Putin Attacks Democracy to Cover Up the Costs of Autocracy
Reflections on the Putin-Biden Summit
Liberalism is “obsolete,” and liberal democracy has “outlived its purpose,” Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in a 2019 interview with the Financial Times, just before the G20 meetings in Osaka. The “liberal idea” brings lawlessness, and its core ideas, like multiculturalism, are morally bankrupt: “Migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”
Fast forward two years, to the meeting of Putin and American President Joe Biden in Geneva. Another appointment with the international media, another opportunity to depict liberal democracies as sites of social collapse and destabilization. In Putin’s telling, the “looting and violations and riots” brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement make America more dangerous than ever.
Pointedly, Putin asserted at the summit that the U.S. had “declared Russia as its enemy and adversary.” Reminding Russian audiences that America constitutes a threat to Russian security was Putin’s most important point in Geneva, and it has always been his alibi -- a narrative that excuses any lawless Russian behavior his people may hear about, from cyberterrorism to election interference and more.
As Putin has built his kleptocracy, twinning political repression with state-sanctioned theft of national resources, so has he posed, with the aid of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a defender of “traditional values.” The more he has used illegal means to stay in power and enrich himself, imprisoning the pro-democratic opposition and seizing tens of thousands of private businesses, the more he’s had to use scare tactics to convince Russians that there is no alternative to his autocratic brand of governance.
Thus, it’s not Russia, but “Euro-Atlantic” countries that reject “the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization.” Just months before his 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin told Russians that liberal democracy was the greatest force of evil in the contemporary world, leading to “retrogression, barbarism, and much blood … movements backward and downward, to the chaotic darkness, a return to the primitive condition.”
The racialized language Putin uses has always been a selling point for the far-right politicians and movements around the world who see him as their ally. Putin addressed this global right, as well as Russians, when he vowed in Geneva to “do anything possible” to make sure nothing similar to Black Lives Matter would ever “develop on Russian soil.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is correct to warn that Putin should not be underestimated. The Russian president has solid support from Russians at home, a nuclear arsenal, and a sophisticated machine of international propaganda.
Biden’s goal for the summit may have been to let Putin know that “we need some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” but Biden and Putin are on two different roads. “Putin no longer desires cooperation with the West or even a respected place within the liberal international order,” McFaul concludes. “Rather, he seeks the destruction of that U.S-led order.” Moreover, like most strongmen, Putin is unpredictable. Energized by chaos and risk-taking, he may act more, rather than less, aggressively post-summit.
We may also see an uptick in rogue behavior because although Putin's brand as a strongman is that "he does whatever the hell he wants," as Peter Pomerantsev puts it, his tone in Geneva was not that of a victor in the democracy-autocracy wars, but of someone on the defensive. No wonder he had no answer when ABC News’ Rachel Scott, citing the sorry fates of Putin's political opponents, asked, “Mr. President, what are you so afraid of?” No wonder he must poison, kill, buy off, blackmail, and threaten his enemies at home, and hack America's cyber, election, and energy infrastructures.
Putin knows that mass protest against tyranny is on the rise all over the world, and that younger generations are joining demonstrations that a 2020 report calls “historically unprecedented in frequency, scope and size.” He knows that those generations are active in Russia and are skilled at getting media attention for their causes. There is the teenage activist Olga Misik, who in 2019 read the country’s Constitution in public, surrounded by riot police, to remind Russians of their rights (this got her convicted of “vandalism” in May 2021).
There is the political activist Yegor Zhukov, who was accused by Putin’s government of “extremism” for advocating nonviolent protest. “Autocracy aims to destroy anyone who actually wants to work for the benefit of the homeland, who isn't scared to love and take responsibility," Zhukov stated at his 2019 courtroom sentencing. From using repression against political rivals, to amending the Russian Constitution to stay in office potentially until 2036, Putin has had to game the system to continue to dominate.
“There’s already a cult … but there’s no personality,” went the joke about the Russian president that circulated during his first term. Yet there’s nothing funny about this empty shell of a man who mobilizes his propaganda apparatus around the idea of liberal democracy’s destructiveness to cover up the massive loss of Russian resources from his repression and theft.
The best assessment of Putin and his brand of “diplomacy” comes from an individual who has defended democracy throughout her career as German Chancellor: Angela Merkel. “I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man,” Merkel told journalists in 2007 after Putin tried to gain the upper hand in a negotiation by unleashing his dog to trigger her fear of canines. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”