The Oil and the Glory

Putin’s charm offensive

Who is Vladimir Putin trying to impress with his various feats of machismo in recent months: The Russian populace, or his own inner circle? In today’ Moscow Times, Vladimir Frolov, a government relations consultant, argues that Putin’s current road show is not aiming to return to the Kremlin. Newsweek’s Owen Matthews stakes out a contrarian ...

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Who is Vladimir Putin trying to impress with his various feats of machismo in recent months: The Russian populace, or his own inner circle?

In today’ Moscow Times, Vladimir Frolov, a government relations consultant, argues that Putin’s current road show is not aiming to return to the Kremlin. Newsweek’s Owen Matthews stakes out a contrarian posture as well, writing that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is no longer simply Putin’s protégé, but his own man — and one who is definitely running for a second term, whether Putin likes it or not. Similarly, Charles Clover suggests in the Financial Times that the earnest Medvedev is a fashionable fellow, what with his insistently edgy notions of finally helping Russia make a true leap into modernization.

News loves to zag after zigging for awhile, and I myself continue to believe that Putin will decide the identity of Russia’s next president, and that he will choose himself. But these writers by implication remind us of a much-disregarded fact of autocratic life: No strongman rules in a vacuum. They each have their own elite circle that they must bring along with them, using such tools as fear, charm, love and persuasion. Indeed, some of the most engaging leaders I’ve met have been autocrats: Pervez Musharraf, Najibullah, Heydar Aliyev, and Nursultan Nazarbayev among them. Colleagues who interviewed Ferdinand Marcos and Zia ul-Haq were bowled over by the charm.

In Putin’s case, the tool of autocratic politics is the populism of the whale and tiger hunt.

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