The more that the West attempts to back Putin into a corner, the more he will be able to consolidate Russian public support for his policies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, Feb. 3, 2016. Photo: AP
The recent wave of attacks on President Vladimir Putin breaks new ground in the West’s efforts to demonize the Russian leader. Last week, for example, the British judge Robert Owen issued a verdict that Putin “probably approved” the assassination of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko.
Then, on top of that, the BBC released the documentary “Putin’s Secret Riches,” in which a U.S. Treasury official stated that Putin is corrupt because he enriches his friends. White House spokesperson John Ernest then backed the statement. Never before has the U.S. government so openly accused Putin of corruption.
As always, the U.S. media has been on the front line of Putin bashing. In reaction to the Litvinenko verdict, The Washington Post wondered whether Western government officials should even continue to “meet with Mr. Putin as if he is just another head of state.”
The Western attacks on the Russian leader are not directly related to the “sudden” discovery of Putin’s political economy system. The way it works has been known and studied in details for years.
Nor are the attacks related to the United States’ domestic politics, as the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and several Russian analysts suggested.
The logic here is that in the upcoming presidential race Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate and the harsh critic of the Russian president, is likely to face the Putin sympathizer Republican Donald Trump and that the White House seeks to strengthen Clinton and weaken Trump.
Although there are signs that the White House is supportive of Hillary, there are no signs that Democrats fear Trump. Even if he wins the Republican nomination, the opposition from powerful ethnic communities will bury his chances to win the White House.
The attempts to demonize Putin are likely to reflect frustrations with him not acting as expected by the West. Instead of quietly resigning, as Vice President Joe Biden recommended during his Moscow trip in spring 2011, Putin returned as Russia’s President, further centralized the system, incorporated Crimea, and intervened in Eastern Ukraine.
In the contemporary context, the coordinated attacks on Putin seem to seek to undermine his attempts to consolidate new ground in Syria and Ukraine, thereby unraveling the West-centered international order.
In Syria, Russia has succeeded in changing the balance of power in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s favor, reinforcing him in the fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and a militant opposition. Western plans to have Assad replaced are no longer realistic.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin remains firm in not deviating from the Minsk agreement, according to which the border with Ukraine will be secured after a constitutional reform and a political dialogue with rebellious provinces, and not before any serious political changes as Kiev and its Western patrons want.
More than anything else, the attacks on Putin betray the belief of Biden and Russia strategists in the government (as well as many within the West) that sanctions have crippled the Russian economy sufficiently to negotiate major concessions from the Kremlin. During 2015, the Russian economy posted GDP growth of negative 3.7 percent and is not showing signs of a quick recovery.
In order to make the Kremlin re-think its position, the West has ratcheted up pressures. NATO has supported Turkey in its accusation that a Russian military plane violated Turkish border. No proof of such violation has been provided. The Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond accused Russia of carving out an Alawite mini-state in Syria and strengthening Assad, instead of fighting ISIS.
The United States has introduced new sanctions against “corrupt” Russian officials and is planning a fourfold increase of the budget for military needs in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has met with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and agreed with him that the EU sanctions against Russia must stay due to lack of progress with implementing the Minsk agreement.
These pressures are not likely to work. Rather, they will serve to exacerbate the already high level tensions with Russia. Russia may be weakening, but far from down. It is simply too large, too complex, and too proud to submit to foreign pressures. Such pressures will serve to further consolidate the historically powerful image of the Western threat making the Kremlin more paranoid and the public more supportive of Putin.
Attempts to corner Putin cannot be successful because it is not all about him. Russia has historically demonstrated that it cooperates with other nations from a position of equality or strength, not weakness. When its values and interests are denied, Russia fights back or retreats into a temporary isolation. Knowing Putin, one can expect the former, not the latter.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.