How to deal with a dictator

Why demonising Putin is tempting but wrong.

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People find it difficult to place Vladimir Putin. Some dismiss him as little better than a gangster. They demonise the ex-KGB officer who wants to rebuild the Russian military and restore the Soviet Union to its former borders or beyond, while flouting his country’s laws and constitution, and engaging in brutal repression at home. This Putin, they believe, is determined to undermine our democratic way of life. In 2017 the US defence secretary called Putin’s Russia the “principal threat” to the US, which America should be “ready to confront”.

In this age of spreading populism, others – including the US president, some people in Italy, France and Britain, and even politicians in eastern Europe whose countries escaped from Soviet domination only 30 years ago – admire Putin as a strong leader for his success in restoring his country’s prosperity, military power and international standing since the humiliations of the 1990s.

Those who believe that neither indignation nor adulation are a good basis for measured judgement argue that all this is overblown; that Putin and his ambitions are not all that hard to understand; that modern Russia, though unpleasant in many ways, is a considerable improvement on the Soviet Union; and that the Russian “threat” has been much exaggerated. They find themselves accused of complacency – or worse, of trying to find excuses for Putin’s misbehaviour. Germans call such people Putinversteher – Putin-understanders. It is not meant as a compliment.

But in the end, however emotionally satisfying it may be to denounce Putin, it doesn’t cut the mustard. We have to deal with him as long as he is there. And when he goes, we will still have to deal with a Russia that shares many of his ideas, prejudices and emotions.

These are the issues that Robert Service, one of our most accomplished, erudite and prolific historians of modern Russia, covers in his latest book. It is a substantial, well-documented but somewhat rambling disquisition on Putin’s systematic evasion of legal and institutional constraints, his unwillingness or inability to crack down on corruption and political assassination at home, his use of physical or cybernetic violence abroad, and his attempts to interfere in other countries’ domestic politics. The man Service portrays is thin-skinned, quick-tempered, intelligent, vengeful and paranoid, with a cold sense of humour and a firm grasp on the levers of power.

Putin is good at dissimulation, plays on his interlocutors’ weaknesses, and divides and rules with ruthless determination. Like others, Service is inclined to derive these characteristics from Putin’s KGB background. But most are the attributes of politicians the world over who have no connection with the secret world. Putin does have many allies from among his former KGB colleagues; but some of his closest cronies come from other walks of life. Such clannishness, Service points out, has always been normal in Russian politics.

Despite his distaste for Putin and his works, Service allows him to speak with his own voice. Putin’s criticism of Western policy is often harsh, even provocative, though there is something to his judgement that Western strategy in the Middle East has been less than a blinding success. Though Putin sometimes seems nostalgic for the Soviet past, Service quotes his forthright denunciations of Stalin’s terror and the imposition of Soviet control on eastern Europe.

A key to Putin’s success is the way he shared, and then articulated for political purposes, the sense of humiliation that Russians felt after the collapse of the Soviet Union as their country descended into chaos, corruption and poverty. They were angered by the way their country was treated as a mere appendage to American policy over matters they believed affected them directly, such as the enlargement of Nato, the bombing of their ally Serbia, and the apparent interference in the domestic politics of their neighbours. The Soviet collapse left them with very bruised feelings and a determination to recover their ground. Putin gave them what they wanted. Not surprisingly, they were delighted.

The nadir of Russia’s relations with the outside world was its annexation of the Crimea and its forceful interference in eastern Ukraine. Service rightly makes much of that. Putin claimed that he had to stop the West meddling in a country in which Russia has had closely entwined interests for centuries. The sanctions we imposed in response, and Nato’s minimal reinforcement of its vulnerable eastern allies, were unlikely to compel him to withdraw. It was the least and perhaps also the most we could do. The alternatives – the use of force, unconvincing bluster, or supine acquiescence – would have been worse. The Russians cried provocation. But if Putin’s advisers didn’t warn him how Nato would react, they weren’t doing their job.

The Russians will not abandon their own view of their interests. But despite talk of a “new Cold War”, we no longer live under the hair-trigger threat of nuclear conflict. We can nevertheless take a leaf from the old playbook. Much as we disliked and feared the Soviet regime, we always combined deterrence with dialogue. Even when they were not on speaking terms in public, the two sides, for the most part, maintained discreet contact in private. After the Russians and Americans frightened themselves silly during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, they painstakingly negotiated a system of nuclear arms control that worked despite the huge distrust between them. The same is true about talking to Putin. One needs to be careful. One needs to avoid illusion. But it makes no sense to argue, as some do, that talking to Putin will inevitably send us down a slippery slope towards an unprincipled accommodation of his demands.

Putin regularly reiterates his support for a kind of liberal economics, and for democracy and the rule of law – if not now, then as Russian society matures. This may well be mere hypocrisy. But hypocrisy has its uses: the homage, as La Rochefoucauld said, that vice pays to virtue. Freedom has been steadily reduced in Putin’s Russia. But total pessimism, Service believes, is not yet called for: change is still possible. And indeed, despite everything, Russia is a more open and prosperous society than it was. The possibility that it will in the longer run construct its own version of liberal democracy cannot be dismissed as beyond rational hope.

As for the idea that Russia is the “principal threat”, the Chinese recently got to the back of the moon with a lunar rover. How the Americans deal with them is more important than anything Mr Putin is likely to do to us. 

Rodric Braithwaite was UK ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state