Global Truths on Putin’s Tirades
Russia’s president constantly undermines his own case on the global stage.
November 6, 2014
At the (in)famous Valdai conference, this year held in Sochi, Vladimir Putin held court once again. From a journalistic vantage point, he did not disappoint. The plethora of juicy tidbit reports about his outbursts toward the United States are clear evidence of that.
It is not the outbursts per se that are especially interesting — predictable as they are. What was surprising was how most people interpreted them — too predictably as well.
U.S.-based journalists and academics, performing to script, were quick to dismiss Putin’s remarks as an unjustified attack on the United States and its foreign policy.
There were also those U.S. voices who immediately tried to turn Putin’s attack lines into a wake-up call to the Europeans, appealing to them to stand by their American ally.
The Europeans, for their part, did not need any such “steering.” Contrary to American beliefs about European naiveté toward Russia, they have their own views about Russia’s many downsides.
What rather astounded the Europeans was how either naïve – or simply off – the American voices were. No doubt, Putin and the forces he steers have committed many completely unpalatable and illegal acts, whether in Eastern Ukraine or elsewhere.
But that does not mean that Putin’s critique of U.S. foreign policy was wildly off the mark. He was actually spot on in vital, though certainly not all, parts.
Few Europeans seriously question his assertion that U.S. policymakers are “constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies” and having to address “risks they themselves created.”
If only Putin could manage not to overshoot with his rhetoric and had a clearer conception of the modern world. In Putin’s mind, this is still a tit-for-tat world – one where Russia has the “right” to engage in the same kinds of errors that the United States does.
That’s hardly the road to enlightenment and global progress. For Putin to succeed in his endeavors, he would have to opt for the high road compared to the United States. And he would have to stay rational precisely where and when the United States acted irrationally.
No soft power, no international respect
Where Putin further miscalculates badly is that his country has next to no soft power. It cannot come as news to an old spy like him that the propaganda efforts via RT – as well as buying ad inserts in Western newspapers and magazines – are all highly transparent and don’t buy any credibility.
It must be painful for Putin to contrast his lot with that of the United States. Yes, the U.S. government seems to be on a tear, consciously or not, to shred a lot of its own soft power. Yet, the United States still has loads of soft power capital left. Why?
The reason is that many people, whether they openly admit it or not, admire what the United States has to offer as a land and as a society. That global admiration brigade notably includes some of Russia’s murkier oligarchs.
Putin errs furthermore when he continues what is easily seen as a mad-dog routine by talking ominously about global risks, including nuclear ones. That actually backfires on him, especially with regard to Europe.
Ostensibly, the Russian President’s goal is to make Europeans to become more open-minded about Russia. That is a very tough challenge after MH 17 was shot down.
But try Putin might. However, rattling with the nuclear issue is a sure-fire way to turn off the last EU Europeans – other than that bizarre nutcase Victor Orban in Hungary – willing to give him an open ear.
What about Putin’s effort to point proudly to the emergence of a non-Western world order?
Again, he has it half-right. Everybody (outside of Washington) agrees that the world needs to move to a post-American order, given the way how U.S. foreign policymaking has messed things up over the past decade plus years.
But if Putin now talks big-mouthedly about allying himself with China, he comes across as naïve or self-delusional. Concerning China, his mouth is far bigger than his muscle. The Chinese know how to use him, play with him and dispense with him – by keeping him in his proper place.
Putin must learn from his mistakes
The twofold lesson that Russia’s president, if he and his country want to have a prayer of a comeback, urgently needs to learn is this: First, stop engaging in any actions that are in blatant violation of international law. And second, understand that, if you threaten people, all you really accomplish is to revitalize fears about Russia. Those fears are deep-seated and, therefore, even in the best of times, always dormant.
In short, what is so astounding about many of Putin’s actions – and most of his rhetoric – is that they directly play into his biggest opponents’ hands. These acts may help him solidify his power base at home – but that’s a very one-sided contest already.
What is at most a minor positive at home generally is a major net negative on the international stage – not so much with the Americans (whom Putin may consider a lost cause), but to the Europeans.
The result of his actions in recent years is that he himself has maneuvered the Europeans much closer to the Americans. Mind you, that is not the result of Europeans becoming all of a sudden more gullible toward the Americans (if anything, the opposite is the case, even in the European establishment).
Nor is it the surprising outcome of some hyper-smart PR moves by the American side to put wool over the Europeans’ eyes. No, that astonishing outcome is a direct function of Putin’s amazing proclivity to engage in acts of self-defeatism. That’s about the last thing Russia needs from its leader.
Putin himself maneuvered the Europeans much closer to the Americans in recent years.
Putin’s amazing proclivity for self-defeatism is about the last thing Russia needs from its leader.
For Putin, Russia has the “right” to engage in the same kinds of errors that the United States does.
For Putin to succeed, he would have to opt for the high road compared to the United States.
Putin needs to stay rational precisely where and when the U.S. acted irrationally.