Why Vladimir Putin is the leader other autocrats wish they could be.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
For most of the West, Vladimir Putin is a bogeyman. His love affair with the thuggish separatists in eastern Ukraine has blotched his image across the democratic world. In November, he had to slink away prematurely from the G20 Summit in Australia after he was snubbed by just about every leader who counted.
Yet the reception he got during his state visit to Egypt earlier this week couldn’t have been more different. The state-run media in Cairo fawned over the Russian president. Putin’s portrait adorned the streets of Cairo, and one newspaper even printed photos of him with his torso bared. (Not exactly good Islamic style, one might think.) President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visibly glowed when his guest presented him with a state-of-the-art Kalashnikov assault rifle as a gift.
Commentators duly noted the realpolitik behind the visit. Yes, of course, Sisi’s budding dictatorship has been getting the cold shoulder from the Americans, so he’s out to show that he can find friends in other places if he wants. (The photo above shows Sisi and Putin meeting in Sochi last August.)
But there was, perhaps, just a bit more to it all than that. An important clue came in a 1,000-word paean to Putin in the daily paper Al-Ahram, the official mouthpiece of the Sisi regime. The profile traces Putin’s rise from his origins as a low-ranking Soviet intelligence officer to the global strongman who has succeeded in restoring Russia’s national power (and, along the way, cocking a snoot at the Americans). Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham noted that the Egyptian president, who got his start in army intelligence, is only too happy to be seen as someone following in the footsteps of the tiger hunter-cum-judo champion from Moscow. “Putin, like Sisi, is therefore seen as a virile strongman who crushes dissent and stands up to the West,” she noted.
Sisi isn’t the only one to display symptoms of a serious man crush when Vlad is around. In certain quarters Putin inspires an admiration that goes well beyond the demands of diplomatic protocol. Most countries, after all, have sound economic reasons to flatter Beijing — yet there is a striking dearth of world leaders aping the personal style of Xi Jinping. Yet Putin himself enjoys something of a personality cult among ordinary Chinese. One recent poll put Putin’s approval rating there at 92 percent, and his leading Chinese biographer says that his book on the Russian president has far outsold his works on Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, and Nelson Mandela.
Consider Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long sung the Russian president’s praises — probably because he sees Putin’s career as a textbook lesson in how to roll back democracy and replace it with a nationalist autocracy rooted in religion and “conservative values.” (In Erdogan’s case, of course, the religion in question is Islam — but who worries about details?) Just like the former KGB officer turned Orthodox Christian and viral video heartthrob, Erdogan positions himself as both a sincere believer and an unapologetic macho, the kind of guy who exults in his own contempt for political correctness of all stripes.
Populists love Putin. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro touted Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has praised the Russian president for his policies on the media and his annexation of Crimea. And a distinctly Putinesque odor wafted through Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech last summer in which he extolled the virtues of “illiberal democracy,” by which he apparently meant a form of “soft” authoritarianism based on majority consent — something like the Russian and Turkish versions of autocracy underpinned by periodic elections. (Small wonder that Orban’s friends in the European Union are starting to wonder if he really belongs.)
But not all members of the Putin fan club are motivated solely by ideology. Putinmania is a phenomenon at once broad and diffuse. In Britain, both English nationalist Nigel Farage and Scottish nationalist Alex Salmond have overshared about their feelings for the Russian leader. Putin garners sympathy from the far right (France’s Marine Le Pen) and the far left (Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister and leader of the anti-austerity Syriza party). In the United States, his apologists range from has-been Hollywood stars to liberal college professors to homophobic conservatives.
The secret of Putin’s overarching appeal is actually quite simple: If you hate America’s dominance in global affairs and all that goes with it (liberal economics, gay rights, endless reruns of The Simpsons), you’ll probably find something to love in the operative in the Kremlin. Chinese Communist Party? Too dull. Iranian ayatollahs? Too religious. The Venezuelans, the Belarusians, the Sudanese? Not serious. But Putin’s Russia is big, mean, and heavily armed — nicely spiced with trashy pop culture and a dose of neo-fascist swagger. What’s not to like?
Perhaps most importantly, Vladimir Vladimirovich is never afraid to take it up a notch. Though he likes to play the sober statesman, he’s also happy to don other roles when it suits him. He’s described himself to biographers as a “punk” in his youth and has had himself photographed hanging with leather-clad bikers. He’s a bad boy who can sneer about Hillary Clinton’s femininity and make jokes about rape. It’s a sad fact of human psychology, but there are plenty of people out there who find this sort of thing sexy.
Indeed, Putin is just as much about attitude as he is about policy. In this sense, his periodic displays of belligerence shouldn’t be seen as random side effects — they’re an integral part of a carefully calculated strategy of intimidation, not so different from those Islamic State beheading videos, aimed at simultaneously threatening foes and seducing the like-minded.
And yet, for all the expressions of loyalty his friends are willing to lavish upon him, the country that Putin leads is sinking into an isolation more complete than at any time since the end of the 1980s. As sanctions bite and oil prices fall, the bluster of the man in Kremlin is looking increasingly hollow. You never know: Soon it may be all he has left.