Who is Putin? Even to Russians, a mystery
Vladimir Putin is frequently painted in broad strokes in the West: as a dictator whose apparent popularity in Russian polls is inflated and whom the Russian public is ready to topple. If Mr. Putin were ousted, some believe, relations between Russia and the West would normalize and all would be well again.
But this perspective fundamentally misunderstands the man and how he is seen by Russians – and what he does for them as the leader of Russia.
For as the Monitor’s Moscow correspondent Fred Weir tells diplomatic correspondent Howard LaFranchi, Mr. Putin is no Lex Luthor. He is popular among Russians because he is seen as a guarantor of stability and the enabler of Russia's economic growth over the past two decades. They approve of what he is doing – even if their view of the man himself can be as clouded as that of Westerners.
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SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Even before the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, Russia has been a challenging player in diplomatic affairs. From the American perspective, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is seen as a mysterious, sometimes sinister character with unknown intentions. But have you ever wondered, What are relations actually like between the United States and Russia from a Russian perspective? What’s behind the strongman persona of Putin? And do Russians think he’s got President Trump in his back pocket? The Monitor’s diplomatic correspondent, Howard LaFranchi and Moscow correspondent Fred Weir dig into these questions.
HOWARD LAFRANCHI: So, Fred, you are visiting Boston from the land of Vladimir Putin, and I think Americans by now have a pretty set image of Vladimir Putin. They see a strong man leader... I’d like to know who is the real Vladimir Putin? And how do Russians see their leader?
FRED WEIR: Well, that’s a really difficult question. And there are many, many different ways to try to get at who the guy is. I would say this is something of an American fallacy. Americans often do tend to see, um, personify their foreign policy problems, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi. They create a Lex Luthor type character and then pin much of their analysis on that.
And Putin is, he’s a complicated person. He grew up in tough circumstances and was famously a KGB professional agent for many years. That was his core training. He used his security service surrounding to create a strong regime, to do a lot of things, to restore national cohesion, a sense of purpose. And he really did. I mean, he was assisted by high oil prices at that time. The Russian economy boomed, but Russian living standards improved markedly. He did a lot of things that Russians applaud. As good steward of Russia and Russian national interests as Putin may be, it just has to be remembered that America’s problem isn’t Putin. He is not the dictator of Russia, the Lex Luthor type that could be knocked off and then Russia would become normal again. Your problem is with Russia. Putin is popular because of the things he does. He stays in power because Russians don’t see any alternative, and they’re reasonably satisfied with what he does. And that’s a hard thing sometimes for Americans to get their minds around.
LAFRANCHI: We also have a sense of a leader in Vladimir Putin of someone who cares very much about his image. I’m just wondering, well, what is behind that? I mean, some people say, oh, he has to establish an aura, a leader in control. What’s behind that image-building and maintenance?
WEIR: Yeah, it’s a very carefully curated image and it’s very partial. He does seem to enjoy these activities that he engages in, you know, going down in submersibles and flying with the birds in the hang glider, riding horseback and fishing. And journalists love it. Of course, it makes great copy, but there are other sides to him. I am told that he now, when he travels, goes to religious sites as a pilgrim and he never brings any press. There are no photo ops for that. So that’s the private side of Vladimir Putin, it’s probably more telling than the public antics are. And a lot of his his life is is completely off the radar screen. We know very little about his family. It’s not only off the radar screen, it’s completely taboo in Russia to touch that stuff.
So you have it you have this image of Vladimir Putin that obviously is created for public consumption. And he likes the bareback, bare chested horseback stuff. He likes that. He obviously must. He wouldn’t let photographers into it. But we don’t know who he is personally.
LAFRANCHI: Do we know, does he play golf?
WEIR: He doesn’t. No he doesn’t Howard, sorry he’s never going to invite you to play golf with him.
LAFRANCHI: Not me, Donald Trump.
WEIR: Oh, Donald Trump. Oh, yeah. Good. Good point. No, I don’t think that one was gonna work. Yeah.
LAFRANCHI: If Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump don’t have golf in common, they do express an interest in talking and when they’re together, they do seem to get along quite well. What does sort of create this mutual attraction that does seem to be there?
WEIR: I don’t think there is a mutual attraction. I don’t think Putin has ever expressed any great love or admiration for Donald Trump. What did happen during the election was that Donald Trump was saying things that were well-received in Russia like, wouldn’t it be great if I could get along with Vladimir Putin and we should really have better relations with Russia. They were just grunts. They weren’t like well formulated foreign policy ideas. But when you contrast it to Hillary Clinton, who had compared Putin to Hitler, you can see why the Russians had a preference for Trump.
But I think that the Trump era has just completely discombobulated the Russians. They don’t know what to do with Trump. I don’t think they feel like they can dialog with this administration. And so I think that your explanation is something to do with Trump. Maybe he has a fondness for strong leaders. I think that this is largely a product of a Washington imagination, that Trump is somehow beholden to Putin, that Putin has some compromising material on him, and that Trump is Putin’s stooge. That is all some kind of imagery that has been politically powerful in Washington, but has absolutely no traction in Moscow.
LAFRANCHI: Also earlier over the summer, we saw the protests in Moscow, which some people wondered, is this the first crack or is this a sign of dissatisfaction growing among the citizenry of Russia? And so what is really going on there?
WEIR: You know, over the summer, there have been really many newspaper articles and columns in the West in which people draw up this list of things in Russia: there are protests in Moscow, there are protests against garbage dumps, Putin’s popularity rating is falling. They get a list of things that are going wrong in Russia. It says that Putin is doomed. But what if we drew up a similar list about the United States? So you’ve got an opioid crisis, mass shootings, immigration crisis, trillion dollar deficits. We could do the same thing. Is that doomed or is it just a day in the life of a big complex country? Russia is not a country in crisis right now, and Putin is not a regime in crisis. Very strong, very stable at the moment.
But these are just things that are changing Russia. I mean, there are are a whole lot of things in a big society that is still very much in transition from the Soviet Union. And these protests are part of that. They show class divisions. They show political friction, real friction between a certain segment of the population anyway and authorities; people are are coming out in the streets and challenging and pushing back and they think they lost this one. But there are other cases where they’re winning. Civil society in Russia is is coming up. It’s bubbling up in various forms, mostly apolitical forms.
I first noticed this in my own village where I live outside of Moscow. A lot of my neighbors were gathered in a sort of a derelict space near the train station. They were cleaning it up, but they were going to turn it into a children’s playground. I thought this is astounding. This kind of thing has almost never happened before. It’s radical and new. I think it’s one of the most significant things that is changing Russia from the grassroots up.
LAFRANCHI: What about the younger generation, young Russians? Where do they fit in that clamor, as you say, for freer entrepreneurship or even in some of the civil society activities?
WEIR: Well, I think most young people are immersed in their private lives. I have two children who are Russians, completely Russian, and they are also completely apolitical. They are culturally engaged. They’re engaged in, they’re on the Internet all the time. But they don’t give a damn about politics. And I think that’s representative of the Putin generation, even though you read about, and you might even read articles by me in The Christian Science Monitor focusing on this politically active segment of the youth. You would make a mistake to think that they are the majority or anything.
So I do not know where this generation is headed. Whether they will become politicized, it would have to be something that made them so. Because one of the hallmarks of the Putin era for everybody is that you don’t have to be political. You can have your own life. You can own property. You can have a career. An interesting job. You can travel. You can read whatever you want. And within reason, you can say whatever you want publicly even. And... I don’t know anybody who is enthusiastic about Putin, who loves or worships him. But everybody thinks he’s the guarantor of stability and the life that they have now.
LAFRANCHI: Well, Fred, you do you raise a question there. So what is on the horizon if people are, if Russians are basically satisfied with where the country is now under Vladimir Putin, but he won’t be there forever?
WEIR: Well, it’s guaranteed that he won’t be there forever. And it is increasingly an issue. And under the Russian constitution, he has to leave in 2024 when his current term expires and there isn’t much hint about what will be done about that. And so this is what, this will be the big story of the next four years or so because the Russian establishment is deeply dependent on Putin. I mean, as a personality, it’s that old Russian thing. They’ve had this for a thousand years, you’ve got one indispensable guy at the top and everybody pins their careers, their hopes, their ambitions on him. Like I would say, the best thing to do would be to cultivate more political, genuine political competition so that real people could come up with their own real power bases and showing their abilities. But the Putin system doesn’t allow for that. And so the second thing would be groom an appropriate successor. And we have no hint of what, whether he’s going to do that or not. And third, a stopgap solution is to change the constitution so that Putin can stay in some way as the guarantor of stability and all the things that we have now.
LAFRANCHI: And so for the average Westerner, why does it matter what happens in Russia?
WEIR: The United States and Russia have 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, including huge intercontinental weapons that could pretty much obliterate each other in half an hour. And the relationship between them for many other reasons besides that cardinal one is awfully important. And it has sunk to its lowest depths ever. There has never been a time even at that at the worst moments of the Cold War, when there were virtually no back channels. And even during the Cold War, there was an element of respect, mutual respect. And now it seems like contempt is the order of the day. And here in the United States, almost anything to do with Russia or meeting with Russians has become toxic.
LAFRANCHI: Do you see any glimmers, though, sort of against this what would be kind of a mutual shunning, a moving away, that this is not a good direction to go in? I mean, is there a reason to hope that this moving away from from each other that’s not good globally, that’s not good for either side, that there are little shoots of promise that maybe this can be reversed?
WEIR: Yes. You know, I’ve been almost three weeks in Canada and the United States, and I am impressed with how most people are far more reasonable. And that’s good. It’s also true, I’m an American journalist in Russia. I mean, I’m a Canadian, but I’m the very image of the traditional enemy, an American correspondent. And I’m welcomed everywhere I go. People are just wonderful. The hospitality is great. So I don’t think there is a public problem here. I think it’s a political one. I think there are reasons to be hopeful that some more normal relationship is absolutely necessary and probably it’s inevitable.
LAINE PERFAS: Thanks for listening. For more coverage on Russia, visit CSMonitor.com/world/europe. This audio story was produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas, and edited by Arthur Bright. Copyright by The Christian Science Monitor, 2019.