Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

In Putinism, Hurting the United States Is All About Payback

Russia still hasn’t recovered from its own trauma.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.
Putin clenches his fist while addressing a crowd
President Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a rally and concert celebrating the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on March 18, 2018. Kirill Kudryatsev/AFP via Getty Images

“You’re just projecting.” That’s a familiar phrase in domestic quarrels. Yet in their relationships with one another, governments can also do a fair bit of projecting. And in today’s foreign-policy climate, characterized by trolling as much as it is also defined by past grudges, Russian President Vladimir Putin stands out as a true king of projection.

As the U.S. intelligence community recently reported, Russia attempted to “denigrate” Joe Biden during last year’s election and undermine confidence in the United States’ democratic institutions. To be sure, there’s a geopolitical element to all this. But there’s also a psychological one in a country that underwent one of the greatest national humiliations of the 20th century.

Most Americans see Putin in cartoonish terms, usually as some kind of mysterious “KGB spymaster.” Putin’s career in the KGB was neither glamorous nor remarkable. Today, he’s just an older man carrying the weight of bitterness and imperial nostalgia—a burden also carried by many of his compatriots.

“You’re just projecting.” That’s a familiar phrase in domestic quarrels. Yet in their relationships with one another, governments can also do a fair bit of projecting. And in today’s foreign-policy climate, characterized by trolling as much as it is also defined by past grudges, Russian President Vladimir Putin stands out as a true king of projection.

As the U.S. intelligence community recently reported, Russia attempted to “denigrate” Joe Biden during last year’s election and undermine confidence in the United States’ democratic institutions. To be sure, there’s a geopolitical element to all this. But there’s also a psychological one in a country that underwent one of the greatest national humiliations of the 20th century.

Most Americans see Putin in cartoonish terms, usually as some kind of mysterious “KGB spymaster.” Putin’s career in the KGB was neither glamorous nor remarkable. Today, he’s just an older man carrying the weight of bitterness and imperial nostalgia—a burden also carried by many of his compatriots.

Putin is often criticized for famously stating that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a “genuine tragedy.” Yet even if you don’t romanticize the Soviet Union, you can understand the place this sentiment comes from. The social dislocation, widespread poverty, and loss of ideals that followed after the Soviet collapse had tragic results for tens of millions of people in Russia and beyond. Death rates soared, especially for older men, while GDP halved.

As the journalist Arkady Ostrovsky has argued, the U.S. triumphalism that also characterized that era not only added to the tragedy but bolstered a sense of resentment that coalesced into revanchism—the perfect breeding ground for the rise of Putinism. To blame the United States for Russia’s ills is to deny Russians their agency, but serious mistakes were made early on, and the consequences were predictable.

These consequences don’t just come down to one person and his style of leadership. Putin is not the only one who suffers from Putinism.

Putinism, instead, is an entire way of thinking, a political ideology that, for Russian elites, is based on the monetary rewards of staying loyal to the Kremlin. For ordinary Russians, Putinism equals payback, a chance to be proud of their country once more. Soaring oil prices have contributed to the sense of a historic wrong being righted, simply because a portion of the profits went to ailing Russian infrastructure and the like.

While this may be hard for some people to remember, the Soviet Union had a grand vision and purpose. This was the country that put the first man in space. This was the country with the first woman in space—all the way back in 1963. (Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, got there in 1983, by comparison.) This was the country that, at least on paper, tried to make you feel as though you belonged to something greater than yourself. Why wouldn’t Russians want that same feeling back, in one way or another?

Consider the events of 1991. An unsuccessful but frightening coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev paved the way for the fall of the Soviet Union. What seemed solid turned to dust. The Soviet Union had been fragile for a while, but it’s one thing to contemplate fragility and another thing to have an entire country collapse around your ears.

Viewing the United States through the prism of this experience, Putin clearly considers it fragile, too. Recall, for example, that the Russian president considers Netflix’s House of Cards a credible portrayal of U.S. politics. Not only does it confirm Putin’s worst beliefs about the U.S. political system, but it also shows how easily the United States can be subverted.

If U.S. institutions are as hollow as popular television shows suggest, then it is logical to believe that the United States will have its own 1991 soon. All it needs, perhaps, is a gentle push, and Putin is certainly not above providing it.

These projections of Putin’s would be laughable if they weren’t worryingly close to the truth.

These projections of Putin’s would be laughable if they weren’t worryingly close to the truth. The rot that had quietly spread through U.S. politics, in part because the United States was so eager to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union by further empowering the excesses of the rich and believing in the ludicrous idea of trickle-down economics, culminated in the election of Donald Trump as president. And though he was defeated both in the 2020 election and the failed Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, Trump’s lurid disdain for the democratic process is as contagious as any plague. Millions of Americans are sick with it.

On the other end of the spectrum, some popular, wealthy leftists are engaging in similar, albeit less noticeable forms of sabotage—whether in the form of subverting social justice or chipping away at the United States’ moral authority on such issues as genocide, including what is now happening to the Uighurs in China. (Though let’s be clear: The far-left hasn’t taken over an entire political party.)

The fact that Putin plays both sides of the left vs. right argument in the United States is a big clue as to the hollowness of the political system he built. Ideology is a useful tool for Putin, but it doesn’t represent a goal.

The Russian state may have adopted reactionary conservatism in order to create an alternative to the “decadent West” with its pride parades, decriminalized marijuana, and other things that Russian babushkas rail about, but that conservatism is just another mask the government wears. The real purpose of Putinism is money and power for a very small and entitled group of Kremlin insiders. It’s a thoroughly corrupt system and therein lies its weakness.

And while we can’t ignore Putin’s hostility, we need to address it in a realistic way. This means being aware both of the Russian government’s limitations and that Russia is always going to be a more interesting country than the sum of stereotypes about it. It also means that we should stop playing into Putin’s fantasies. The Russian state can’t denigrate us without our permission. Enough is enough.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.

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