Argument

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

Putin Made Fools Out of His Admirers

Russia has gone from land of opportunity to pariah state.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow on Feb. 23. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a habit of making bitter fools of people. Whether he’s making his spy chief squirm on camera or launching an invasion his fans said would not happen, this is a man who ignores other people’s anguish when strategically important. Many ascribe this to Putin’s KGB training, and although that’s certainly part of his ability to control the people around him, Putin has also never had much interest in being the good guy.

His heartlessness, personal and political, has always been part of his image—and it’s been seductive to many. Democracy can be simultaneously messy and boring. A strongman, by contrast, has the image of someone who gets things done—as the world is seeing in Russia’s devastating, inexcusable attack on Ukraine.

Years ago, Putin’s system made a fool out of me too. As a 20-something, I traveled to a seemingly resurgent Russia under a tamer then-Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, (Putin still pulled all of the strings then, but his regime had on a softer face) and took a journalism job there, editorially independent but state-funded at the time, because I was under the impression that free speech was possible in Russia and I could write anything I wanted without consequence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a habit of making bitter fools of people. Whether he’s making his spy chief squirm on camera or launching an invasion his fans said would not happen, this is a man who ignores other people’s anguish when strategically important. Many ascribe this to Putin’s KGB training, and although that’s certainly part of his ability to control the people around him, Putin has also never had much interest in being the good guy.

His heartlessness, personal and political, has always been part of his image—and it’s been seductive to many. Democracy can be simultaneously messy and boring. A strongman, by contrast, has the image of someone who gets things done—as the world is seeing in Russia’s devastating, inexcusable attack on Ukraine.

Years ago, Putin’s system made a fool out of me too. As a 20-something, I traveled to a seemingly resurgent Russia under a tamer then-Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, (Putin still pulled all of the strings then, but his regime had on a softer face) and took a journalism job there, editorially independent but state-funded at the time, because I was under the impression that free speech was possible in Russia and I could write anything I wanted without consequence.

As stupid and disgusting as it sounds today, my eventual disillusionment taught me about the seductive nature of Putin’s power.

I saw it in the eagerness with how Putin’s Western supporters tried to please him. The journalists, the businesspeople, the thinkers who felt alienated at home—in those days, over a decade ago now, they came to Moscow thinking anything was possible. It’s a zeitgeist perfectly captured by journalist Peter Pomerantsev on this era, whose writing portrayed both the opulence and cold cynicism of Russia’s economic revival. Russia seemed like the land of opportunity then because Putin—and high oil prices—seemed to make it work.

As Russia grew more viciously authoritarian in the years to come, some repented while others doubled down. Foreign employees of the Russian propaganda outlet RT are a good example—some left after Putin first sought to attack and destabilize democratic Ukraine while others justified the outrage. Personally, I stayed longer than I should have after losing multiple jobs and being harassed by unpleasant people with scary job titles.

Today Putin’s mask is off completely. This is a dead-eyed, bloodthirsty tsar who doesn’t want to be admired by free people in possession of dignity; he wants terrified serfs to bow down to him.

Think of an angry villain putting a gun to someone’s head, daring his opponents to make him pull the trigger. This is what Putin is doing with Ukraine. If there is anyone he hates more than Ukraine now, it’s the United States, for whom this dark spectacle is being enacted. It’s a coward’s hatred, but it’s potent. Like every insecure man, Putin lashes out at the weak to dismay the strong.

What can the world do in the face of this ruthless revanchism? Obviously, new sanctions are a good first step, but they will not be enough.

When you face a villain, you have to believe in some measure of good. After 20 years of war, not to mention a deadly and exhausting pandemic, I know this is a tall order for American society—but it is possible. Good is not the same as perfect. Sometimes, good is just about remembering which way is up and which way is down. It’s about holding fast and keeping your wits about you.

For me, the choice is easy—or, rather, it has never existed in the first place. Most of my relatives still live in Ukraine. They’re just normal people, with kids and pets and jobs and hobbies.

As I type this, my relatives are hunkering down in bomb shelters; their only crime is living in a democratic country that has consistently dared to defy the Kremlin. They don’t deserve to die or be subjugated because an insecure man in the Kremlin is threatened by their independence, and neither does anyone else.

More fools are being created by Russia in real time. Among them is the far-right kingmaker and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Again, in supporting Putin, Carlson must find a way to denigrate his own fellow citizens, which is why he leans heavily on conspiracy theories and culture war rhetoric. For example, Putin hasn’t called Carlson racist, so, Carlson concludes, his aggression is no big deal. And what does Carlson stand to lose by it? Uniting Americans is not an easy task right now, and divisive rhetoric, by contrast, makes ratings soar.

None of us can change the past. What we can do, however, is remember its lessons. Right now, history is screaming in our ears, reminding the world that a revanchist autocrat causing destabilization and bloodshed in Europe doesn’t have anyone’s interests at heart but his own and those of his wealthy courtiers.

Yes, even the Russians who continue to believe in Putin are expendable to him, as demonstrated by his readiness to use them as cannon fodder. This cannon fodder includes both people from Russian-occupied territories and regions such as Chechnya, ruled with an iron fist by an autocrat-within-an-autocracy, Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s vicious pet.

There are many ways for the world to stop Putin—including genuinely pancaking the Russian economy—but we can’t be effective unless we shut out the voice that’s telling us we have no right to do so. History is speeding up, the dead are piling up, and we must make our choice. Because the cause is urgent—and because we are good enough.

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

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