I don’t share Romney’s view that the designation of Putin as Man of the Year is somehow “disgusting.” Let’s consider what he’s done and where he’s brought Russia.
Russia was a mess in the Nineties. Yeltsin was a drunk embarrassment. The entire country was demoralized, broke, weak, and lacking in self-respect. Ordinary Russians understandably wondered how they sunk so low so fast. Self-certain American advisers foisted free-market reforms that rewarded the Communist elites, well connected black-marketeers, and these reforms unwittingly created the notorious oligarchs.
Putin is, if nothing else, a strong leader. His very physique exudes this quality, as does his KGB past. He has restored pride in the country, dealt manfully with Islamic extremists in Russia and Chechnya, and reasserted Russia’s natural place in the world as a great power. He is immensely popular with his people, even though some of his reforms have been less-than-democratic. How can this be? Why do Russians want him now to be Prime Minister? The neoconservatives are confused. This is because Russians are a bit different from us, but they’re also normal human beings, with normal individual and collective desires: national strength, law and order, economic health, and contempt for get-rich-quick schemers. They are more comfortable than most Westerners with a strong hand because this is what they’re used to, and they’ve suffered under the weak rule of Yeltsin, whose tenure as a leader never matched his heroic moment in front of the Russian White House in 1991.
Putin is unpopular with the West because too many Westerners naively thought that we could always have a Yeltsin, a weak bought-and-paid-for lackey who would never do much to get his country on its feet. But there is a paradox. A strong and economically healthy Russia is also a Russia less likely to do something desperate, like invade its neighbors or threaten to lob a nuclear missile over Washington D.C. Russia would have been a natural partner in the war against Islamic terrorism, but Bush and his advisers’ commitment to democracy (i.e., the commitment to meddling in certain nations’ internal affairs) constantly burned this bridge. Instead of remaining aloof from events in Chechnya–a war against al Qaeda on Russian territory–we pretended this conflict had no relationship to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and proceeded to lecture the Russians on their conduct of the war. Today Chechen snipers continue to harass our forces in these campaigns. And Americans endure supercilious lectures from Europeans on every detail of our military operations.
Bush and Europe’s continued agitation of Russia–specifically by criticizing its internal affairs and through NATO’s military expansion into Russia’s backyard–is incredibly provocative and short-sighted. Nothing seems crazier than our support for the now rotten Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It is natural that Russia views its immediate neighbors as countries over whom it should have a certain amount of influence, just as America regards the Western Hemisphere as a natural sphere of influence. Can you imagine the justifiable outcry in America if Iran, Venezuela, or Russia tried to influence an election in Mexico? Yet we do so in Ukraine as if it were perfectly natural and unobjectionable.
Putin is no angel. There’s no doubt his supporters, either with his formal or tacit consent, have cracked down on opposition parties and critics in the journalistic community. These are not good things. But there are worse things. And they’re not really our business. Russia gave birth to dozens of billionaires in the Nineties whose only claim to fame was shrewdness and access to foreign capital. They undervalued the assets they managed for the Soviet State, bought them at artificially low prices at rigged auctions, and quickly traded their Communist Party cards for keys to Ferraris. Millions were impoverished. Private wealth did not trickle down, but was instead trucked off to New York and London. It was a pathetic spectacle, in light of Russian soldiers in the Nineties selling their boots and gear in Red Square for spending money. This wealth amassed when Russian girls were being tricked into working under slave conditions in whorehouses in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. It was notable how rich these guys were getting as 80 year old Russian women, whose pensions were wiped out by hair-brained economic reforms, sold cigarettes at the Metro stops to pay their rent. This is not the Russia we or the Russians should want.
Putin is hated by Western elites because he represents a strong, nationalist Russia. And lots of people–Germans, Americans, Poles, Jews–have a natural aversion to a strong Russia. After all, Russia’s record with internal minorities has been pretty abysmal, whether under the Tsars or the Soviets. Its record in foreign policy has also been fairly aggressive, though many of its wars have a realist rationale. But this is a different day; Russia has not indiscriminately cracked down on Jews, Gypsies, Tatars, Cossacks, or anyone else in Russia, other than on an individual level, such as in the prosecution of corrupt Yukos Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the crackdown on Chechen extremists. There is a long road from normal majority rule by Russians to the oppression of minorities, but this distinction is lost on fair-weather democratizers. For the average Westerner, Russia is seen, wrongly in my view, as an atavistic and uncivilized nation to be opposed at all costs. This is not fair, and, more important, this is an unwise manner of characterizing a strong nation that will demand to be respected one way or another.
Russia hopefully will find its voice in the world: a voice that is European, Christian, proud of itself, its culture, and its highly educated people. Putin is impressive to me as a type of Burkean reformer in the manner of a Napoleon or De Gaulle. In other words, he is trying to forge a healthy national identity among a people whose identity has been permanently altered by an ideological revolution. He has managed the transition from Communism by emphasizing that era’s patriotic aspects, technical achievements, and victory over the Nazis, while deemphasizing its concern for ideology and total state control of society. At the same time, Putin has restored respect for the Old Russia, the Orthodox religion, the historical Russian identity, and the traditionally expansive authority of the Russian State. America should encourage this development in a tone of mutual respect, rather than hectoring Russian leaders with abstractions like free markets and democracy, especially considering the recent history of such advice in the Nineties.
A true nationalist does not wish harm to other nations. Patriotism is not a zero-sum game. Nationalists and Patriots the world over recognize the corrupting influence of homogenization and globalization. Whether in the guise of NATO, the EU, “democratization,” or short-sighted American interference with internal affairs, all of these are potentially a threat to national cultures and their distinctive peoples. I want to see Russia evolve in a natural and independent direction. I would like the same respect from them. But how can I or any American ask for such respect when we view it as our role to be the Nanny State to the world, dispensing unwanted and often bad advice wrapped in veiled threats of retaliation.