A killer or a hero, a pariah or the world’s most powerful man, a war criminal or a “gift of God”; Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and fascinating world leaders of his time.
Usually when I tell people that I like Putin, they look at me with a pitying smile, thinking to themselves that I am a victim of Kremlin propaganda. I bet they imagine that every classroom in Russia has an overbearing picture of the President hung above the blackboard and that each day begins with a song of praise to Vladimir Putin. Well, I would hardly know if this was the case (although I am quite sure that it is not) for I went to a school in the UK, and hence, if I have been subjected to any kind of propaganda, it is mainly Western. In fact, I left Russia as an opponent of Putin, but my experience abroad has turned me into his most fervent supporter. Allow me to explain why I, along with more than 80% of Russians, approve of the job he has done for our country.
When Putin came to power, Russia was facing one of the greatest peacetime economic depressions in modern history- its GDP per capita was less than that of Thailand and Gabon- and it was in danger of being sidelined in international affairs. It had lost a huge amount of territory, millions of people, and its superpower status overnight through the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy in the 1990s was in ruin. Putin tried to address this by investing in infrastructural improvement and trying to convert the Russian economy from one focused on commodity exports to a more innovative economy. By the end of his second term of presidency, the Russian economy was the tenth largest in the world, an ‘economic miracle’ which the West keenly attributed to booming oil prices.
Undoubtedly, Russia was one of the major beneficiaries of the commodity price boom, but for the first time in a decade, oil revenues ‘trickled down’ to ordinary people instead of accumulating in the hands of oligarchs (like the West’s favourite Khodorkovsky), which in turn fuelled a consumption boom. Indeed, one of the reasons as to why Putin is so popular in Russia is that he made the oligarchs, who built their empires on looted state property after the collapse of the Soviet Union, act in socially responsible ways, for example, financing the Sochi Olympics. Indeed, Putin’s economic policy allowed Russia to sail through the stormy times of post-sanctions recession, with 2017 expected to finally bring economic growth (despite low oil prices). Not only that, but Russia’s farmers are asking for sanctions not to be lifted, for in 2016, Russia became the world’s biggest exporter of grain for the first time in decades, the top producer of beet sugar, and completely self-sufficient in terms of pork and poultry production.
When Putin inherited Russia, she was at the periphery of international politics, with ‘new world order’ having been shaped while she was too weak to play a part in shaping it. Putin wanted to assert Russia as an independent actor in international affairs whilst striving to ‘normalise’ her relations with the rest of the world. Matthew Sussex, an expert on Russian foreign policy, asserts that the nature of Russia’s quest for great power status has remained the same from Gorbachev to Putin; the main difference arising from Russia’s strengthened material capabilities, which have equipped her to demand recognition more assertively. Indeed, it was not Putin who invented the rhetoric of the need to protect ethnic Russians in the ‘near abroad’; this narrative was already present in the Foreign Policy Concept under Boris Yeltsin. You may be surprised to learn that in his early years of presidency, Putin wished for Russia to join NATO and was even prepared to accept American hegemony, but the sense of disenchantment grew as Russia’s worldviews were discounted and no attempt was made to change existing structures to reflect the new realities of post-Cold War world.
You must understand that the 1990s left a powerful imprint in the Russian psyche. It was a catastrophic and turbulent time, rife with corruption and crime. Russians opened their hearts to Western ideals of democracy and free market trade, but they quickly realised that the West was not about to welcome them into their exclusive ‘club’ and they felt betrayed and humiliated. Putin restored Russia’s pride, ‘raised Russia up from its knees’, and that in itself is a sufficient reason to support him.
Many Western commentators see the ‘Putin problem’ as the cause of the deterioration of relations between Russia and the US, among other world ills. However, according to Morgenthau, it is characteristic of primitive thinking to identify a single individual as the source of evil and to believe that one can solve the problem by eliminating or removing this individual from power. Indeed, recent opinion polls show that most Russians share Putin’s visions, including his view of the West
Therefore, the West does not have a ‘Putin problem’; it has a ‘Russia problem’, and it will continue to have one until it is prepared to treat Russia as a sovereign great power, with its own strategic interests and its own path to democracy.