Jacob Heilbrunn

In Defense of Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin has come in for something of a pummeling with his announcement that he attends to run, or rule, Russia by trading jobs with his sidekick Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. To put it in an American context, Medvedev roughly plays Bucky to Putin's Captain America. The arrangement seems to suit many Russians just fine. Yet Putin has always been unpopular in the West. He's seen as a ruthless monster, a former KGB agent who is the prime culprit in Moscow's turn away from democracy towards traditional authoritarian rule. "Putinism," the Times of London recently announced, "is Stalinism."

But is he really that bad? What's the alternative to him? Might not Putin turn out to be a closet democrat who revives his country over the next decade?

No one is under the illusion that Putin is a very nice man or that he isn't in charge of a pretty nasty regime. But writing in the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell makes what amounts to the case for Putin and Putinism. He notes that democracies always come under suspicion when times are rough. And 1990s Russia was a rough place. The oligarchs were running rampant. The West was repeatedly humiliating Moscow, treating Boris Yeltsin like an errand boy. The West cannot escape its culpability for helping pave the way for a Putin to come to power. Caldwell says,

Europe and the US are not without blame for Mr Putin’s rise. A botched, my-way-or-the-highway programme of privatisation left the country with a corrupt plutocracy. Nato’s moralistic adventure in Kosovo humiliated Russia and its Serbian allies unnecessarily. The western resentment of Mr Putin’s regime has something in common with the European resentment of Israel: he is a living, breathing monument to their historical culpability.

The means by which Mr Putin solved these problems were rough. He broke the oligarchs by locking up the most eloquent and independent among them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He reestablished a Russian sphere of influence by reducing Grozny to rubble and invading Georgia. His government is suspected in the murders of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and of dissident former FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London.

The west can deplore these things, but it cannot ignore the reality of Russian sentiment. Even many of those who dislike Mr Putin believe he saved the country from the dismemberment and servility that the west had planned for it. “Putin is more liberal in his views than 80 per cent of the Russian population”, the Russian novelist Victor Erofeyev wrote this week. “The liberal resources of Russia are laughably small and get smaller all the time.”

In the West, democracy is starting to get another look as well. Caldwell notes that Peter Orszag, President Obama's former budget director, is now calling for less democracy in America. The argument is that America has gotten so democratic that nothing can be accomplished. We need to turn to commissions to solve our problems, not politicians. Putin, who has emasculated the Russian parliament, could hardly put it better.

Putin's critics never really can point to who is supposed to replace him. The besetting sin of Russia is the weakness of its liberal movement. Liberals failed in 1917 as well. They represent a sliver of the population. For now, Russia is enjoying its oil wealth and the patriarchal hand of Putin. It may not be a recipe for long-term stability, but few statesmen or countries think much about the future. For now, Putin's renown is based on resurrecting what amounts to a return to older Russian traditions of a powerful state. But Russia could be headed for trouble. In the Los Angeles Times, Leon Aron contends,

by every indicator — macroeconomic, political, social — the system that Putin forged in the early 2000s is all but exhausted and is driving the country toward a dead end. It must be radically reformed, or better yet, discarded. But how can it be gotten rid of with its creator back in control?

But perhaps only the creator can redo his creation. Putin's true accomplishment would be to reinvent Russia over the next decade, creating a stable foundation for a democratic state as emerged in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco.