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How to Think About Vladimir Putin

Christopher Caldwell
Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard


Christopher CaldwellChristopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. A graduate of Harvard College, his essays, columns, and reviews appear in the Claremont Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Book Review, the Spectator (London), Financial Times, and numerous other publications. He is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, and is at work on a book about post-1960s America.



Democrats have gone to extraordinary lengths to discredit Putin. Why? There really is such a thing as a Zeitgeist or spirit of the times. A given issue will become a passion for all mankind, and certain men will stand as symbols of it. Half a century ago, for instance, the Zeitgeist was about colonial liberation. Think of Martin Luther King, traveling to Norway to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, stopping on the way in London to give a talk about South African apartheid. What did that have to do with him? Practically: Nothing. Symbolically: Everything. It was an opportunity to talk about the moral question of the day.

We have a different Zeitgeist today. Today it is sovereignty and self-determination that are driving passions in the West. The reason for this has a great deal to do with the way the Cold War conflict between the United States and Russia ended. In the 1980s, the two countries were great powers, yes; but at the same time they were constrained. The alliances they led were fractious. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, their fates diverged. The United States was offered the chance to lay out the rules of the world system, and accepted the offer with a vengeance. Russia was offered the role of submitting to that system.

Just how irreconcilable those roles are is seen in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine two years ago. According to the official United States account, Russia invaded its neighbor after a glorious revolution threw out a plutocracy. Russia then annexed Ukrainian naval bases in the Crimea. According to the Russian view, Ukraine’s democratically elected government was overthrown by an armed uprising backed by the United States. To prevent a hostile NATO from establishing its own naval base in the Black Sea, by this account, Russia had to take Crimea, which in any case is historically Russian territory. Both of these accounts are perfectly correct. It is just that one word can mean something different to Americans than it does to Russians. For instance, we say the Russians don’t believe in democracy. But as the great journalist and historian Walter Laqueur put it, “Most Russians have come to believe that democracy is what happened in their country between 1990 and 2000, and they do not want any more of it.”

The point with which I would like to conclude is this: we will get nowhere if we assume that Putin sees the world as we do. One of the more independent thinkers about Russia in Washington, D.C., is the Reaganite California congressman Dana Rohrabacher. I recall seeing him scolded at a dinner in Washington a few years ago. A fellow guest told him he should be ashamed, because Reagan would have idealistically stood up to Putin on human rights. Rohrabacher disagreed. Reagan’s gift  as a foreign policy thinker, he said, was not his idealism. It was his ability to set priorities, to see what constituted the biggest threat. Today’s biggest threat to the U.S. isn’t Vladimir Putin.

So why are people thinking about Putin as much as they do? Because he has become a symbol of national self-determination. Populist conservatives see him the way progressives once saw Fidel Castro, as the one person who says he won’t submit to the world that surrounds him. You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.

In the same way, Putin’s conduct is bound to win sympathy even from some of Russia’s enemies, the ones who feel the international system is not delivering for them. Generally, if you like that system, you will consider Vladimir Putin a menace. If you don’t like it, you will have some sympathy for him. Putin has become a symbol of national sovereignty in its battle with globalism. That turns out to be the big battle of our times. As our last election shows, that’s true even here.