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Putting Putin's record into perspective


Vladimir Putin and Tony Abbott at the G20

Amid talk of whether Vladimir Putin would leave the G20 early and numerous reports of frosty encounters between him and other summit leaders, Western media coverage has generally operated from the sometimes forcefully expressed underlying assumption that the West is dealing with an erratic and dangerous dictator whose rule damages the once-great country he leads. Since uninterrogated assumptions are never helpful, it may be worth seeing if there is another perspective available.

I will not argue that Putin is a democrat. An abiding image from my visit to Russia in 2008 was that of armed and uniformed people on the street. So, not Scandinavia. 

His background – like that of George Bush the elder – was in intelligence and Russian democracy. It remains imperfect, with extraordinary concentration of wealth, legally mandated internal surveillance of its citizens, pliable courts and very little civic opposition. (Then again, the Snowden revelations, the use of torture and drone strikes by Western nations, the homogeneity of our parties and the power of our own richest should give us pause.) 

Nevertheless, there are good reasons – beyond media control – why the Russian president enjoys poll ratings of which an Abbott or an Obama could only dream. To understand them, a brief retrospective is in order.

The fall of the Soviet Union saw state assets distributed to party bosses and friends of Boris Yeltsin, himself a weak and unstable, albeit authoritarian leader (when sober). Unemployment and crime skyrocketed, and pensions and wages fell through the floor (when they were paid at all). 

I remember being shocked when I heard Russian and Ukrainian friends referring to the Brezhnev era as schastliviye vyek (a happy age) – because people had a job and food to eat. Gorbachev, beloved of many in the West, is regarded by just as many Russians with loathing, as the man who opened the path to Yeltsin and the wholesale destruction of the state.

It would be foolish to pretend that the West did not take advantage of the weakness of the former Soviet states in the 1990s. Russia was looted of its assets, many of which found their way abroad and military terms were forced on it in ways it could not resist. The traditional Russian fear of encirclement by foreign powers (born of invasions from the Tartars to the Nazis) was stoked as NATO, far from disbanding with the end of the Warsaw Pact, expanded ineluctably to its borders. 

In 2002, the USA denounced the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty – a cornerstone of late-Cold War nuclear balance – and expanded missile bases into former Warsaw Pact countries. NATO’s Kosovo war saw unilateral dismemberment of a UN member, followed swiftly by the installation of a US base, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

Putin has reversed at least some of this. While portrayed abroad as reckless and responsible for much damage to his economy, he has actually ensured that Russia has some of the lowest foreign debt and highest capital reserves in the world. 

Industry – though creaky by Western standards – has been rebuilt, and pensions and wages are paid. The International Space Station is supplied by Russian rockets. Russia has the second-highest annual immigration rate in the world (after the US). The military has been reformed, and Russian tourism has boomed, with 27 million arrivals in 2013. 

While some of his methods are questionable (including the jailing of opponents), Russians are not mere dupes for claiming that the ex-spy has made their country great again.

It is also true that Russia’s foreign policy supports governments with less than stellar human rights records. Those in Syria and Iran spring to mind. Then again, the US and Australia’s resolute backing for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and the military government in Egypt don’t attract nearly the same opprobrium in the West. But Russia is not only playing realpolitik. 

As the former US State Department official Paul Saunders notes, there is a philosophical divide between Russian and US foreign policy. While the West declares for 'democracy promotion', often driven by neo-conservative impulses of shaping a better world in US colours, Russia supports stability – even if that means preserving unsavoury characters in the process. 

There are, of course, arguments to be had on both sides, but it is difficult to see the Russian view as irrational (especially in light of developments in Iraq and Libya after their 'liberation'). Even Russia’s intervention in Ukraine can be seen through this lens: not only was the preservation of Russian naval bases and the rights of Russian speakers in the light of the Maidan coup/revolution popular at home as a vindication of Russian rights, it also served the status quo. And, in the light of the Kosovo precedent, on what basis could the West object to acts of self-determination by the locals?

In sum, while Putin may be a Russian nationalist with an authoritarian bent, a bit more self-reflection and a bit less demonisation by the West may be in order.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ 
is a Jesuit presently studying for the priesthood. He has previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a Ph.D in administrative and international law.


Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Vladimir Putin, G20, Tony Abbott, Russia, Soviet Union, foreign relations



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Existing comments

Thanks Justin for clearing a few things up. Being born in the year Soviet Communism fell (1990), I sometimes am not on the same wavelength with my parents for example when it comes to Russia - I'm more willing to trust the Russians. That being said, a lecturer of mine stated that some 40% of russian gdp is controlled by the russian mafia.

Tom | 16 November 2014  

Edward Lucas has been following the latest build of Russian war mongering - always done behind a massive wall of lies. Lucas says, 'For the past eight months, the world has been subjected to a blitzkrieg of disinformation, distortions, and outright lies from Kremlin officials and the Russian media. It's been a wild ride. It's been a baffling reinvention of reality. And its been a mass hallucination. No sooner is one Kremlin myth, lie, or distortion debunked than a dozen more pop up in its place.' http://www.rferl.org/content/podcast-the-kremlins-mind-bombs/26692288.html The level of reality distortion from the ex KGB personnel who are in the current govt is way beyond what Australians would be accustomed to let alone understand. Putin would have Justin Glyn for breakfast. The robbery of Russian resources has been done by Russians themselves. An interesting account can be found in 'Londongrad' by Mark Hollingsworth. http://www.amazon.com/Londongrad-Russia-Inside-Story-Oligarchs/dp/0007356374

Skye | 17 November 2014  

Hear, hear, Justin. Best those in glass houses not throw stones.

Sara Dowse | 17 November 2014  

Thank you Justin. I have often wondered about "the other side of the other side of the argument". Certainly the end does not justify the means, and, that applies to the West as well as Russia.

Patrick Kempton | 17 November 2014  

Any country with as many nuclear weapons as Russia (and this applies equally to US) demands respect. It's much better to earn respect of course but power has its own language. Dialogue is important and so is honesty and I wonder just how candid conversations were at the G20. I always enjoy reading Australian novelist Robert Dessaix's thoughts about Russia.

Pam | 17 November 2014  

I agree wholeheartedly with Justin Glyn's views here. Russia no longer has a global ideological agenda to convert us all to Communism. It is defending its natiional sovereignty, quite bravely and reasonably, and against heavyhanded NATO bullying - mostly , it must be said, coming from the Anglosphere which seems to have it in for Russia more than continental EU governments.. (I could write a separate essay on why this might be so). The two issues of the Ukraine civil war and MH17 accountability are not so black and white as suggested by some correspondents. In past essays in ES I have offered counterviews. Putin continues to respond calmly under sustained attacks from Western leaders and media, and as the Kiev govt continues to take unwise and provocative decisions - and goes on indefensibly shelling and killling its own citizens in East Ukraine, in vain efforts to retake military control of a region that clearly wants a degree of self-determination and control over its own resources. Accountability for MH17 must be widely shared among governments in Moscow, Kiev and Kuala Lumpur; MAS; ICAO and IATA; and the rebels who apparently fired the Russian-made missile that so far as we know destroyed the aircraft. That plane should not have been overflying an active war zone where both sides were armed with soohisticated Russian surface-to-air missiles able to reach the height at which MH17 was flying.and where fierce air battles were underway.These are facts, not propaganda.

tony kevin | 17 November 2014  

An interesting article with some good points Justin. Russia is and traditionally has been very different from the West. It has very strong autocratic and Orthodox traditions. Autocracy existed under both the Tsars and the Communists and I think it exists today in a modified form. Russia is concerned about the West and its intentions and also about what the rise of militant Sunni Islam could further do to its own large and increasing Muslim population. That and access to a Mediterranean port at Tartus, as well as fellow feeling for Syria's large and increasingly threatened Orthodox Christian community, move it to supporting the Ba'athist regime there. I would not support the Ba' athists and feel a negotiated settlement with all anti-ISIS groups and the departure of Bashar Assad are called for. Russia may support this if its interests are preserved. Putin is no choirboy and I think our Western way far preferable to what is happening in Russia. Having said that, I think we need to engage constructively but firmly with Russia in the realisation that we are not a power in their league. Our PM could remember that. I think our Foreign Minister does. Her approach seems more successful.

Edward Fido | 17 November 2014  

The Russian bear always needs respect but also sensibly elicits an element of fear. I agree with many of the practical points made, but Russia under Putin is still authoritarian, kleptocratic and paranoid. The people of Poland and especially the Baltic states are worried, and they know and have direct experience of the Russians, and of course significant Russian populations left behind by Soviet conquests that can provide an excuse for bullying/militarism.

Eugene | 17 November 2014  

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/17/putin-claims-west-provoking-russia-new-cold-war-spies-deported The context for G20 attack on Putin - and it's getting worse

tony kevin | 18 November 2014  

Thanks Justin Glyn for offering some perspective in this sad state of affair. I thought that the snubbing of V Putin was very rude and uncalled for, despite all things. After all, Even Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Ladin, when they were still being spoken to, were treated with politeness, even if a cool one. Apart from the rudeness, it is also a stupid behaviour, as Russia and the Soviet Union are too important in world affairs to be ignored. World leaders will again talk to Russian leaders at some time in the future, and will need to find polite, diplomatic words, to achieve some sort of understanding.

Eveline Goy | 18 November 2014  

I am grateful for all the comments, which I find very thought-provoking. I must admit to being a little confused when warned against "Russian propaganda" - propaganda seems to exist on both sides and the stories our governments tell the world are not necessarily more true than those told by others. An open but critical mind seems best to me. Russia is a great power and those who have lived under its rule have good reasons for their mistrust. I suggest that cuts both ways: I know a few Serbs, Iraqis and and others who would say similar things about their experience of the West. (Gandhi's famous quote that Western civilisation, "would be a good idea" springs to mind.) While I can see the point of wanting to deal "firmly" with Russia, presumably the sorry record of the West with regard to torture, the war on terror and expansionist wars means that others should deal likewise with us! (We may find our conduct setting uncomfortable precedents as US power weakens.) As for rich oligarchs corrupting democracy, yes! Then again, the bailout of the banks after the financial crisis and the wealth of the 1% suggests that they are not alone!

Justin Glyn SJ | 18 November 2014  

Justin, congrats. This article is a very nicely done peace of an unobstractive Kremlin propaganda. There is no other perspective on these matters them simply agony of dying empire. Unfortunately, Russia has no future. You can trust me; I am Russian.

yuri smirnov | 18 November 2014  

This is a brilliant article Justin. Your perspective of Russia's position is just how I see it. The West has a lot to answer for, post WW2, and should cease being so judgmental. Paul Keating said only last week the post Soviet creeping actions of NATO around Russian borders was NOT a good idea. Thanks Justin.

Louw | 23 November 2014  

Post 1991"Moscow Times" exposes the Achilles heel of a very 'rash-Putin' indeed. the west has placed heavy sanctions on Russia but the Putin retaliation will be his undoing. "Sanctions were relatively easy to shrug off when they hurt mostly the super-rich, affecting most average citizens only through a moderate increase in the cost of capital." "But the Russian government's retaliatory measures — banning the import of European and American food — will quickly bring the cost of confrontation home to Russians. "Notwithstanding snide comments about the hardships of life without prosciutto and Parmesan cheese, the rapid removal of significant supplies of imported produce and processed food has already caused prices to soar even for staples, including milk, potatoes and bread — hitting hardest, ironically, pensioners and the rural poor, who are among Putin's staunchest supporters". "The middle-class has been hit by the government's confiscation of three years of pension-fund assets to pay for the absorption of Crimea and cover the widening fiscal deficit." "Unfortunately, Russia has no future. You can trust me; I am Russian."[Yuri Smirnov post on ES!!] Yuri overlooks the Fatima factor![1917]

Father John George | 25 November 2014  

Interestingly a bonding is emerging, between Putin and the Vatican. "From the pope’s standpoint, it is clear that America and its European allies have created a catastrophe in the Middle East and that the Vatican needs to find new allies in its attempt to preserve the Christian heritage there. According to Vatican observers, his chosen ally is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose country is home to the world’s largest Christian Orthodox population and, just as important, a generally well-integrated Muslim minority estimated at up to 14 per cent of the population." #The Russian Orthodox Church pleads a common cause with Rome against gay marriages and ilk-despite the past loathing [ambivalence at best] towards perceived Roman incursion and proselytism, veering on a Byzantine paranoia. http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/new-kremlin-vatican-axis-emerges-as-europe-falters#full

Father John George | 28 November 2014  

Good to find a new voice of knowledge on Russia and former USSR states. Putin has achieved much and would wish for more not as other world powers want yet mindful the people access all media.

mary | 28 November 2014  

Why didn't NATO disband? Does anyone know? I was a bit shocked recently to read (in a letter to a US paper) that 20 percent of the US congress are ex military, and in the 1970s 80 percent were! Surely, on both sides this is bound to drive policy. It is like having a transport authority's direction set by engineers. The military should be a servant of the state, not dictating policy.

Martin Dickson | 27 January 2015  

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