Vladimir Putin is probably the most popular Russian leader there has ever been, polling up around a phenomenal 80% as recently as November 2015 in a study carried out by a team of American researchers. This makes him inarguably the most popular world leader today, though you would think the opposite given the way he’s routinely depicted and demonized in the West.
Paradoxically, the main reason for Putin’s popularity in Russia is the same reason he’s so reviled in the US and Western Europe. It comes down to the simple but salient fact that when it comes to leadership and political nous Vladimir Putin is playing chess while his counterparts in London, Washington, and Paris are playing chequers.
This is not to ascribe to the Russian leader the moral virtues of Nelson Mandela or the humanitarian instincts of Mahatma Gandhi. But neither is he the caricature regularly and vehemently described in the UK and US media. Putin is not a villain straight from a Bond movie, sitting in a spooky castle somewhere in deepest Russia planning and plotting world domination. For that kind of ‘Masters of the Universe’ malarkey you need to take yourself to the White House in Washington, or maybe CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. No, the Russian President is a man who knows his enemy better than they know themselves, and who understands and has imbibed the truth of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s statement that, “If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.”
What those Western ideologues and members of the liberal commentariat who’ve been lining up to attack him in their newspaper columns fail to appreciate, not to mention the army of the authors who’ve been churning out books painting Putin as a latter day Genghis Khan, is the deep scars left on the Russian psyche by the country’s exposure to freedom and democracy Western-style upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein lays it out in forensic detail in her peerless work, The Shock Doctrine (Penguin, 2007). The impact of free market shock therapy on Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Klein describes thus: “In the absence of major famine, plague or battle, never have so many lost so much in so short a time. By 1998 more than 80 percent of Russian farms had gone bankrupt, and roughly seventy thousand state factories had closed, creating an epidemic of unemployment. In 1989, before shock therapy, 2 million people in the Russian Federation were living in poverty, on less than $4 a day. By the time the shock therapists had administered their ‘bitter medicine’ in the mid-nineties, 74 million Russians were living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.”
Klein also reveals that by 1994 the Russian suicide rate had doubled and violent crime increased fourfold.
Given the devastation wrought on the Russian economy and society by Western free market gurus and their Russian disciples during that awful period, the country’s recovery to the point where it is now able to contest and resist Washington-led unipolarity where before it existed unchecked, has to count as a staggering achievement.
Putin rose to power in Russia on the back of his role in violently suppressing the Chechen uprising, which began amid the chaos of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. It was a brutal and bloody conflict in which atrocities were undoubtedly committed, as they are in every conflict, until the uprising was finally crushed and Moscow’s writ restored. The former KGB officer was thrust into the spotlight as a key member of Boris Yeltsin’s team thereafter, viewed as a safe pair of hands, which propelled him onto the political stage and his first stint as president in 2000, when he was elected for the first time.
Since then Putin has worked to restore the Russian economy along with its sense of national pride and prestige on the world stage. The loss of that prestige as a result of the demise of the Soviet era had a cataclysmic effect on social cohesion in a country that had long prided itself on its achievements, especially its role in defeating the Nazis in the Second World War.
The new Russian president is credited with returning the country to its former status as a respected power that can’t and won’t be bullied by the West. The attempt to use Georgia as a cat’s paw in 2008 was swiftly dealt with, and so has the attempt to do likewise with Ukraine in 2014. All this baloney about Putin having expansionist aims is an attempt to throw a smokescreen over the West’s own expansionist agenda in Eastern Europe with the goal of throwing a cordon sanitaire around Russia in pursuit of a cold war agenda.
Russia’s current game changing role in the Middle East, along with China’s ferocious economic growth and growing influence, is proof that the days of unipolarity and uncontested Western hegemony are drawing to a close. This more than any other factor lies at the root of the irrational Russophobia being peddled so passionately in the West.
The most populous country in Europe is not and never will be a Western colony or semi colony. For those Western ideologues that cannot conceive of any relationship with Russia other than as a deadly or defeated foe, accepting this reality is a non-negotiable condition of achieving a semblance of stability and peace in the world.
While Vladimir Putin and his government are not beyond criticism – in fact, far from it – their misdeeds pale in comparison to the record of Western governments in destroying one country after the other in the Middle East, presiding over a global economy that has sown nothing but misery and despair for millions at home and abroad, leading in the last analysis to the normalization of crisis and chaos.
Their deeds, as the man said, would shame all the devils in hell.
John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1