Putin and Russia’s Anti-Westernism
EFD Fellow Anna Borshchevskaya explains how Putin blames the West for Russia's problems and his authoritarian suppression is justified by the need to protect Russia from perceived external enemies.
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Decades later, this is an apt description of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin blames the West for Russia’s problems, and justifies his authoritarian crackdown with the need to protect Russia from perceived external enemies. His latest pronouncement of this view came on October 1. “We see that other countries try to use their dominant position in the global information space for reaching not only economic, but political-military aims,” he said during a Russian National Security Council meeting.
Behind Putin’s finger-pointing to the West is a conviction that active dissent in Russia, and in similar authoritarian states, cannot occur on its own. Only with outside assistance could the people rebel against the autocrat. Putin is mediocre, and cannot look beyond his authoritarian worldview. He cannot imagine that people themselves, on their own free will, would choose to organize a protest and demand an accountable government.
Indeed, Putin blamed the West for the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine which sprung as a result of government corruption and brought about a democratic breakthrough. “Putin sincerely believes that ‘Orange Revolutions’ in Ukraine were instigated by the US State Department and that Kiev’s Association Agreement with the European Union is an EU conspiracy to take dominance of Ukraine,” said one Russian political analyst in September 2004, “He hates the West for it…”
The Orange Revolution scared Putin. He has been determined to prevent uprisings in Russia ever since. Indeed, the Arab Spring had a similar effect on Putin. I wrote about this in 2011. At the time, Russian media began to actively drive home the message that revolutions tend to bring about “chaos,” whether in Ukraine, in the Middle East, or elsewhere. Similarly, Russian state media has been bombarding Russian viewers with the message that the West is responsible for unrest in Ukraine since protests broke out there in February 2014 after the-then President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, and moved closer to Russia instead. Most recently, Russian state media described pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as also orchestrated by the West.
Russia has a long tradition of blaming the West for its problems. It did not originate with Putin, or even with the Soviet Union. Even in tsarist times it was common in Russia to point to the West during times of domestic or foreign policy woes even as Western countries often allied with Russia and Western experts historically contributed to Russia’s development.
In this context, Putin’s anti-Western propaganda appears to resonate well within the Russian population. I doubt that this is sustainable in the long run, particularly as the Russian economy keeps going downhill. To give a few examples, Russia scholar and economist Anders Åslund wrote in April 2014 that Russia’s economy is too weak to wage wars. Russia’s own finance minister Anton Siluanov said this week that Russia cannot afford to carry out a multi-billion-dollar armed forces project Putin had approved earlier.
As the economy continues to deteriorate, no amount of blaming the West will eventually be enough. Indeed, during Soviet times, no amount of murders and lies about foreign conspiracies could conceal forever the massive failures of the Soviet system. Ultimately, Russia’s people understood that the Soviet system was to blame, not foreigners. Since the Soviet Union fell, Russians have travelled, seen the world, and have been exposed to different viewpoints. Indeed, Putin’s approval ratings prior to annexation of Crimea had been at their lowest. They skyrocketed only afterwards.
Putin will not be around forever. Indeed, if there is one thing that the Arab Spring has shown, is that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable. But this is the long view. Right now it is small consolation.
The article was originally published here.