The Russian president’s image of a tough defender of “traditional values” is yet another old KGB ruse
Who is Mr. Putin? After more than fifteen years of a former spy bestriding the world stage, the answer to this seemingly straightforward question still causes a barrage of emotions, varying from the unrestrained adulation of Christian Conservative commentators on the Right, such as Patrick Buchanan’s statements on how “Putin is entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly City of today and command post of the counter-reformation against the new paganism”; to modestly reserved approval from those on the Left, expressed by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond who stated that he “admired 'certain aspects' of Putin's leadership” particularly for his “restoration of Russian pride.” What would Mr. Salmond say if he knew that his one-man separatist crusade is classified as a felony in Russia, which would result in the First Minister being swiftly incarcerated for three or four years?
Still, Mr. Putin’s brash anti-European fervour that places Russia at odds with the European Union’s promotion of “cultural and linguistic diversity” and his open disdain for “European values” - most notoriously “multiculturalism”, bête noir of the Continent’s Right - have won him many devotees throughout the political spectre of the Old and New World. Under Putin’s leadership, noted Anne Applebaum, Russia has been pursuing a grand strategy designed to achieve three major goals: delegitimize NATO, undermine the EU, split the Western alliance and, above all, reverse the (democratic) transitions of the 1990s.
As depicted in the graph, Italian Liga Nord, British UKIP, Dutch Party for Freedom and others tend to support votes with either direct or indirect interest for Russia, such as EU expansion and broader cooperation policies with the former Soviet republics. Mr. Oksanen observed that the only parties “who tends to vote against Russian interest, despite being EU-sceptics, are found in the Baltic Region. Highest points have True Finns, Danish People’s party, Swedish Left Party and Law & Order from Lithuania. Law & Order would probably have ended up with a higher index score if they had been present during more votes. Exception is the Sweden Democrats.” Overall, the Russian autocrat has himself surrounded by admiring and listening audience in both Europe and the United States made of who Commentary’s Seth Mandel calls “a bizarre, bipartisan crew of intellectual, academic, and journalistic dupes”.
In the light of that, the task of maintaining a strong and united Western alliance, once hailed by Lady Thatcher as a “guarantee of our peace and security”, is becoming more and more arduous. Former Polish Prime Minister, now President of the European Council, lamented a few months ago that keeping “Europe united is today the biggest challenge”.
These words ring true especially since the EU’s solidarity, which resulted in the imposition of sanctions after Moscow’s Crimean Blitzkrieg that set the Continent aback last year, is under increasing pressure from Russia-backed interest groups. “If Putin splits the unity among EU member states and among the leaders of the EU member countries, this will be the biggest success story of President Putin and this will be a disaster for the free world,” warned Ukrainian Prime Minister Mr. Yatsenyuk last March.
However, as it’s been stated in the beginning, Putin’s aggressive machismo embodied in Russia’s policies is merely a smokescreen created in the best Soviet traditions to give anti-“Establishment” protesters intellectual and moral refuge devoid of “diversity”, “multiculturalism” and - God forbid- even the slightest notion of the “same-sex marriage.” Or so they think. Just like for more than 70 years the Communist International sought to bring everyone opposing “decadent” and “unfair” capitalist West under the warm Moscow wing, modern Russia, discerned Brian Whitmore, “will be a lodestone for the multitudes who oppose this trajectory.” Except for this time, observed Padraig Reidy of “Index on Censorship”, ”It would be a mistake to ascribe any value or ideology, even one as meagre as nostalgia, to the current Kremlin. President Putin’s regime is about power and money and absolutely nothing else. There is no Putinism. There is just gangsterism.”
Nevertheless, according to political analyst Alexander Morozov, Putin is “ready to make a giant world leap”. The Kremlin is working tirelessly to “Putinize” the world around to the maximum extent”, and the way of doing it actually mirrors the Comintern’s past techniques: it is “a system designed to work with ideologically sympathetic intellectuals and politicians” with a lot of help from politically-enhanced intelligence services. To achieve that goal, the state-run (“cooperation” with intelligence, anyone?) Russia Today channel received $250m in 2014 and this budget is likely to be shrinked down to $99.7m this year. Meanwhile, the BBC World Service is under the threat of drastic budget cuts that could compromise the Corporation’s ability to compete not only with Russia, but China and Qatar state-supported broadcasters worldwide. As for the work with politicians, the French Front National received a 9 million euro loan from the First Czech-Russian Bank in November 2014, reportedly as a sign of a “reward” for backing President Putin's annexation of Crimea.
Luckily, there are a few ways to tear this Potemkin Village masquerade down and witness Russian President’s tainted image in its full, albeit unholy, glory. As in the Soviet times, there are two domains that promote Russia and recalcitrant Mr. Putin as the last bulwarks of traditional values against dark forces of liberalism encroaching upon it: foreign and domestic realms. Let us start with the domestic ones.
According to the Centre For Strategic Communications - a Kremlin-linked think-tank, Putin “is the most influential world figure resisting the global onslaught of multiculturalism, radical feminism, and homosexuality, all foisted upon an unsuspecting world by the "ideological populism of the left.” As explained by Forbes’s contributor Mark Adomanis, a considerable part of Putin’s vigour is used to “highlight the difference between a decadent, declining Europe and a Russia that is confidently asserting “traditional moral values.” Much to the delight of the U.S. religious Conservatives, in 2013 the Russian Parliament passed a blasphemy law, making it criminal offence, punishable by three years, to offend "religious feelings”. In his 2013 state of the nation speech, Putin asserted that Russia would defend against “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance” which allow “good and evil” to be equal.
The truth is that for the many centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church has been forcibly used by the Russian state as an additional means of upholding the social order and strengthening the legitimacy of the government. Forbes’s Paul Coyer expounded that “The glue that holds together the alliance between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the one that more than any other explains their mutually-supporting actions, is their shared, sacralized vision of Russian national identity and exceptionalism - Russia, according to this vision, is neither Western nor Asian, but rather a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired.”
President Putin praised the Church for playing an “enormous formative role in preserving our rich cultural and historical heritage and in reviving eternal moral values”, but what about these moral values implemented on practice? Russia’s divorce rate stands at about 4.8 per 1 000 people, or more simply approximately 51% - hardly exceptional statistics given Mr. Putin’s staunch defence of traditional marriage. Russia’s child mortality rate stands at 7.08 per 1 000 live births, as opposed to 4.44 in the UK’s and 6.17 in the US. Moreover, the average life expectancy for men in Russia is just 64 years, ranking Russia among the lowest 50 countries in the world. Russia’s current minimum wage is about 6 000 roubles ($111 USD) per month, while the minimum cost of living per capita is around 8 234 roubles ($153). So much for calling Putin’s rule “a miracle”!
Meanwhile, according to Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few remaining independent newspapers, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, allegedly acquired about $4 billion (USD) during his Church tenure through the shadowy 1990s. The future leader of the Church facilitated the creation of two parallel humanitarian aid committees intertwining the government and the Church’s department of foreign relations, thus allowing the Church to participate in the foreign aid receipt (namely, tobacco) and then sell it to businesses, tax-free.
By the time Krill left this business, asserts Novaya Gazeta, Russian customs had cigarettes worth more than $50 million waiting for the further approval. Needless to say, all the hardships endured through selfless service acted as the same Church’s authorities’ forge for the soul (and pocketbooks) of everybody who preach modesty and restraint today. Mr. Putin himself is not a particular virtue of humility: Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, claimed that Russia’s President is worth $200 billion (USD). This surely raised Mr. Putin to a higher plane of being.
Thence comes the foreign policy apologists. The key unlocking the secret of Putin’s never-ending acclaim is not that difficult to find: as Christian Caryl of the Foreign Policy summed up, “If you hate America’s dominance in global affairs and all that goes with it (liberal economics, gay rights, endless reruns of The Simpsons), you’ll probably find something to love in the operative in the Kremlin.” Even the Conservative bench is not entirely devoid of the sense of love in the air: Matt Drudge called Putin “The leader of the free world” and Nigel Farage, among many other Conservatives such as Hungary’s Victor Orban, openly admired the Russian President for “outwitting” the West in the Syrian crisis, namely averting the armed intervention. Nevertheless, some of the leading political analysts claimed that Putin pursues his own selfish political agenda in Syria and had the West intervened much earlier, the country’s new administration would have restored the unity, avoided the expansion of the civil war and al-Qaeda-guided rebels would have been stopped way before they found a way to infiltrate the anti-government forces.
On the Left, Professor Stephen Cohen, who teaches Russian studies at both New York University and Princeton, is perhaps one of the glaring examples of what Lenin once described as “useful idiots”. Appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show in March 2, 2014, Mr. Cohen lapsed into his usual apologetic contortions and invidious convolutions: “Putin is not a thug. He's not a neo-Soviet imperialist who's trying to create - recreate the Soviet Union. He's not even anti-American.” Who is he, then? “What he is is [sic] intensely historically pro-Russian. He's been in power nearly 14 years. And his mission, as he sees it and many Russians see it, is to restore Russia from the disaster of 1991, the collapse of the Russian state.” So, that’s clear then…
All of this - diluting the conservative (small “c”) political and social creed with Putinesque gangsterism, buying Western leaders’ loyalty, holding the West as a civilization that suffers a crisis, albeit temporal, in utter contempt and offering corruption and defiance of the law does not bode well for Europe on both sides of the Atlantic. Lady Thatcher once warned that “Aggressors attack because they think they are going to win, and they are more likely to attack the weak than they are to attack the strong” - the scope of their relentless assault transcends usual political boundaries, tainting both spiritual and moral essence of the nations.
Vladimir Putin knows very well that it was the unity of the Western Alliance, emboldened by Ronald Reagan, Lady Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and countless others that forced the “Evil Empire” into submission and ultimately threw it into “the dustbin of history”. The challenge that the West faces today is essentially less daunting that it was in the last century, but much more sinister and dangerously deceptive. Only the same unending resolve that defeated Communism can herald victory once again.