LONDON – It’s puzzling that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is held in high regard by democratic leaders of every shade of politics. Alex Salmond, the nationalist former first minister of Scotland — who called for the impeachment of Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair for crimes against humanity in Iraq — regards Putin as having restored Russian national pride. Gerhard Schroeder, former Social Democrat chancellor of Germany, celebrated his 70th birthday with the Russian president at a costly banquet in St. Petersburg in April 2014.
In last year’s French presidential elections, three of the candidates — Marine le Pen of the far-right, Francois Fillon of the center-right and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left — also expressed admiration for Putin. Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy and now the favorite to win next month’s parliamentary elections as leader of the right-wing coalition, is even closer to Putin than Schroeder, a relationship leaked U.S. dispatches say may have a mutually beneficial financial subtext.
Capping it all is the esteem in which U.S. President Donald Trump holds his Russian opposite number, one which has remained in spite of mounting evidence that Russia intervened in U.S. and European elections. On Jan. 29, the Trump administration announced it was holding off on imposing additional sanctions on Moscow in spite of a new law passed by Congress. This affection seems to be a mixture of the U.S. president’s general approval of authoritarian leaders and a specific admiration of the Russian’s determination to put Russia first — the posture Trump believes should be, and actually is (behind the cooperative rhetoric), universal for all national leaders.
Why should leaders who have led or aspired to lead democratic states have such pronounced admiration for Putin when evidence of dangerous, agreement-shattering and neo-imperialist behavior is so obvious? In part because they admire his concentration on national revival; in part because he offers access to Russian riches; in part because they see Russia as a potential ally.
Two senior U.S. officials, both of whom had taken the lead in seeking to bring their country and Russia closer together in the post-Soviet age — Robert Blackwill for George W. Bush and Philip Gordon for Barack Obama — wrote an essay last month in which they affirmed that a new Cold War had settled on the world. They did so because — as they described the charge sheet against Putin — “since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Moscow has invaded and annexed Crimea; occupied parts of eastern Ukraine; deployed substantial military forces and undertaken a ruthless bombing campaign in Syria to prop up President Bashar Assad; significantly expanded its armed forces; run military exercises designed to intimidate eastern European governments; interfered in Eastern European political systems; and threatened to cut off gas to the most energy-dependent European states.”
They note that Putin is “deeply hostile to democratic change anywhere near Russia, paranoid about what he believes to be U.S. efforts to oust him, and resentful of American domination of the post-Cold War world.” What they’re saying is that if he talks like an enemy and acts like an enemy, he is an enemy.
And being an enemy, they argue, counter measures greater than the present sanctions must be taken. These include tougher controls over social media like Facebook, which has carried Russian political material; carrying out threats to release presently secret “embarrassing” information about Putin and his senior leaders; bolstering the U.S. troops deployed under a NATO umbrella in Europe; imposing further sanctions on the country — no more investment, no more loans, no more visas for a longer list of public and private figures; arming Ukraine if Russia does not honor the 2015 Minsk II agreement on a ceasefire and blocking, as far as possible, the export of oil and gas from Russia to Europe and elsewhere.
Besides being hostile to democracy on his borders, Putin is deeply hostile to democratic change inside Russia, a posture that underscores the Russian power structure’s fear of genuinely independent figures or institutions of civil society.
Nowhere, presently, is that more clear than in the determination with which the authorities now block the anti-Putin campaigner, Alexei Navalny, from taking part in Russia’s March presidential election. Navalny would be very unlikely to beat Putin, but the influence on Russians of the 41-year-old lawyer spending weeks on the campaign trail to amplify his years-long struggle against high-level corruption is clearly not something Putin is willing to bear.
Navalny’s the candidate, largely but not exclusively, of the young who are tech-friendly and willing to defy the restrictive laws on demonstrations. Although wholly barred from state-controlled TV channels except when shown under arrest, social media have provided him with a sturdy platform for his message. His anti-corruption video showing the extravagance of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s vast country estate has had more than 26 million views on YouTube since its publication in March 2017 and prompted thousands of his supporters to take to the streets in cities around the country last June. Navalny was initially more circumspect in meting out the same treatment to the popular Putin, but now attacks the president with equal vehemence.
Anton Barbashin, an analyst, believes that “Navalny will remain a central challenge for the Putin government. He has been able to create a highly motivated independent political machine operating across the country, one that is capable of presenting a genuine alternative to Putin’s authoritarianism to the next generation of Russians.”
Arrested and jailed for short periods several times, Navalny now could face further charges after being detained briefly at a protest rally on Jan. 28.
Many observers see the election ban on Navalny as a sign that Putin’s next six-year term as president — his last under the constitution — will be his most repressive yet. Unless he defies the constitution to stay in office, it could also mean that he’ll be embarking on a search for a successor who can both win and protect him from legal or other challenges after he leaves office. A power struggle is more likely than not; it could be both ugly and dangerous for the world.
Of all the visible public figures in the Russian political landscape, Navalny promises the best hope for a cleaner, modernizing and less confrontational future. His base of mainly 20- and 30-somethings are likely, as they grow older, to stay with him and to help increase his attraction for a broader swathe of the population. He seems able to stick to the course he has set, but Russia is likely to pass through a darker night than at present before he is able to claim the prize of leadership.
British journalist John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.
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