Staunton, April 19 – Vladimir Putin has not gone abroad since November 2015, except for a brief visit to Belarus which he does not consider a separate country, and thereby has “isolated himself” from world leaders in ways that in part recall the behavior of his early Soviet predecessors, according to Oleg Panfilov.
But unlike them, Putin has been able to attract both telephonic contacts from Western leaders and a regular flow of Western foreign ministers and other senior officials, a flow that reinforces his authority among the Russian people by playing to his obvious conviction that the world should come to him rather than the other way round.
In a commentary for RFE/RL, Panfilov, a professor at Tbilisi’s Ilya State University and the former director of the Moscow Center for Extreme Journalism, points to Putin’s lack of foreign travel as “an important detail” of current Russian and international policy that has seldom been noted (ru.krymr.com/content/article/27681959.html).
Putin’s absence of travel over the last year is especially striking, the Russian scholar says, because between 2000 when he first became president and 2014 when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and invaded the Donbas, the current Kremlin leader made “202 working, official and state visits to various countries, half of which were to the countries of the post-Soviet space.”
The Kremlin leader’s restricted travel abroad now “repeats the history of the first decades of Soviet power when the first leaders self-isolated themselves.” After 1917, Lenin never once went abroad, and Stalin did so only twice, to Tehran in 1943 and Potsdam in 1945, places where the Soviet army was nearby or in occupation of.
Travel by chiefs of state and heads of government have many purposes, Panfilov points out; and in the first part of his rue, “foreign trips were part of Putin’s cult of personality, especially after 2002” when he took control of Russian television and could thus ensure how his trips would be covered.
“Each of his trips were then accompanied by lengthy reports” designed to show Russians that their leader was someone other world leaders respected and wanted to meet. Obviously, Kremlin-controlled television did not show the protests which greeted Putin during most of his foreign visits, protests sparked by the murder of journalists and opponents and the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.
In recent years, Panfilov continues, many of Putin’s trips abroad were occasions of major protest actions, even in countries like Armenia and Belarus, which are supposed to be pro-Moscow in orientation. That undercuts what Putin wants to achieve and reflects the fact that he has little to offer post-Soviet states.
Regarding countries beyond the former Soviet orbit, Putin’s situation is “still worse.” These countries were not that closely connected to Russia in the past; and they and especially their populations do not approve of what he has been doing in recent years within Russia and toward Russia’s neighbors.
“With the introduction of sanctions, the West has given Putin to understand that it does not intend to put up with this anymore,” Panfilov continues. As a result, the Kremlin cannot save itself by means of its own propaganda which now is effective exclusively on the Russian audience and with the single goal” of maintaining Putin in power.
Obviously, politicians and diplomats will continue to go to Moscow: they and their countries do not want a war with Russia. But the fact that Putin no longer is welcome abroad means that he cannot use such events for his own purposes and thus, Panfilov implies, the Kremlin leader is isolated in ways that he hasn’t been before – and by his own hand.