Putin Is Russia's Reagan

February 21, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: Russia

Putin Is Russia's Reagan

The American right is grossly misreading Russia and its leader.

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.