Staunton, March 18 – Not surprisingly, the Russian media today focused on only one thing: US President Joe Biden’s agreeing with the assertion that Vladimir Putin is a murderer. There was angry reaction from Putin’s supporters and hope among his opponents that perhaps the West at long last is waking up to what the Kremlin leader is all about.
The responses of the overwhelming majority of writers both in the regular media and online, however, were so predictable as to be easily dismissed. But some offered a more penetrating, thoughtful and evidence-drive discussion of this incident. Among these, three are especially important:
First, Liliya Shevtsova argues that Biden’s remark may “look like an attack against Russia, but in this case, Russia isn’t the target. It is the means” for “the leading Western powers to begin to find a path for recovery.” In that, Russia has been “assigned an instrumental role as adrenalin,” a role it has long played for the West (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=605358FC757F4).
Most Russians consider it axiomatic that “1991 and the collapse of the USSR was a victory of the West. That is true only in part” because “1991 gave rise to processes which led to the [current] crisis of liberal democracy.” As long as the USSR existed, it compelled the West “to strengthen not only its military potential but its principles and its unity.”
“With the disintegration of the USSR,” she continues, the liberal community lost its competitor and the need for improving its principles. The departure of an enemy led to aa situation in which the strengthening of trans-Atlantic unity and US hegemony ceased to be vital necessities.”
Interest replaced values as the primary concern, and they led to the fragmentation of the West and the deterioration of Western liberal states. “Old Europe” now gives preference to interests, but “America under Biden is beginning to think about a return to leadership via an appeal to ideology.”
In this situation, Americans view Russia “as an enemy” while considering China “as a responsible opponent.” And thus, attacking the former while seeking accommodations with the latter is a useful means of restoring values as being at the center of liberal democracy in the West.
“The return of America to ideology and morality in politics must support its aspirations to leadership,” Shevtsova says. “The inevitable result is an increase in confrontation in relations between Russia and the US,” a confrontation in which “Russian civil society and the opposition will have to pay.”
According to commentator, “the irony here is that the early Putin and Medvedev cooperated with the West and weakened its readiness for self-defense. The later Putin with his anti-Western strategy has forced the West to rouse itself and begin to restore its atrophied muscles.”
In the short term, this will strengthen the support Putin has among Russians; but over the longer haul, it will lead to something like a new 1991.
Shevtsova does not mention in this essay the words of Academician Georgy Arbatov, the USSR’s most prominent Americanist. During Gorbachev’s first visit to Washington more than 30 years ago, he observed that the Soviet leader was going to do something far more horrible to the West than any of his predecessors. He was going to take away the West’s enemy.
For better or worse, Putin has restored Russia to that status by his actions; and the consequences of this restoration may be even more fateful for both sides than was the competition and conflict of the earlier period.
Dmitry Traven of St. Petersburg’s European University offers a second perspective. He says that the US could only talk about Putin in this way because Russia today, “alas” isn’t needed by anyone. Great powers are quite prepared to label the heads of smaller ones in brutal ways but not those of other great powers (newsru.com/blog/18mar2021/biden_putin.html).
Biden’s remark destroys the notion that Putin has restored the authority of Russia. “In fact, it has no authority at all. Since Stalin’s times, no one has said anything like this about the leaders of our country.” Then at least the West needed Russia as an ally against the Nazis but now no one does, Traven stresses.
For the West now, Russia isn’t needed as an ally in serious conflicts or as a trading party or even on cultural issues. Any future major war between the West and China would find Russia as “a junior partner of Beijing.” Economically, Russia isn’t of interest to anyone except for its oil and gas – and those are becoming less important as the West shifts to other forms of energy.
Even in the cultural realm, “we exist on old ‘baggage.’ The authority of Russian culture of past centuries has not disappeared but in recent years it clearly hasn’t grown,” Traven continues. “Talented people find it difficult to work in Russia and therefore they either leave or spend all their efforts to overcome difficulties there.”
Those who love Russia but not Putin are divided into many camps but they share a desire to change Russia and to reach agreements with the West. Indeed, the St. Petersburg scholar insists, “we have a foundation for achieving important agreements despite the political disagreements” which Putin’s actions and Biden’s words underscore.
And commentator Vladimir Skripov offers a third perspective. He suggests that “after Biden’s words, “Putin has no immediate need for a good little war” to strengthen his position among Russians. Instead, Russians will rally around the Kremlin leader because he has been attacked by the American president (ehorussia.com/new/blog/6324).
Some analysts mistakenly believe that Biden’s comment will weaken Putin; but in fact, Skripov argues, it “will only strengthen his position.” Large numbers of Russian accept the equivalency of Russia and Putin and so will see an attack on one as an attack on the other and thus rally around the Kremlin.
Moreover, many Russians will connect Biden’s words only with the murder of Nemtsov or the attack on Navalny, actions that many of them fully approve of, the commentator says. But the real reason that Biden’s words will help Putin lies in the traditional Russian attitudes toward the rulers of that country.
“The Putinoid in Russia is not simply a devotee of a specific ruler. It is a devotee of a tough power,” Skripov says. Putin is that many now precisely because he acts in the way he has been criticized for acting. Consequently, Putin personally “should be grateful to Biden” for helping him unite Russia and doing so without unleashing a new war.