No, Vladimir Putin is not a cartoon super-villain, and he’s not the Defender of the Faith either

The American political right increasingly resembles a barely-stitched together collection of single- or narrow-issue interest groups, all united by hatred of Barack Obama, History’s Greatest Monster At Least Until the Next Democratic President, or, more accurately, hatred of scary liberal monsters hiding under the bed, waiting for the chance to make off with their wallets, take their daughters off to get abortions, and turn their sons gay. This is nowhere more apparent than in how the right views Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the conservative who cares more about what consenting adults are allowed to do in their own bedrooms, Putin is King Leonidas, bravely fighting for “traditional” (although if you can find the traditional society that didn’t have any gay people in it, please let me know) values against the overwhelming forces of modernity and secular perversion. For the conservative who cares more about maintaining American hegemony in the world (or actually recapturing it, since Obama has obviously lost it with his weak weakening weakness), then Putin is like Voldemort: all-powerful, all-knowing, and pure evil. Ask a neo-conservative and a religious conservative for their impressions of Putin and you’ll most likely come away thinking that they were each talking about a different guy.

Ever since Russia made it illegal to be gay in public, Putin has been making American social conservatives see starbursts every time they look at him. Pat “Culture War” Buchanan loves Putin, but not in a gay way because that would be gross:

Putin says his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby and professes to be a Christian. And what he is talking about here is ambitious, even audacious.

He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.

Rod Dreher, riffing off a previous Buchanan column, tags Putin as the modern day defender of Christians the world over:

The Christians of the Middle East have a greater friend in Vladimir Putin than they do in Barack Obama — or that they did in George W. Bush, for that matter.

Ben “Healthcare Reform Is the Worst Thing Since Slavery” Carson praised Putin for leading Russian back to religion while America is somehow moving away from it, I guess:

While we Americans are giving a cold shoulder to our religious heritage, the Russians are warming to religion. The Russians seem to be gaining prestige and influence throughout the world as we are losing ours. I wonder whether there is a correlation.

Of course this is all a fiction that Putin has crafted for himself and onto which American social conservatives have latched as a way to attack the supposed secular excesses of the Obama Administration. Unless it’s now Christian to oversee a massive state kleptocracy where the only way business is done is via government bribes, or to deny one’s citizens a free press or free speech, or to toss political opponents in prison, or to have uncooperative activist journalists murdered. Are those things “Christian” now? Sure he cares about Christians in Syria; they make a heck of a convenient justification for backing Assad in spite of the fact that Assad likes to do things like dropping improvised anti-personnel weapons out of helicopters and into massed crowds of civilians, and they’re a neat way to try to embarrass Obama (in that sense, Putin and our social conservatives do have a lot in common). But, hey, don’t let the facts get in the way, etc.

Vladimir Putin: Mounted, Shirtless Warrior for Jesus
Vladimir Putin: Mounted, Shirtless Warrior for Christ

On the other side of this divide is the neo-conservative faction, whose focus is foreign policy rather than domestic nebbishness, and they’re sensibly concerned that, no matter what happens, Putin has already foreseen it and is, indeed, manipulating things to go exactly as he wants them to go. For Victor Davis Hanson, this is appealing, because while Putin may be a bad man, at least he’s all man (BUT NOT IN A HOMO WAY), you know? Just does what he wants, barrels ahead, in a manly way, like a man (THIS IS NOT AT ALL A HOMOEROTIC ARGUMENT THAT VICTOR IS MAKING), without getting wrapped up in all that pansy “thinking about things” crap. But for many of VDH’s fellow travelers, Putin’s presumed omniscience is pretty terrifying, because it means he’s always winning no matter what happens. Looks like embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych might successfully resist the Euromaidan protests? That’s because Putin is making sure he will. Yanukovych signs a deal full of concessions to the protesters because his position is increasingly untenable? Don Vlad “the Godfather” Putin’s master plan is now taking shape (bonus points in that one for the heavy use of the “WHY WON’T THOSE COMMIE LIBS WORSHIP THEIR RUSSIAN GOD” argument). Yanukovych flees Kiev for parts unknown, is impeached in absentia by the Ukrainian Parliament, and will be lucky to get out of this whole situation without winding up at the Hague? Ah, now Putin has us all right where he wants us. It’s that last one, written by favorite blog neo-con Michael D. Weiss, that finally made me wonder: just how brilliant and awesomely powerful do these guys think Putin really is?

Weiss argues that while there’s a chance that Putin will attempt a military intervention in Ukraine in order to protect his interests in Crimea, he probably won’t have to, because now that his client Yanukovych has been forced out of power by anti-Yanukovych and anti-Russian protesters it’s only a matter of time before Ukraine is his. If that doesn’t seem to make any sense, well, yeah.

So what’s Putin’s long game?  We’ve had more than a slight indication already, thanks to Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, who told the New York Times four days ago that Yanukovych only agreed to sign a compromise agreement with Ukrainian opposition leaders after taking a phone call from his master in Moscow: “He came back, he was agreeing to limit his time in office. That made everything possible.” Ulrich Speck, a research fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote on his Facebook page that Putin decided to abandon Yanukovych after seeing how little support the latter drew from his own military and police, and after fielding warnings from Barack Obama and Angela Merkel that a civil war would be solely Russia’s fault and responsibility. But does that mean that Putin now wants to help Washington and Brussels guide Ukraine toward stability and security?  Don’t be silly. “Putin decided to move to plan B,” Speck wrote, “which is: spoil new government by inciting unrest East and South, use economic leverage, count on Western unwillingness to pull Ukraine, and finally get control again through a new leader ready to act as Moscow’s mission chief in Kiev.”

So…Putin’s client eventually became more trouble than he was worth, so Putin jettisoned him and is now hoping that he can destabilize Ukraine and rebuild Russian influence in Kiev under some unnamed and unknown future leader? THAT DIABOLICAL MADMAN! He’s beating the rest of the world at every turn!

This view has been backed up by what Russian political analyst Konstanin Simonov told Pravda earlier in the week: that incompetent ingrate Yanukovych was never really pro-Russian at all, that newly released “Orange Princess” Yulia Tymoshenko is destined to inherit the country, and that the Kremlin should now let Ukraine’s economy implode because “Europe will not save Ukraine, especially considering that Europe doesn’t have any coherent model of economic development of Ukraine. Nobody in Europe needs the archaic Ukrainian economy, and nobody is going to try to pull it out of the crisis at their own expense.”  Then it’ll be guess-who to the rescue.

It’s telling that, while Weiss actually does real reporting when the Obama Administration makes public pronouncements, digging for quotes, frequently off the record, that may undermine the public spin, he’s apparently prepared to take everything Putin or his pals say as hard truth. Maybe this is right on the money, Moscow never really supported Yanukovych, they’re perfectly happy to see him gone, and they’ll be even happier to see the Ukrainian economy collapse and Tymoshenko come to them hat in hand. It’s not like Tymoshenko hasn’t dealt with Putin before (it’s also not like she’s a lock to be elected president, either, but I digress). Maybe those grapes really were sour after all. But, if I may, this sounds a lot more like an ex post facto, face-saving explanation for how Putin let Ukraine get out of control than it does a well-conceived master plan to double-secretly get Russia’s hooks into Ukraine even deeper while pretending to back Yanukovych and totally faking the Americans and Europeans out. I get why Weiss does legwork when Obama’s people say something (which is good!) but not when Putin’s do (not so good!); he doesn’t like Obama, and the idea of Putin as some kind of off-the-charts evil genius fits really well into his worldview. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

There is an alternative view of Putin, one that’s been advanced by Julia Ioffe among others. In this view, Putin is a bad guy, yes, intolerant of dissent, corrupt to the gills, not somebody you’d like to see running your country. But he’s also a guy who had to drastically overpromise concessions to quiet the huge crowds of protesters who greeted his resumption of the Russian Presidency in 2012 with something less than complete ecstasy. He’s presiding over a population whose average life expectancy would only be acceptable in the middle of the Black Death, whose level of wealth inequality is the highest in the world, whose people are leaving in droves to go somewhere, anywhere, else. The only thing standing between Putin’s Russia and complete economic collapse is Russia’s energy reserves, and those have a nasty tendency to run out eventually. Yes, Putin is interested in propping up his one reliable Middle Eastern ally. Yes, he’s courting Dear Leader Sisi in Egypt because he’d like a second Middle Eastern ally. Certainly, he cares what happens to his next door neighbor and would like to maintain heavy influence there. None of this makes him particularly unique among world leaders, let alone some kind of existential threat to the United States.

Granted, your mileage may vary, but this doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s working with a Zippo while the rest of us are rubbing sticks together. And I’m pretty sure he’s not Christ’s champion on Earth. I guess, in the end, we each create the Vladimir Putin we need, but from time to time we ought to check in with the actual Vladimir Putin and see how he’s doing.

I'm going with "Bubba to George's Forrest Gump," myself.
I’m going with “Bubba to George’s Forrest Gump,” myself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.