As journalists and other members of the media try to understand the situation in Crimea, they are increasingly attempting to get inside the head of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But are they succeeding?
Putin in his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexei Druzhinin
The tensions around Crimea have once again put Russian President Vladimir Putin’s views and behaviors into the spotlight. Last week, Putin’s address on Crimea resulted in both Russian and foreign journalists once again trying to understand his psychology, values, outlook and inner world for some clue as to what comes next in Ukraine.
Putin’s disenchantment with the West
Putin is driven by perceptions of a long-standing insult from the West, who, according to him, betrayed Russia several times in the 2000s and didn’t want to see Moscow as an equal partner, Mikhail Zygar, Editor-in-Chief of Dozhd TV, a liberal television channel, argues in his column for Vedomosti.
He compared Putin’s recent address on Crimea with his previous statements beginning with the 2000s and concluded that the Russian president’s tough stance toward the West has been consistent. It’s a result of a series of disappointments, as Putin saw them, in his Western counterparts who kept expanding NATO in East Europe and also rejected efforts to extradite Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and one of the Chechen separatist leaders, Akhmed Zakayev, who fled to London.
“The behavior of former friends Putin saw as hypocritical – and he has kept rebuking them for it,” Zygar wrote. “The fact that Americans and Europeans don’t see him as an equal has always infuriated him and he has always made no bones about it.”
The journalist points out Putin’s political consistency over the years, but at the same time, he warns against some subtle and controversial shifts in the Russian leader’s policy toward dissenters.
Zygar recalls Putin’s 2007 interview with Time when he expressed his deep respect to those “disinterested” and “honest” people who disagreed with the Russian leadership. Yet, in his recent speech, Putin seems to warn against “the fifth column” and “national betrayers” – liberal journalists and members of the opposition - instead of hailing them as respected and decent persons.
“Once disappointed, Putin is delving deeply in his disappointment after a number of years,” Zygar concludes.
Likewise, Russian political expert and journalist Stanislav Belkovsky points to Putin’s feelings of disappointment and sense that Russia has been unjustly treated.
In his column for Colta.ru, an independent Internet media outlet, he describes Putin as a decent and honest person who firmly sticks to principles and a special code of behavior. And any diversion from this code is regarded as unacceptable and as an unforgivable betrayal.
“Putin has always behaved decently,” he wrote. “Decency is a key concept for him. Unfortunately, it is not political but common to all mankind. Betrayal is commonplace in politics, which is such a schizophrenic field.”
At the same time, Georgy Boft, another prominent Russian journalist, sees Putin’s sticking to such a code of behavior as dangerous for the world’s stability and warns against the negative consequences of such logic. In such turbulent circumstances, other rules may appear as a result of this logic that lead to conflict and even war.
While pointing to the U.S. and NATO-led military intervention in Kosovo and Libya, Boft argues in his columns for Gazeta.ru, a liberal Russian media outlet, that Putin’s world vision is a result of not only his Soviet background, but also his previous experience with “our Western partners.”
“Putin is fed up with playing in accordance with these double rules,” Boft wrote. “The loss of Ukraine… is a crash of [his] mission. It is a catastrophic civilization failure for Russia, as the Kremlin sees it. In these consequences, Crimea’s annexation is partial moral compensation.”
The potential impact of Putin’s views on Russia’s foreign policy
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Kommersant-Vlast magazine publishes an interview with Angela Stent, a prominent expert in U.S.-Russia relations from Georgetown University. While pointing out the danger of increasing the NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, she calls for more U.S.-Russia cooperation in the fields of mutual interests such as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan.
Stent believes that U.S.-Russia differences over Crimea and Ukraine should not be a game-changer in Moscow-Washington relations: The working relations between countries should remain open. At the same time, she regrets that the Ukraine crisis has resulted in a tug-of-war rivalry between Russian and the U.S. and tries to shed light on the roots of the Cold War-style confrontation: While Russia is reluctant to see Ukraine integrated into the EU and NATO, the U.S. seeks Ukraine’s independence to decrease its ties with Russia.
Shifting from anti-Russian rhetoric to criticism of Putin
The foreign media shifted its criticism to Putin and his perception of the world order.
According to The Economist, Putin destroyed the current post-Soviet world order and dressed up his annexation of Crimea “in the garb of international law, arguing for instance that the ousting of the government in Kiev means he is no longer bound by a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders that Russia signed in 1994, when Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons.” The magazine argues that Putin’s new order is founded on “revanchism" and "the twisting of the law to mean whatever suits those in power.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times gives a voice to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul who proposes to deal with Russia through “a policy of selective containment and engagement” in terms of the new world order.
McFaul makes no bones about the danger of what he refers to as “Putinism”: “In addition to more autocracy, Mr. Putin needed an enemy — the United States — to strengthen his legitimacy. His propagandists rolled out clips on American imperialism, immoral practices and alleged plans to overthrow the Putin government. As the ambassador in Moscow, I was often featured in the leading role in these works of fiction.”
While criticizing Putin and renewed Russian nationalism, McFaul calls for a democratic struggle with autocracy by isolating Russia’s current regime. At the same time, he admits that the U.S. and Russia should and can cooperate “when our vital interests overlap” as it was “during World War II and the Cold War.”
“We cannot say how long the current autocratic government in Russia will endure,” the former Ambassador and current Stanford professor concludes. “But a sober, realistic strategy to confront this new threat will help to shorten the tragic era we just entered.”
The Washington Post’s columnist Dana Milbank sees Putin’s address on Crimea and its referendum as “a serious statement on the limits of U.S. power in the 21st century.”
“Russia perpetrated the first annexation of one European country’s territory by another since World War II — and its leaders literally scoffed at U.S. objections and sanctions,” he wrote.
His colleague Charles Krauthammer is more decisive and firm in his response to Putin’s policy in Crimea. He warns against Russia expanding further, such as by going beyond Crimea to take eastern Ukraine.
“Show him some seriousness, Mr. President,” he addresses Barack Obama in his column. He proposes sending “the secretary of defense to Kiev tomorrow to negotiate military assistance” and renewing the missile-defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic as well as announcing a new policy of major U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas.
How you see Putin is how you see Ukraine
One of the trends in the coverage of the events in Ukraine is a decision by the media to focus selectively on violence in different regions of Ukraine. While foreign media tend to cover violence in Crimea’s Simferopol, their Russian counterparts point to unrest and violence in Ukraine’s capital.
For example, The Economist’s article points out the unlawful seizures of pro-Ukrainian protesters who took to the street to express their indignation about Crimea’s Mar. 16 referendum. According to the story that describes the fate of several tortured protesters, all these mysterious incidents highlight “the undertow of thuggery and violence that has tugged at Crimea since Russia sent its troops into the region in the wake of the February revolution.”
“A number of reporters have been beaten by “self-defense” forces,” The Economist claims. “Some Maidan activist have been abducted. … Some now fear Crimea will see the kind of anarchic carve-up of property and business that plagued Russia in the 1990s.”
Meanwhile, Russian radio station Echo of Moscow describes flagrant violence and crime in post-Maidan Kiev, even comparing the city with 1930s Chicago. According to a blog published at the radio station’s website, increasing crime and lawlessness are becoming commonplace after the Maidan revolutions, with many humiliated, robbed, intimidated and, perhaps, even killed.
“Today Kiev can indeed be compared with 1930s Chicago, when the level of crime was exceeding all records and street murder was commonplace,” Anton Dmitriev, a civil society activist, reported from Kiev in his blog at Echo of Moscow.
The blogger points to the fear of people going out on the street at night. He accuses Ukraine’s current authorities of a lack of action and coherent domestic policy. He argues that they craved power, got it and, subsequently, forgot about the needs and security of ordinary people whose lives are now endangered by criminals.