A Case of Putin Envy

Behind the Obsession With Russia's Leader

Russian President Vladimir Putin stands with a gun at a shooting gallery of the new GRU military intelligence headquarters in Moscow, November 8, 2006. Russian Presidential Press Service / Reuters

As Russian President Vladimir Putin once said, “A bear doesn’t ask permission from anybody.” Indeed, over the past two years, he has shown the world that he is a political bear—from land grabbing and perpetuating conflict in Ukraine to the recent military intervention in Syria. And yet, even as Western leaders have been angered and unnerved by Putin’s actions, conservative political figures in the United States have experienced a bit of Putin envy. While bemoaning U.S. President Barack Obama’s supposed weakness, for example, Sarah Palin seemed to pine for a president who, like Putin, “wrestles bears and drills for oil.” Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has also hinted at his admiration for Putin, saying, “He makes a decision and he executes it…That’s what you call a leader.”

Since winning a third term as president, Putin has achieved the remarkable feat of approval ratings purportedly hovering in the 80 to 90 percent range. Even with a “dictatorship discount”—the assumption that some fraction of those stellar approval ratings is fictional—Putin is far more popular than his Western counterparts, who must endure a relatively independent and muckraking media and a lively public debate over every policy and every personal issue, from sexual liaisons to the proper use of e-mail servers. Putin, unlike politicians in a democratic regime, can happily avoid the endless stress of political campaigning, of having to defend his policy positions, vie for attention, and build an arsenal of post-hoc justifications for gaffes, misstatements, and errors.

Although Putin is free of such pesky inconveniences, his administration—like all governments that aim to stay in power—still needs a modicum of public support. Few regimes survive for decades purely on coercion, an expensive option in any case. Much of what Putin has been doing abroad is calculated for his domestic audience. What might look like aggressive, risky, or even dangerous foreign policy decisions have been largely welcomed by the Russian populace as evidence of

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