Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: KREMLIN VIA REUTERS/SPUTNIK/ALEXEI DRUZHININ
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: KREMLIN VIA REUTERS/SPUTNIK/ALEXEI DRUZHININ

As Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address this week, offering one social handout after another, praising heroic doctors and vaccine researchers and promising to toughen environmental regulation, it felt like a trip to a parallel reality. Yet notwithstanding Putin’s largely empty domestic exhortations, his message to the West highlighted a radical difference in approach from that of his Soviet predecessors. 

In Putin’s world, Russia was an advanced country overcoming the Covid pandemic and trying to resolve some inevitable but not particularly daunting social and economic issues. In another world outside the cavernous hall of tense, mostly maskless faces hanging on Putin’s every word, troops were massing on the Ukrainian borders. European and US leaders were calling for a de-escalation and their calls were being ignored.

The US had just stepped up sanctions, expanding them to Russia’s new debt. The Czech Republic had just blamed Russian intelligence officers for a munitions depot explosion in 2014 that killed two people, and expelled 18 Russian diplomats from the embassy in Prague. The battered Russian opposition, officially designated by the government as “foreign agents,” faced pre-emptive detentions and a heavy riot police presence as it tried to hold rallies in support of their jailed, hunger-striking leader

Russia’s Covid vaccination rate stood at 4.3%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, about 13% of the US rate. In February, the latest month for which official statistics are available, 24,369 people reportedly died from Covid or with Covid; but excess deaths compared with February 2020 reached 29,493, suggesting a continuing cover-up of Covid mortality. 

Leaders as experienced as Putin often possess a powerful “reality distortion field” — a term first applied to another, more benign dictatorial figure, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. But Putin isn’t really shaping perceptions — not for the world, not even for his country, which, in this day and age, can access more sources than the state propaganda channels. People can see what’s really going on, and Putin — arguably since his neutering of the Russian constitution last year effectively made him president for life — is past the stage where he needed even implausible deniability.

Dictatorial inclinations

There are no fig leaves about his dictatorial inclinations, his intention to eradicate the threat of Alexei Navalny and his organisation regardless of what happens to the opposition leader or his team, his belief in being able to wish away the pandemic, his irritation with Ukraine’s very existence as an independent state, his openly confrontational attitude towards the US, his contempt for other Western nations as mere voices in a US-led chorus, or Tabaqui to the US. Shere Khan, to use the Jungle Book simile from the state of the nation speech.

So all the housekeeping trivia Putin fed to an audience that was well aware of a completely different real-world agenda was part of a message he articulated towards the end.

“We have — I’m just forced to say this — enough patience, responsibility, professionalism, good sense and confidence in ourselves and in being right to make any decisions. But I hope no-one gets it into their head to cross the so-called red line with regards to Russia. Where that line lies, we will determine on our own in every specific case.”

This goes beyond the typical prideful great power rhetoric everyone is used to from Russian leaders, Putin as well as his predecessors. It’s an announcement to the world that Putin alone will make the important decisions and set his own red lines. He’s not willing to discuss what he considers his business with anybody, certainly not with foreigners. For all the references to goodwill and responsible behaviour, this is a statement of wilful unpredictability, an almost mocking response to US President Joe Biden’s stated desire to maintain a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia. 

So what empowers Putin to tell the world to await his decisions as he moves the red lines? He appears to be much more explicit than even his Soviet predecessors were about their disregard for the West’s opinions on everything from global security to human rights.

For parallels with the 1970s and early 1980s, a time that shaped Putin’s worldview and his vision of his country’s global role, follow the tweets of Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko, a Cardiff University professor who’s made comparisons between the late Soviet and Putin regimes a kind of speciality.

As Radchenko pointed out recently, in 1981, when the Politburo was discussing how to deal with the Solidarity movement in Poland, Yuri Andropov, soon to succeed Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet leader, strongly opposed a military invasion because it would bring down the capitalist West’s ire on the Soviet Union in the form of economic and political sanctions, which could only weaken the Soviet Union’s global standing. Arguably, Poland was almost as important to the so-called “socialist camp” back then as Ukraine is to Putin’s vision of a “Russian world.” Yet rather than face Western countermeasures, Andropov, who was Putin’s boss in the KGB at the time, was willing to let Poland proceed with what appeared to be (and then became) the beginning of an anti-Communist revolution. The Soviet Union had already crossed a red line two years before by invading Afghanistan, and it wasn’t prepared to double down. Seven years after invading Crimea, Putin is signalling that he is.

Another parallel Radchenko has pointed to has to do with the Navalny case. In December 1986, dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in a prison camp from the effects of a hunger strike, an event that caused an international outcry and prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to start releasing political prisoners. Navalny appears to be determined to starve himself to death, and the world’s celebrities and politicians are remonstrating with Putin on his behalf, but there’s no sign that he might be softening. On the contrary, he’s ordered a crackdown on Navalny’s political organisation. On Wednesday, as relatively small numbers of Russians dared to take to the streets to demand freedom for the opposition leader despite official bans on such protests, about 1,500 people were detained.

The Soviet Union, of course, was a colossus with feet of clay in the 1980s, as energy prices declined and the planned economy disintegrated into a chaos of thievery, shortages and general irresponsibility.

Technocratic government

By contrast, Putin’s Russia, though still dependent on energy exports, is managed far more efficiently, and Putin’s technocratic government has taken pains to prepare it for the worst effects of a new Cold War. It is also smaller than the Soviet Union and not forced to hold on to a sprawling empire, which prevents Putin from feeling overextended. Russians, too, are not as desperate as they were becoming in the 1980s; they do not yet feel humiliatingly poor relative to the citizens of the Western world. Suppression has worked well against the remnants of the Russian opposition: Wednesday’s protests were too weak to count.

But none of those reasons can explain Putin’s ostentatious lack of concern about looking like a villain to Western political and opinion leaders. Russia is not invulnerable to pressure, and its geopolitical reach is even more limited than the Soviet Union’s, but Putin’s bravado ignores this. He appears to have decided that a Russia without real allies can afford to make all the enemies it wants merely because its nuclear deterrent makes it invincible in a major war. He’s made a bet on the West’s decline that the Soviet Union’s leaders weren’t bold enough to make, for all their rhetoric about capitalism being doomed.

The basis for this bet is that the West, and especially the US, is too preoccupied with domestic troubles to make meaningful sacrifices to hold him back. Former US president Barack Obama said in 2013 Putin had “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom”; Putin has since grown into that simile. His defiance, like that of the schoolchild with an attitude, appears to derive strength from the assumption that confronting him is more trouble than it’s worth; adults could make that kid’s life really difficult, but what are they willing to give up in order to do it?

It must be liberating to be thought of as an unashamed, unconstrained villain when one can predict the perfunctory, mostly symbolic moves that will be made in response to villainy such as the treatment of Navalny, or that Czech explosion, or the fear the Russian military build-up induced in Ukraine.

Putin simply doesn’t seem to believe anyone will seriously question his right to draw those red lines. His partial pullback of Russian forces from the border with Ukraine represents a de-escalation of sorts, but Putin has made his point. The question the West still really needs to answer is, what can be gained by getting serious about punishing Putin the back-of-the-class outlaw with serious countermeasures like sanctions on Russian energy exports or bringing Ukraine into Nato? Would the potential gains from facing Putin down outweigh the risks? Unless Putin takes drastic action like overrunning Ukraine, the answer appears to be no — and that’s precisely why Putin isn’t taking that action, despite his bluster.

Bloomberg Opinion. For more articles like this, please visit bloomberg.com/opinion

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