Putin Is Russia's Reagan
Is Vladimir Putin a “little, strutting Mussolini”? Is Ukraine “perhaps the final episode of the Cold War”? These are some of the sentiments enunciated by George F. Will in his latest column. They may be among the most virulent attacks directed against Moscow, but they are hardly novel.
Which is why it is now time to state the obvious—the Western and especially the American mass media have never aspired to give objective coverage to events unfolding in Russia after the fall of the USSR. Nor did they seek to offer an unbiased account of the motives of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.
Consider the most recent example, the Sochi Olympics. A litany of problems, large and small, was lasciviously dwelled upon by the western media. They include the impending horror of potential terrorist attacks on both Sochi and all of Russia; looming criminal persecutions of Russian LGBT citizens, as well as of tourists and foreign LGBT athletes; the overblown disorganization of the Russian government in constructing the infrastructure for the games; the endless talk of monstrous corruption and wastefulness of billions of dollars in the construction process; illusory Russian threats to its neighbors born in the minds of Western media and “experts;” and the alleged anti-Western demarches of Russia’s diplomats.
Is it any wonder that Russians themselves have begun to view the West with more than a pinch of mistrust? Sadly, even without the Olympics, Russians and citizens of many other countries have tended to distrust foreign media in the past few years. Small wonder. For a very long time as they demonized Putin’s image, the media were not ready to admit that he and his country could create something grandiose; something magnificent; something to captivate Russians and foreigners alike. In their desperate eagerness to deprive Russian president Vladimir Putin of his triumph, they tried to paint Russia in the most lurid terms possible.
But Russians did not see the media attacks as attacks on Putin. Rather, they saw them as assaults on their country. The irony is that, with their anti-Russian, anti-Putin and anti-Olympic campaign, the Western media actually helped Putin’s triumph, Russia’s triumph and the success of the Sochi Olympics, as the Russian people at large began to see the American media and American propaganda as the equivalent of the Soviet propaganda of the time of Mikhail Suslov’s Agitprop (the head of Communist Party ideology under Brezhnev), which used to portray America as a caricature of itself—a place of lynching of Blacks, of mass unemployment, of homelessness and hunger, which was about to collapse any day under the weight of its unsolved social and economic problems and bring victory to the people united under Marxist-Leninist slogans and led by the U.S. Communist Party.
Unfortunately, the process has come full circle. Russian society in its attitude towards U.S. media has turned from utter adoration and unquestioned trust to complete mistrust and rejection. Yet without an understanding of what is occurring in one of the key global players, it will be impossible to solve major international problems or conflicts, and it will be futile to formulate a comprehensive/relevant policy toward Russia.
Even some Western journalists at the Olympics have begun writing that average Russians have started to feel insulted upon learning how Russia and the Sochi games were portrayed and what the Western commentary was on what happened in the country.
Since mid-2000s, the Russian leadership, elite and society have largely overcome the inferiority complex of the 1990s, become more confident and self-sufficient, and turned their concern from who loved or hated their country to who understood them and their policy. Today, Putin could easily repeat the words that Ronald Reagan said at the pinnacle of the Iranian crisis when he ran for President. Reagan said that he didn’t care who loved or hated America, but he would make them respect it.
The most surprising fact about the coverage of Vladimir Putin’s activity is not that it is negatively perceived among American neocons and liberal interventionists who expect the leadership of any country on the planet to bow to America’s dictates. Ideologists and strategists in these political circles hold the political regimes at any spot on the globe to standards set by Washington. Thus any smidgen of independence on the part of foreign regimes is perceived to be an act hostile to democracy and progress, a violation of international norms among the civilized world that are set by this very same clique, while the leaders of those other countries daring to oppose Washington are painted as ignorant of the true interests and aims of their own people, known of course only to the neocons and interventionists in Washington.
What is surprising is the reaction of a number of conservative figures to the recently published article in The Nation by Stephen F. Cohen called “Distorting Russia .” Cohen called out the American media for what he called a veritable “tsunami” of distortions about Putin and Russia and for being “more conformist and scarcely less ideological” than they were during the Cold War. Charles Krauthammer, who has only a very foggy knowledge of what is happening in modern Russia, stated  that Cohen is an apologist for Russia. He emphasized that if we can understand why in the past leftists would feel compelled to defend and apologize to the Soviet Union, as it represented an alternative to Western capitalism, it is mind-boggling why leftists would defend Putin, especially considering Krauthammer thinks he believes in nothing, created a personalistic regime, and governs a dictatorship.
The blunt fact is that if there is one politician in the world who isn’t afraid to express his respect for religion, tradition, traditional and family values, who openly calls for the protection of traditional European mores and speaks against the dangerous expansion of unconventional values gaining ground and remaining unchallenged by politically correct European and American politicians, it is Putin, something that Patrick Buchanan, an alumnus of the Nixon administration, has recognized  and lauded. It is no accident that Putin is respected by officials who have worked with Nixon and Reagan, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
Many years ago, I read with pleasure the book Statecraft as Soulcraft  by well-known American intellectual George F. Will, in which he identified himself as a conservative in the Burkean tradition. According to many of his publicly stated convictions, Putin is such a Burkean conservative as well. Without going into detail of Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution In France,” I will only say that Putin takes great care of the state and protects it from its weaknesses, just as Burke advises a leader should do—treat the state’s frailties as a weakness in one’s own father. Putin also understands that society and the state are living organisms, not mechanisms that one can adjust to fit abstract molds dreamed up by dreamers, which is why he is cautious of social and political reform.
Nor can Putin afford to forget that, in the past century, half-baked reforms twice led to state collapse in Russia and claimed countless victims and losses. This leader, instead of being offered support in conservative circles, is instead constantly subjected to unjustified critique. Bill O’Reilly and his colleague Dennis Miller of Fox News at times even try to mock Putin and Putin’s Russia, knowing not even what they are talking about or what sort of country Putin is leading; they have as limited knowledge of modern Russia as does Senator John McCain, who still believes the paper Pravda is the main print outlet of the Russian government. It is not an accident that Krauthammer still believes Putin has abolished gubernatorial elections at the same time as dozens of new governors are being elected as per new laws in various regions of the Federation. In addition, the likes of O’Reilly and Krauthammer have zero understanding of what is happening in Ukraine or what Russia’s policy there is, but all the same attempt to explain everything that takes place in Kiev as Russia’s misdeeds or to paint the legitimately elected Ukrainian government as Putin’s puppet. The crowning irony is that American conservative critics of Russia do not even realize that they are regurgitating the sentiments of the radical liberal opposition, who are, at bottom, marginal figures.
My impression is that conservative circles in America are undergoing a major crisis. Decades after it ended, they mentally reside in the Cold War era and cannot escape the stereotypes and clichés around which they comfortably built their worldviews. Conservatives have looked the other way during the Morsi and Mubarak ousters and are now supporting a coup in Ukraine—they should take the plank out of their own eye, as the Bible tell us, before teaching Russia about “democracy.” They cannot, moreover, accept that, in spirit and thought, Putin is one of them.
What are the reasons for the lingering hostility toward Russia?
First, it is hard for those politicians and commentators to get used to the thought that after the victory in the Cold War and the de facto liquidation of Russia in the 1990s, Russia all of a sudden became an important factor in world politics, while a new Russian leader—strong, confident and charismatic—is demanding the deserved spot for his country on the world stage as well as respect for it in international circles, assertively acting and as a rule, being right in his actions. This was so when he proclaimed his opposition, in unison with the Germans and the French, to the U.S. adventures in Iraq. Today it is an open secret that Libya, too, was a grave mistake perpetrated by the American administration. Putin staunchly held his position against arbitrary regime change around the world when nobody knew what regimes would sprout to take the place of the old ones, and he still maintains this position with regard to Syria.
Second, the actions of the Russian leadership sit badly with a substantial part of the Washington establishment that was midwifed in the 1990s and nurtured on ideas of American unilateral global domination. This part of the establishment finds it hard to accept that someone might stand in the way of such domination.
Third, this same part of the establishment also finds it unpalatable to agree with the famous assertion of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They cannot see that the saying holds true not just inside a country, but also internationally. This is why frequently, when Russia goes against the U.S. on the international arena, it does so not out of spite, but in the goodwill pursuit to prevent grave mistakes by their partners, of which the past twenty years abound. The U.S., Dimitri Simes has observed, has acquired a “democracy-promotion complex” that is as noxious and dangerous for American foreign policy as the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower famously warned. New realities need new approaches, which in turn need paradigmatic changes in the worldviews in America and the world; something that not everyone in Washington is prepared to make, be it in analytical, political or journalistic circles. The absence of such a paradigmatic change is a serious obstacle to objective and sober evaluations of what is happening in the world, and especially in Russia.
American conservatives should instead recognize Putin is the same type of “great communicator” that Reagan represented—a bold leader and visionary who connects directly with the people and easily explains complex issues of domestic and foreign policy. This is what accounts for his perpetually high rating and the high level of trust that the electorate has in him. Putin is charismatic, strong, autonomous, confident, decisive and effective, and has demonstrated all of these qualities with his actions, not his words. These qualities he has showcased in domestic and especially in foreign policy. He exhibited them in his opposition to the Iraq and Libya interventions. He rescued President Obama from a similar fiasco in Syria. Putin further stated his attitude towards the Arab Spring, and has been constructive in his handling of the problem with the Iranian nuclear program. We can continue the list ad infinitum.
At the end of the 1990s, William Safire in his New York Times column turned to Madeleine Albright and Evgeny Primakov and said, “Do not be ashamed to say that you are Jews.” I would like to turn to O’Reilly, Krauthammer, Senator McCain, Dennis Miller and others. I would like to appeal to them paraphrasing Safire: “Gentlemen, do not be afraid to say that you love Putin, that you dream of such a leader for the United States.” I am confident that this will remove the heavy psychological split in which you exist. It will ease your neurosis and you will cease to poison the atmosphere of Russian-American relations.
Andranik Migranyan is Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.