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5 September 2016

How Putin conned us into thinking Russia is a superpower again

Deeply disturbing things have happened during the Putin years in Russia, but his gamble has paid off.

By John Simpson

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been busy during recent years. Here is a partial list of what he has achieved. He has: 1) recaptured Crimea, the single bit of territory the Russian people most regretted losing after the Soviet Union collapsed; 2) reduced Ukraine, from which he grabbed it, to a nervous wreck; 3) put the fear of God into Nato by giving the impression that he might invade one or more of the Baltic states; 4) handed Turkey the opportunity to demonstrate its independence from the United States and Europe by cosying up to him; 5) ditto Israel; 6) saved President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the ophthalmologist-turned-barrel-bomber, from a Colonel Gaddafi-style lynching, and in the process rescued the incomparable ruins of Palmyra; 7) struck up such a good relationship with Iran that he’s been given the use of a military base there; and now, 8) Mr Putin is presenting himself as the one man who can bring peace, not just to Syria but to Israel and the Palestinians as well. Oh yes, and he may or may not have some dodgy deal going with the man who could, if things go wrong for Hillary Clinton and the rest of us, be the next US president.

If there were a Nobel prize for clever footwork, Putin would thoroughly deserve to get it. Of course, aside from numbers 1) and 6), there is nothing in any way substantial on this list; and if President Obama, who is an actual Nobel laureate, had had a bit more lead in his pencil over the past eight years a great deal of it wouldn’t have happened. However, Putin is a superb opportunist, and he has taken full advantage of the chances Obama and the rest of us have offered him.

As a result, Putin still gets overwhelming approval ratings at home, even though the Russian economy contracted by 3.7 per cent last year. Many Russians admit privately that they’re scared of telling the pollsters what they really think; yet there’s no doubt that Putin is genuinely popular. And let’s be fair: under Putin, Russia’s GDP, based on everyday purchasing power, has almost doubled, while the mortality rate of under-fives has dropped by half. Not bad.

Deeply disturbing things have happened during the Putin years in Russia, from the war in Chechnya and the de facto invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine to the murders of, among others, Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko; but whatever else he may be, Vladimir Putin isn’t just some old Soviet waxwork reborn.

Would that he were. The Kremlin leader we face today is nimble-minded, gutsy and (Western governments would say) startlingly free of moral scruples. Deeply personable, too. My sole experience of Putin, face to face, was pretty fleeting. It was 2008 and he had just stepped down from the presidency for a single term in order to be able to reclaim it more or less indefinitely later. I grabbed him just after he’d voted, and found him relaxed and easy. Ah yes, he said, he watched the BBC a lot in order to improve his English, and he added something nice about my own reporting.

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A couple of years ago I went to one of his marathon press conferences. These are annual affairs, during which, for four hours or so, he answers questions from mostly Russian journalists, wittily and without notes. Some were embarrassing or trivial: what sort of women does he like? How much does he earn?

He was also asked in detail about Russia’s economic and energy policies, and challenged (by a Ukrainian journalist) about his intentions there. Given the opportunity to ask a question, I offered him the chance to declare that he didn’t want another cold war. He answered at length but refused to say he didn’t.

I was bowled over by his performance. Which Western leader would be able to answer questions for four hours without notes, and without putting a foot wrong? Sure, the Russian media have been disturbingly muzzled in recent years, but the “presser” went out live across Russia; the slightest misstatement would have been picked up around the globe.

Because Putin started out as a junior KGB operative in East Germany, and went on to work in the office of the first post-Soviet mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, where he attracted almost no attention at all, the president has often been regarded in the West as a grey blur: Trotsky’s equally mistaken description of the early Stalin. Yet Putin isn’t the creature of other, more sinister characters from the old Soviet past. Which KGB manipulator in his right mind would let his puppet loose on the airwaves, with no script to follow?

No: Vladimir Putin is his own man, and so far his gamble has worked superbly: he has conned us into thinking that Russia is a superpower again.

And yet, like many of the best public relations campaigns, it’s complete rubbish. The IMF estimates that Russia will be only the world’s 14th biggest economy this year, after Australia, which has just a sixth of Russia’s population. The US spends nine times as much on its armed forces as Russia does; the Russian figure is only $10bn a year more than Britain’s. Leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu don’t really believe Russia can bring peace to their region; they just enjoy poking poor old Barack Obama in the eye.

If world affairs were a card game, Putin would have a hand that at its very best contained, let’s say, three eights. The leaders sitting across the table mostly have straights and flushes or better; yet they’re the ones eyeing the piles of chips in front of them and wondering if they should fold. It would be wrong to praise much of what Vladimir Putin has done; but if he gave lessons in poker, I’d sign up for his course any day.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the BBC’s world affairs editor

This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war