Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is Putin All-Powerful or an Ever Weaker Marginal Player? Both West and Russia Divided on That

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – Some in the West and in Russia view Vladimir Putin as all-powerful and invariably successful, while others view him as increasingly weak and a failure, perspectives that in many cases define how those who hold them interpret one and the same things, Karina Orlova says.

            In an Ekho Moskvy post today, the Russian journalist points out that Washington experts and political figures are very much divided on this question and that “two generally accepted” but “mutually exclusive” positions have emerged and define the way people there interpret all of Putin’s actions (echo.msk.ru/blog/karina_orlova/1775248-echo/).

                The first “conventional wisdom” in Washington about Putin, she writes, is that “whatever he does, he always outplays the West in general and Barack Obama in particular.” Every one of the Kremlin leader’s moves is part of “some great plan” that brings him victory and the West defeat be it at the UN general assembly, Syria or the release of Nadezhda Savchenko.

                The second “conventional wisdom” in the US capital holds exactly the reverse.  From its perspective, “Putin is a regional player who is dangerous only because he possesses nuclear weapons,” that he has no overarching plan but rather is improvising all the time, and that all the triumphs the other perspective suggests are in fact failures or making the best of a bad situation.

            The first point of view – Putin as all-powerful and ever-victorious, Orlova says, is held by those who oppose Obama, those older people still living in the paradigm of the Cold War “and … Russian liberals.”  The second by younger intellectuals and by people around the current American president.

            This disagreement in the US reflects its domestic divisions and thus is not all that surprising, she writes, but what she says is quite shocking is that the mistaken view about the greatness and power of Putin has found a market in Moscow and not just among the broad population but among the country’s liberals.

            Russian liberals, she says, whether they live in Russia or in the west, are the most inclined to spread the notion of Putin’s supposed all-powerful nature.  They accept the most outlandish predictions of what Putin can and will do and they ascribe to his actions the actions of others that have other sources, such as the Brexit position in Britain.

            It is of course possible, Orlova says, that there are deep agents in Britain and elsewhere, but Russian liberals more than almost anyone else are inclined to explain what happens by suggesting these Putin agents are as all-powerful as their boss and to fail to see the reasons that things may be moving in a particular direction.

            Many Russian liberals are quite well-educated and quite critical of Putin’s policies, but they nonetheless view him as capable of doing anything he wants, something that itself probably has many sources but at least one of which is “a hidden even unconscious” belief that they too, if somehow installed in the Kremlin, could do anything they wanted.

            The influence of these Russian liberals on Western opinion cannot be ignored, but at least for the next eight months, while Obama remains US president, one need not worry too much about that.  But after his departure, the view of Putin as all-powerful could matter a lot and in anything but positive ways.

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