.)

The foreign policy implications are especially important to Americans, and as is becoming a War Room custom, the smart money is going with my pal and colleague, Nick Gvosdev, the regular commentator on such issues for World Politics Review.

Nick points out it’s not exactly good news to see Putin back in the Big Chair, but that maybe his return will help us get past — as we should — the dopey notion that the U.S. and Russian presidents have to be pals to get anything done:

But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud: It offers an opportunity to break with the assumption that the presidents of Russia and the United States must be good friends, which creates the impression that U.S.-Russia relations rest on the personal connection between the two countries’ chief executives. The events of the past several years demonstrate that cold calculations of mutual interest are beginning to take over as the driver of the bilateral relationship. So what if Obama doesn’t take Putin out for a friendly bite to eat at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, as he did with Medvedev last year? In some ways, the bilateral relationship is relocating outward, beyond the immediate presidential circle.

Americans, who are by their nature negotiators and deal-makers, love summitry, and put great stock in personal relationships between leaders. And sometimes, that pays off: the chaste crush between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan worked out well for all involved (meaning, the whole world).

Brezhnev lays one on Jimmy Carter. It didn't help get things done. Less kissing, more guy-talk might be the way to go.

But we’ve managed to avoid war with China, and do a lot of business — which I find creepily un-American, but there it is — with Beijing, despite that we don’t spend a lot of time taking their president for golf. The circles of policymaking are too big to rest on just one or two men or women anymore, and Putin’s decreased power will be a sign of that movement in Russia, especially if his first meeting is with a new President Romney.

In any case, little is going to change. Putin will still flail about looking for a Russian national idea, and Russia will still be a thorn in our side on some important issues while quietly cooperating with us on others. What’s certain, however, is that his imperial days are over — and that’s good news all around.

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  1. That’s one possibility, although one might expect him to push harder on nationalist buttons too, if and only if he thought it was in his regime’s survival interest. I wouldn’t underestimate his staying power, although, he hasn’t managed to deal with the old state sector yet, what some call The Virtual Economy, but rather encourage it in effect to remain around as a voting block. One could do, and probably needs to do, a deal with him on Central Asian oil and gas, which with Iran might avert a lot of problems, if and only if the Iranians lose their nuclear death wish.

  2. Excellent post, Tom. Putin can’t really “get it” about 21st century politics and IT’s impact since that would go against his entire, carefully crafted Chekist persona. Although Putin has somewhat embellished his KGB credentials, there can be no doubt that the Lubyanka worldview profoundly shaped him: what you see is what you get.

    I’ve never really understood why so many neocons – that word again; but you know who, and what, I mean – get their panties in such deep knots over VVP since, really, he’s a Russian Red Stater to the core.

    Putin is definitely not “our SOB” and he viscerally dislikes the USA, for reasons both legitimate and illegitimate, but he’s also not going anywhere anytime soon. Putin 3.0 will be a bit different, due to the real changes in Russia which you’ve cited (insert cliche about Russia being too big for even an autocrat to govern, etc), but the sooner the Beltway Geniuses figure out that there really are no viable alternatives to Putin the sooner things will go better.

    Note to DC: smack Putin and the boys down when they do something genuinely stupid and/or needlessly offensive to us and the West – they will, it’s like a clock – but lay off the “illegitimacy” card, it’s counterproductive and not even true. Any US presidential candidate todaywho got 60% of the vote would be doing the world’s biggest wave.

  3. John – I especially agree about the smackdown. Don’t put up with any of Putin’s antics, but let’s stop with the “he’s not really president” stuff. He really is. And the same people that are criticizing Putin’s legitimacy are the ones who don’t like to talk about JFK’s 1960 miracle, the bags of Chinese money sitting on the White House steps during the Clinton administration, and Bush v. Gore. They also seem oblivious to the fact that our own system has produced contests that give a bad name to nepotism:

    1992: The son of a senator (Bush) v. Clinton
    2000: The son of a President (Bush 43) v. the son of a Senator (Gore)
    2004: Bush v. a Senator running heavily on the money of another Senator’s widow
    2008: A primary involving a former President’s wife, and an eventual contest with the son of two generations of admirals.

    If the Russians, or anyone else, did this, we’d scream everything from fraud to Peronism. Democracy is messy, and I fail to see why we think anyone else’s democracy should be less messy than our own.

    With all that said, Putin’s still a Chekist. He’s yesterday’s man. The question is what comes next.

  4. Great analysis! (And thanks for the link to the WPR piece, too!)

    I think that Putin has been put on notice that he has the next six years to get “Operation Successor” right this time, that his shelf life will expire by 2018, and if attempt #1 (the Medvedev option) didn’t work, making it necessary for him to come back (I don’t buy the story that this was the plan all along–I think it developed over time when Medvedev, for some reasons out of his control, was not able to guarantee continuation of the system)–this is his last shot to preserve the core of what he’s built.

    The late lamented Surkov (now removed from his position as the Kremlin’s grey cardinal) always was pretty clear on what he was trying to create–a Japanese style LDP system where the party remained in control for decades, winning elections, and where mechanisms were in place to regulate competition among the factions. But United Russia has failed so far to be a credible LDP. So this raises John’s question: what comes next? And does Putin have a vision for moving forward, or is it circling the wagons to try and hold back the tide?

  5. Of course it was a very good post Tom, which I should say more often, although I somewhat take it for granted, since your the Russia House and nuclear weapons person.
    Putin’s clearly legitimate in the sense that even with fraud, there is no Russian figure who can come close to hims still, a hockey owner in Jersey rapping with JayZ, really?, although, that’s partly also by his construction of apparently funding people like Zyuganov and Zhironovsky at times, or so one reads in Politkovskaya and other places, the former who got of course a bad ride in an elevator as to her veracity, and the point being to make it look scary to replace him, not unlike what Yeltsin did in 1996 with the same people.
    Maybe Putin needs to find a successor, or maybe that’s the real point, to be the only game in town in the end, hence picking Medvedev, too much of a boy to stand the comparison of a Chekist.
    I think Putin gets the 21st century as to possibilities, and is a forerunner of what some have called a “postmodern” dictatorship, softer in many ways than what went on in the past, but still the hero people everywhere sometimes think that they need, hence the horse riding, tiger shooting etc…, as he can construct media events periodically that rationalize his existence, if they don’t solve the biggest Russian problem: Red State Russia’s economics and demography. That is something of a problem for everyone else, because unless he gets what he asked for in Davos in 2009, a very good analysis of the world system I thought, then Russia doesn’t make very much really, other than weapons, and is too much a rentier state and competitor with the West in weapons sales to really get along with so great. They need technology transfers we can live with in oil and gas, but also industry, in return for more reasonable protection of Western property rights in oil and gas, but, no on-off switch games anymore either, IMHO.

  6. Of course, as the US has shown you can mostly ignore the new media if your elite establishment is drowned in enough money.