Putin’s ideology increasingly shows signs of contempt for our Western liberal democracies.
Vladimir Putin is sitting in Moscow positively beaming. When he looks at the world, he concludes that things are going his and Russia’s way. What he has lost from the breakdown of the cooperation with the West, he has quickly gained back through a closer relationship with China. The EU is no longer Russia’s most important trading partner; China is.
Since the United States left the scene, Russia is now the most powerful player in the Middle East. The elimination of Islamic State leader, Abu al-Baghdadi, does not change that.
It is not only in regard to Syria that Russia has the strongest hand. Thanks to clever maneuvering, Putin is now on good terms with all important players in the region. Russia is well connected to the leaders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and therefore has every opportunity to extend its influence. No other country, particularly the U.S., can say the same.
In Africa, Russia will make its presence felt and will be competing with China. Recently, Putin met the leaders of 35 African countries at his summer residence in Sochi. China has an enormous advantage as an economic superpower, but Russia attracts attention with its high-tech weaponry.
In Europe, Putin continues in his determination to split the EU members’ positions on Russia. He is counting on the crumbling of the agreement to continue the sanctions for the occupation of Crimea. Concerning the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Putin is showing no signs of compromise in Russia’s support for the separatists. Instead, he’s hoping to wear down the politically inexperienced President Volodymyr Zelenskiy when domestic criticism in the Ukraine against Zelenskiy’s concessions increase.
People often say that Putin isn’t a strategist. Instead he’s the skillful tactician who quickly seizes an opportunity as it appears, often after an opponent makes a mistake. That’s something he learned in judo class: to take advantage of any vulnerability.
It has also been said that Putin lacks any particular form of ideology, instead selecting opportunities as long they contribute toward the goal. And that goal is always to return Russia to the superpower position it has historically held. That all may be true. However, it still seems to me that Putin’s actions in foreign affairs, which have been successful in Russia, are driven by a type of belief you could call an ideology.
Regarding the actions in Syria during 2015 on behalf of President Bashar Assad, it wasn’t only to strengthen Russia’s influence there. Putin felt that he had grasped something the West had not, namely that it is better to support a dictator and to help him remain in power than to bring the dictator down and create chaos and anarchy. In Putin’s eyes, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya are two examples of the West getting it wrong by bringing them down. The result then was failure and now, dysfunctional countries. It is foolish to attempt to achieve some sort of democratic rule that way, according to Putin. Instead it is better to ensure that the ”legitimate leader,” Assad in Syria, gets the military support he needs to retain power. As a leader of an authoritative regime, Putin has no ambitions whatsoever to ensure that the people of Syria have a better leader. He doesn’t care about the suffering endured by civilians during eight years of civil war. It is more important that Assad finally wins.
Putin’s ideology increasingly shows signs of contempt for our Western liberal democracies. This isn’t limited to the West’s action in the Middle East. Putin simply believes the future lies in putting national interests first. The fact that he has found a soulmate in Donald Trump makes him more assured in this belief, not less.
Putin’s world view is one of conservative nationalism, based on traditional lifestyle and old-fashioned family values, distinct from his view of the lifestyle in Western Europe. This is also why Russia supports right-wing populist parties and groups in Europe.
In an interview in the Financial Times over the summer, Putin yet again displayed his world view, stating that ”the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Now is the time for the ”illiberal society” Viktor Orban is creating in Hungary.
When Putin spoke about how democracies in Western Europe are undermining themselves, he used the examples of immigration, and claimed that migrants are “free to kill, steal and rape without punishment.” In describing the decadent lifestyles of the West, he claimed that children can try out ”five or six different gender roles.”
At the same time, Putin mentioned the ”culture, tradition and family values of the millions of people who make up the majority.” He made fun of his European colleagues who claimed they couldn’t be tougher on immigration due to the “legislative framework.” Change the laws then, was Putin’s advice. For most of the population, traditional values are more important than liberalism, which, in his opinion, is dying, the Russian president said.
It is easy to dismiss Putin’s thoughts as a parody, but the twisted and prejudiced picture of our societies is really the view he has. Western leaders are often fooled in meetings by a Putin putting up his most elegant and charming front. However, he’s a master of disguises, a chameleon. That is why we need to remember that this is what is really going on in Putin’s head. He is convinced that our Western liberal democracies have had their time. Over the next few years we need to make sure he is wrong.