Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What to make of the Putin fan club?

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 7, 2016.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 7, 2016.

By Thomas F. Remington
Best Defense office of Russian affairs


Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 7, 2016.

By Thomas F. Remington
Best Defense office of Russian affairs

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently went out of his way to praise Vladimir Putin as a man “highly respected in his own country and beyond,” and “a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”

Trump is not alone. Trump’s views echo those of a number of other political figures in the United States. In 2013, former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan asked on his blog, “Is Putin One of Us?” Putin has a point, he wrote, when he asserts that the “’destruction of traditional values’” has been “imposed undemocratically.” Putin, he wrote, “may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught up in a Cold War paradigm.”

Putin also has many admirers on the right in Europe. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, cites Russia (and China and Turkey) as models of the “illiberal state,” based on “national foundations” and achieving economic success. Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s UKIP party, called Putin the world leader he most admired, “as an operator, but not as a human being.” French National Front Leader Marine LePen, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, and other leaders of European far-right parties have condemned the European Union and the United States for “encircling” Russia. LePen’s party has acknowledged receiving a $10 million loan from Russia, suggesting that her sympathies are requited.  Russian oligarchic funds have also been lavished on allies in Greece and elsewhere. What’s in this for Putin? Russia’s efforts to cultivate support among Europe’s anti-EU fringe movements are not part of an effort to propagate a “Putinist” ideology, but rather are aimed at weakening and dividing the European Union.

And Russia’s fellow-travelers have done well in the past few years. Thanks to broad-based frustrations with centrist responses to the challenges of recession and slow growth, immigration, and terrorism, their fortunes have thrived. In Putin’s Russia, the extreme nationalists have found in Putin’s Russia a tactically useful counterweight against the traditional American-European liberal democratic alliance.

But more is going on than geopolitics. Many on the right project their idealized conception of leadership onto Putin: decisiveness, ruthlessness, pragmatism, manliness. In truth, Putin does have many skills as a political leader. He is extremely well informed on a wide range of subjects (indeed, he would put many American candidates to shame) and he is capable of explaining difficult issues to the public in a simple and persuasive way. He has a quick, acid wit, and immense self-discipline. He is a skillful tactician, maintaining ties with the multiple factions competing for power and wealth (as they say in Russia, “the Kremlin has many towers”) and keeping opponents off balance with unexpected initiatives.

Bold, unscrupulous and calculating leadership, unfettered by a moral compass, fits a certain Machiavellian mold to which right-wing politicians have long been attracted. European fascism in the 20s and 30s elevated the leadership principle to the status of an ideology. Fascism responded to a populist longing for order in a world out of joint.

That longing still lingers today. Putin has been adept at projecting the image of the tough-guy, bad-boy leader, contemptuous of liberalism, universalism, and political correctness. Keenly attentive to every contradiction between Western ideals and practices, he uses his defense of Russian state sovereignty and national pride to justify political repression at home and adventurism overseas.

Strategically, however, Putin has failed to solve the deeper complex of crises to which Russia has again succumbed: the syndrome of statism, deepening dependency on natural resource exports, endemic corruption, bureaucratic over-centralization, the suffocation of civil society. Putin is a magic mirror in which his admirers see reflected their own resentments and ambitions. There is no Putin ideology, just a Putin style of leadership and a Putin policy. Some admire the swagger, others the policy. Neither response does its admirers any credit.

Thomas F. Remington is a professor of political science at Emory University. He is author of numerous books and articles on Russian politics, including Presidential Decrees in RussiaThe Politics of Inequality in Russia and The Russian Parliament.  He is also an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Research at Harvard University.

Photo credit: Nina A.J./Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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