How Will History Judge Putin?

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How Will History Judge Putin?
Published 15-10-2012, 07:33

Vladimir Putin, who celebrated his 60th birthday last weekend, will without doubt go down in history as an extraordinary leader. While consistently enjoying high levels of approval at home (certainly by Western standards), he has been the target of much vilification in the West and, more recently, by a small but vocal opposition comprised mainly of urban, Western-minded citizens. The explanation for this apparent dichotomy is rather simple.

On the one hand, Putin has presided over Russia’s spectacular regeneration after its precipitous decline in the wake of Soviet implosion. Under his rule, Russia has experienced rapid economic growth and a massive improvement in living standards – achievements that had been elusive not only during the Soviet era but also during the 1990s. 

On the other hand, the impact of a regeneration of this kind was bound to cause headaches in the West. And given Russia’s natural wealth and its pre-eminent position in resource-rich Central Eurasia, it was inevitable that such headaches would quickly lead to much more serious concerns. For a while it had looked as if the West, by enlisting Moscow as its close ally under Yeltsin, might succeed in de facto claiming Russia for itself – along with its immense assets. But then in came Putin, who quickly saw through the West’s "great game" plan and swiftly put paid to it by establishing state sovereignty and "great power" equality as non-negotiable values. Hence the opprobrium from the West. 

It is very easy to criticize Putin and belittle his achievements on numerous counts. Of course, the economy has benefited from strong hydrocarbons prices (which, however, also proved a severe drawback in 2009). And yes, he has displayed "authoritarian tendencies", especially in suppressing Western influence, to which he at times appears unreasonably allergic. But while his Western counterparts have driven their economies into the ground, Putin has engineered the opposite. Today’s Russia is able to look forward to steady economic growth of the kind that the West can only dream about. Moreover, its democracy, while still immature, is arguably more stable than that of some countries that have been happily accepted into the Western fold. 

However, there is arguably one very serious mistake that Putin has made. His very success as "father of the new Russia" means the country’s fortunes are unhealthily dependent on his persona. Worse still, his return to the presidency has forestalled the triumph of the Constitution as the supreme pillar of Russia’s modern statehood. By failing to respect the spirit of the basic law, Putin risks undermining his considerable achievements to date and ultimately failing in what he clearly sees as his mission– namely to re-integrate the former Soviet space on a democratic and market economy footing. Indeed, Putin’s personalization of the presidency has been one of the main triggers for the recent wave of anti-regime demonstrations. 

Will Putin go down in history as the founder of a modern and successful Russia able to reintegrate Central Eurasia through its economic and soft power? 
Or will he be seen as a leader who might have succeeded in such a project had he not fallen victim to the delusion of indispensability? 

The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor, New York University, Prague  

Expert Panel Contributions

Sergei Roy
Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News

Frankly, I would be chary of judging Putin sub specie aeternitatis, except perhaps for mouthing some bromide like: A hundred years hence, schools of thought on the subject will be as many as there will be historians, and new findings and schools will be cropping up all the time, for that is the way with historians.

Popular mythology is also a pretty fickle dame. A view of Lenin expressed in a story by Fazil Iskander - One Who Meant Well But Died Too Early - still has some currency, Red Terror and annihilation of whole classes safely forgotten. "There was Order under Stalin" is also a firmly rooted legend. 

The closer to our times, the more colorful the myths/memories. A word association game would presumably produce some such results: Khrushchev: maize sown all over the place. Brezhnev: five Gold Stars, Stability/stagnation, Sausage at 2.20. Andropov: Andropovka (cheap vodka). Gorbachev: anti-alcohol campaign, dermokratiya ("shitocracy"), country goes to hell. Yeltsin: alkie, oligarchs, accursed nineties. Putin? "Bump them [terrorists] off in latrines," but I would not bet on it. He is still with us, very much alive, any formula would be dicey.

So, leaving the future judgment of History and Mythology aside, I would reformulate the question as follows: What has Putin achieved to date for him to claim a prominent place in history? That is an issue on which I hold a pretty definite opinion, one that I'd be prepared to defend against any criticism.

Sure, Putin's efforts to change the West-Russia relations, his striving to regain Russia's sovereignty and its clout on the international arena are important, and he is given his due on these counts. However, more important in my view is the fact that he, or rather the forces of which he was the figurehead (though indubitably much more than a figurehead) stopped the inertia of disintegration that continued to work in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It will not be too bold to say that Putin saved Russia, or what was left of historical Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

There is a tendency to forget these days that at the time of Yeltsin's withdrawal from power the regional barons, especially in the ethnic republics, had little concern for the sovereignty of Russia and very definitely aspired for a bit of sovereignty for themselves. Chechnya was merely an extreme expression of that tendency, bloodily biting off much more than it could chew, let alone swallow. Tatarstan, too, had visions of its own statehood independent and separate from Russia - though more Tatars lived throughout the rest of Russia than in Tatarstan, and a few thousand miles separated its territory from the nearest border. There was also talk of a Urals Republic only nominally associated with the federal Center. Other examples abound, all the way down to godforsaken Tuva, of which the principal industry appears to be guttural singing.

All this has a direct and vital bearing on West-Russia relations where Putin figures so prominently and, in Western eyes, unforgivably. The West would not be able to swallow Russia as a whole entity, but chunk by chunk? Easily, especially as the rulers of the various regions were only too eager to "integrate" in the West by secreting their ill-gained wealth in Western banks, by sending their children to be educated overseas, and by buying property there. Such property was in general a pleasant thing to have but also very handy as a well-feathered nest to escape to in case of trouble back home - and back home could go to the dogs, for all they cared. Compradors will be compradors. 

It is a well-attested fact that, before Putin, regional assemblies were brazenly ignoring federal laws and Russia's Constitution and passed, on a massive scale, their own laws directly contravening the former. Putin put a stop to that. The federal districts that he instituted were not envisaged in the Constitution and were generally criticized for being a bit of a fifth wheel in a cart, but they did achieve one vitally important result: as an instrument of supervision over local laws, they reversed this disintegrative legislative process. 

Of course, putting a stop to de facto disintegrative tendencies is a much more difficult endeavor and is sure to take much longer. Consider just one, tiny example: in little Adygeya, where there live more than twice as many Russians as Adygs, the latter hold practically all positions of power and influence, especially in the law and order area. Surely this is an unhealthy situation, and will eventually be changed. Has to be and will be. Right at the start of his rule Putin showed that he meant business. Chechnya is perhaps his biggest success story, and other sovereignty seekers are certain to bear that example in mind. 

This does not mean that the old, White Guards' motto, "For a United, Indivisible Russia" has won absolutely. Putin merely removed the issue from the very top of his, and the country's, agenda, but the thorny problem still looms. The well-recorded rise of nationalist sentiment among the Russian populace shows clearly that the people of Russia are aware of the dangers involved.  

The final judgment of History, if there is any such thing, will have to do with the eternal existentialist question: To be or not to be. At present, the question has receded well into the background, and we know well to whom our thanks for this are due.

William Dunkerley
Publishing Consultant

It’s Time Putin Got Serious about Protecting His Image. 

Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the buzz-topic in America about Russia. Today, it’s the Pussy Riot, a group of exhibitionists who call themselves musicians fighting oppression. In the 1960s Americans fretted over Khrushchev wanting to "bury” them. Now Americans don’t consider Russia a threat to themselves; they’re up in arms (figuratively) over Russia’s threat to its own democracy.

What was central in the 60s isn’t on the radar screen today. But, mention Khrushchev to Americans who were alive in the 60s, and you just may hear him characterized by his "we will bury you” speech.

I did a name association game with some fellow Americans. I stated the name of a former president, and asked to hear the first words that came to mind. So, "Hoover” yielded, for instance, "Great Depression.” Roosevelt, "recovery.” Nixon, "crook.” 

The word associations seem to encapsulate history’s judgment of those leaders. The characterizations of the leaders represent a narrative theme. The stories about their presidencies are woven around it. Historians take a deeper look. For others, it’s the theme that prevails and defines. 

It’s said newspapers are the first draft of history. That’s bad news for the legacy of Vladimir Putin. The international media mash-up on his leadership-to-date is that he’s a ruthless anti-democratic dictator who won’t go away. For the Western public, that’s the established theme. And, that’s the record that future historians will find when researching Putin.

The most remarkable thing about this negative theme is that it is not fact based. Some observers imagine that a conspiracy of world media drives the bad coverage. But there’s no real evidence of that.

The Alexander Litvinenko case exemplifies the real process through which Putin is regularly slimed internationally. My book, The Phony Litvinenko Murder, explains this process in detail. In a nutshell, though, this is a case of a "managed story.” The entire news story about Putin being behind the murder of Litvinenko was fabricated by a non-state arch enemy of Putin’s. And then it was skilfully foisted upon an unsuspecting press, appreciative of having an enormously attention getting story handed to them ready-to-use.

My study of the managed story approach goes back to the dawn of the Putin era. I’ve carefully analyzed how it has been used to defame Russia and its leader. That gave me the insight to see how the process can be defeated. I know exactly how it works, what the vulnerabilities are, and how to defeat it.

That leaves me amazed to see that Putin has employed virtually no effective countermeasures. It’s hard to imagine why not. Maybe it’s out of ignorance of what to do. Or perhaps it’s a result of arrogance over the need to respond at all.

The consequences are dire. Putin’s failure to protect his own image is a disservice to the country itself. It isn’t just Putin’s historical legacy that’s at stake. His neglect has resulted in diplomatic fractures, impeded Russia’s quest to regain its place in the world, and has been a burden to international commerce and integration.

Recently, Putin’s arch enemies have even found success in turning negative international stories inward. That’s been responsible for emboldening agitators and fomenting dissatisfaction in the heart of Russia. Putin’s popularity has slipped. The negative stories are gaining ground.

Putin’s place in history is being shaped right now. The first draft continues to be written by enemies. His response has been to stage stunts like dressing up as a Siberian crane, and sponsoring projects to disseminate puffery. It’s high time for him to get serious about protecting his own image, and to start becoming an effective steward of his country’s reputation.

Anatoly Karlin
Da Russophile

While there are several criticisms one can make of Putin's practice of democracy, his prolonged stay in power isn't one of them.

As Evgeny Minchenko pointed out, there are many Western examples of very long, but non-authoritarian rule. Canadian PM Jean Chrétien ruled for 20 years, the Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – for 16 years. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been in power from 1996 to the present day (nobody even bothered challenging him in 2000 and 2008). Charles de Gaulle, one of the figures Putin quotes as his inspiration, ruled for 11 years; the student protests against him in 1968, ironically, only ended up increasing support for him. Another of Putin's heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was US President from 1933 until his death in 1945, and remains a political colossus in the American imagination.

Nor is there anything particularly anti-Constitutional about what Putin did. Unlike in Georgia, where Saakashvili planned to retain power by moving powers to the Prime Ministership (but was foiled in this by an oligarchic coup), or for that matter in the "new democracy" of Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz Party headed by Viktor Orbán recently rewrote electoral law to cement its dominance for what may be many decades to come, Putin has strictly abided by the letter of the Constitution. United Russia did not use its Constitutional majority to extend the number of allowed Presidential terms, transform Russia into a parliamentary republic, or tweaking electoral law away from proportional representation towards majoritarianism (this would have a far bigger effect in consolidating United Russia’s power than low-level electoral fraud – and be much less politically damaging besides).

While one might argue that Putin went against the "spirit of the Constitution” by seeking a third term, that is an inescapably vague and ambiguous concept, one suited only for rhetoric. If we are going to consider the "spirit” of things, would it not then be against the "spirit of democracy” to condemn Putin for returning to the Presidency when he remains by far Russia's most popular politician, enjoying a 10% lead over Medvedev even during the latter's heyday?

In 2004, Putin said, "Our aims are absolutely clear: They are a high living standard in the country and a secure, free and comfortable life.” This is not the place to cite reams of statistics, but on practically any socio-economic indicator one cares to mention –  economic, demographic, crime, etc. – the Russia of 2012 is unrecognizable from the Russia of 1999. It's simply another world. To find historical precedents, one needs to look far, far back. To another Putin hero, Stolypin? But the saplings he planted didn't survive the Bolshevik winter. Both Peter the Great and Stalin transformed Russia, but in ways that were many orders of magnitude crueller and more bloodthirsty than all but the most deranged of Putin's critics would accuse him of. Alien ideologies were impressed on Russia in these "revolutions from above”, leading to social stresses and upheaval; Putin, to the contrary, is profoundly a-ideological (and that is surely for the better, no matter the hand-wringing by some over Russia’s no longer having a "national idea” – fact of the matter is, "national ideas” have rarely led it to anywhere good).

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is to Catherine the Great, who expanded Russia's borders, made legal reforms, and removed internal barriers to trade. But serfdom was also further entrenched, and Russia kept slipping backwards relative to the developed world; in contrast, under Putin, Russia has gone from being the poor man of Europe to being a country where salaries and personal consumption are now converging with those of the poorer (original) EU members like Greece or Portugal. Maybe his true predecessor is none other than Yaroslavl the Wise, under whom Kievan Rus' became unified, established links with Western Europe (which is today East Asia), formally codified Russian laws, and ushered in a golden age of culture and civilization. Although one should be careful of making parallels with developments a millennium ago, there are undeniable similarities between Yaroslavl's achievements and Putin’s project: Consolidating the state, and now moving towards a Eurasian Union; legal reforms that supplanted late-Soviet "understandings" and Yeltsinite chaos; and the ongoing (re)integration into the world economy.

Regardless of the historians' final verdict, it is now hard to see what Putin can possible do now to compromise the "father of the nation” status he has already gained in the popular consciousness - a status that should survive, based on comparable figures like De Gaulle or Park Chung-hee, even as the "dissatisfied urbanites” and "hamsters” - much like the Parisian student protesters against De Gaulle in 1968 - are relegated to the margins of history. The "democratic journalists” and other Putin Derangement Syndrome sufferers who portray this Goethe-quoting patriot and conservative restorer as a mafiosi thug or neo-Stalinist dictator will be in for endless disappointments as future Russians, just as today's Russians, will continue to reject their bleak, screed-like denunciations of Putin's legacy.

Patrick Armstrong
Patrick Armstrong Analysis,
Ottawa, Canada

I believe that "history” will judge Putin as one of the best leaders Russia has had in its thousand year history. 
Or would have so judged him had he retired.
When he came to power, according to his "Russia in the New Millennium”, he set himself four tasks: to reverse the economic collapse, to reverse the decay of central power, to improve Russia’s status in the world and to institute a rule of law, or at least a rule of rules. On his watch these goals were achieved to a considerable extent (the last, less, to be sure). Most leaders are lucky if they can attain even a few of their goals, partially. Putin did much better.
But he missed one thing: to set an example to his successors that two terms are enough for any mortal.
If he built a system that can’t work without him, then it doesn’t work.
He runs the risk of "history” judging him the Turkmenbashi of Russia.

Alexei Pankin
Editor, WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine

History is a capricious and inconsistent old lady. Remember how by the end of the 1970s - early 1980s the Soviets had been literally fed up with and sick of Leonid Brezhnev with his senile demeanor, endless incoherent speeches and rows and rows of awards decorating his chest. Dullness and un-eventfulness of public life was probably the single most important reason for initial universal support for perestroika and glasnost.

Thirty years after Brezhnev’s demise, in February 2012, VTsIOM published poll results that revealed that Brezhnev turned out to be the most popular leader of the 20th century (39% of respondents). Trailing behind him were Tsar Nicholas II (31%), Lenin and Stalin (28% each), Khrushchev (24%) and at the very bottom of the list were the reformers, Yeltsin (17%) and Gorbachev (14%).

The interesting thing about Putin is that after 12 years of being in charge of Russia we still can’t give a clear cut answer to the notorious question - Who Is Mr.Putin? Is he the heir of Yeltsin who was installed in power in order to protect the criminal liberal regime formed in the first decade of Russia’s independence, or a reformer committed to revitalizing the country? Is he a KGB Foreign Intelligence functionary, in other words almost by definition a pro-Western liberal, or just an honest Soviet officer, a patriot who pledged to sacrifice his life for his country?

The right answer probably is that he is a little bit of everything. He did not change the criminal oligarchic regime’s foundation, but he did socialize enough of the unfairly gained riches (perhaps under his own aegis) to enable him to correct the most blatant wrongs like poverty, unemployment, etc. The living standards of a large part of the population did increase, but the de-industrialization, degradation of science, education continued at least for the most part of his first two terms of presidency. He speaks of reindustrialization but his economic team is predominantly liberal. He warns of the US international irresponsibility but Russia’s savings are kept in Western financial instruments.
In many ways, his rule has been not unlike that of the Brezhnev era. Let us not forget that the so called "stagnation period” was the Golden Age of the Soviet Union. Massive housing construction, wide penetration of durable consumer goods including cars. Huge investment in agriculture which may not have improved its efficiency but for the first time in Soviet, if not entire Russian history, had made life quite comfortable for the vast majority of rural population. Flourishing and original culture (literature, cinema, theater which produced more masterpieces than the rest of the Western world taken together). And last but not least, a negligible level of repression compared even to the Khrushchev period, not to mention Stalin. But all this against the backdrop of stagnating industry and political system, growing social inequality and the rising expectations that made younger people compare their living standards not with how their parents lived, but rather with those in the prosperous West. Eventually, this was what ruined communism and the USSR – with catastrophic results for most new nations.

Two things are in favor of Putin in this comparison. First, he is neither senile, nor marasmatic like Brezhnev was. And whatever cult of his personality you might detect in the government controlled media, it is certainly not as pervasive as that of the original stagnation period. Moreover, there’s a lot of Putin bashing in oppositional press and on the Internet to offset it.

Secondly, people have become much wiser to cherish what they have now rather than hope for the change for the better in the future. Actually, the unexpectedly high 63% of votes Putin received in the March presidential elections is a mandate to continue the same policy from the people frightened by the specter of new round of turmoil raised by Moscow protesters.

So, by today’s standards, Putin is certainly a great leader. What history would tell in 30 years, or even 6 years from now, we do not know. But he still has couple of years to cast away the Yeltsinite and liberal parts of his self, and to follow his reformist and patriotic instincts. Then his name will be associated with something different than the virtues of stagnation.

Richard Sakwa
Professor of Russian and European Politics, University of Kent, UK

We cannot understand the evolution of Putinism without an understanding of the structural factors that have come to shape his leadership. Russia remains a putative status quo power, but has been pushed into adopting elements of revisionism. It is this combination that has given rise to neo-revisionism in international politics and neo-traditionalism at home.

Today relations between Russia and the West are fraught, and verging on the mutually hostile. How did we reach such an impasse? After all, with the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a new era of European integration appeared in prospect. Russia embraced the cultural project of the West with enthusiasm, adopting a constitution in December 1993 that incorporated classic liberal ideas on the individual, civil society, the separation of church and state, and instated a type of separation of powers, although with an extremely powerful executive presidency. In 1996 Russia formally joined the Council of Europe, and thus in institutional terms firmly became part of European international society. Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 committed to deepening relations with the European Union, and even contemplated the possibility of Russia joining NATO. In August 2012, after 19 years of negotiations, Russia finally joined the World Trade Organisation.

Despite institutional advances, relations with the West in broad terms have reached a dead-end, if not worse. The mutual distrust, verging on contempt, has been vividly in evidence during the Syria crisis. Although Russia enjoys good bilateral relations with a number of European countries, notably with Germany, Italy and France, multilateral engagement at the level of the European Union is at an impasse. Moscow has repeatedly warned America that it risks another Cold War if it continues to pursue the unilateral attempt to create a missile defence system in Europe. It is clear that at the global level relations are sour and permeated by mutual suspicion and distrust. In certain respects the rift between Russia and the West is substantive and widening.

The breakdown in relations between Russia and the West is reflected in the Republican Platform adopted at its convention in September 2012 in Tampa, Florida, when Mitt Romney was officially adopted as the party’s presidential candidate. In addition to a special section longer than the one dealing with the rest of Europe, Russia was condemned as one of the ‘gravest threats to our national security’, to which the Obama administration is alleged to have responded ‘with weakness’. A persistent theme is the ‘failed reset’ in Russo-American relations, accompanied by America’s alleged capitulation in the face of authoritarian opponents.

The paradox is that Russia is a profoundly conservative country, and has been since the early nineteenth century. Even the Soviet Union, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, became a conservative power. As Walter Benjamin noted, the Soviet experiment represented a massive slamming of the brakes in terms of engagement with modernity, and to this day Russia remains a conservative society. Emerging from the Soviet carapace in 1991, Russia was a status quo power but sought to find a worthy place in an expanded Western global order. In other words, the status quo would have to change to accommodate Russia’s interests and concerns. Russia did not consider itself a defeated or penitent power. Russia thus at first had no intention of overthrowing the old order but looked for a way of enhancing its status in it. 

It was the failure of the West to do so with adequate commitment and imagination, and for Russia to exercise patience and discretion, that has brought the world to the cold peace of today, one that threatens the very basis of the Western system. The judgement of history will fall heavily on all those who have brought the world to this pass.

Alexander Rahr
Research Director, German-Russian Forum, Berlin

Vladimir Putin will go down in history as a leader who stabilized Russia. In 20 years from now, he will be compared to Charles de Gaulle in France or to Konrad Adenauer in Germany. He established a functioning economic, social and political system in Russia. He saved Russia from the crisis of the 90s, when the economy was breaking apart. He then rescued Russia from the financial crisis in 2009-10 – an achievement which is little applauded in the West. 

Putin's foreign policy was never anti-western, as some US and EU experts claim. He re-established Russia as a strong nation state with its own national interests on the world stage, ready to cooperate with the West in many important issues. But he got involved in numerous quarrels with West and has been demonized there because he has been building a strong Russia. 

After the fall of Communism the West expected Russia to become its subordinated, obedient junior partner. The West is not prepared to accept Putin on his own terms, and Russia as a country with its own traditions, if Russia confronts Western interests.  Putin always stressed that he serves Russia first. 

Under his presidency, the Russians started to live better than all of the previous generations. He succeeded Yeltsin as a modern leader who renewed the old partocratic elites, removing oligarchs from power. But by now he has become a representative of the older generation, which is not a tragedy in itself. Society has changed and Putin has to react to the challenges and opportunities that have arisen. 

Putin is now entering a turbulent period, as Russia under his rule has become different compared with the 1990s. He will have to learn how to become a leader of this new Russia, where people, mostly thanks to him, learned how to live like Europeans, how to consume like Europeans and how to travel like Europeans. This new generation is a future of Russia, they have the grasp of freedom and democracy, but they also are at loggerheads with the much larger part of conservative Russians who believe that Russia shall be ruled heavy-handedly. Putin’s main task would be to embrace all parts of society and elites and lead Russia to modernity. If he does not learn how to do it the country will stagnate. Putin’s main task is now to adapt himself to the new agenda and the new Russia.

Martin Seiff
Chief Global Analyst, the Globalist

American intellectuals, whether liberal or neoconservative, have never liked or respected Russia's Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin. His no-nonsense authoritarian style is anathema to them. Putin, for his part, remains manifestly unimpressed by the potential of iPhones, social networks and the other miracles which those modern Merlins, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, offer up in order to bring Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men.

In the past decade, under Putin's leadership as president and hands-on control of the bureaucratic system as prime minister, Russia has rebuilt its strength and credibility as an integrated, coherent power state. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the social and economic disintegration of the desperate decade of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin boozed clownishly in the Kremlin, that is no mean feat.

Under Putin, Russia became the world's largest oil and natural gas producing and exporting power. It changed its strategic orientation decisively from West to East on June 15, 2001, when it co-founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, along with China and four of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Putin, despite vastly diminished resources compared with the Soviet era, has managed to rebuild the formidable Soviet/Russian strategic nuclear forces. They are now by far the most formidable, best maintained and most modernized nuclear strike force on the planet.

The United States is believed to have more nuclear weapons than Russia (Russia keeps its number of nuclear weapons a closely-guarded state secret), but the United States has not invested heavily in the maintenance and the modernization of their delivery systems as Russia has over the past decade.

Yet it is the unanimous consensus of America's so-called military experts that Russia's conventional armed forces are ineffectual, if not a joke. But those same forces took the United States and its allies totally by surprise in August 2008, when they conquered one-third of the mountainous, supposedly-easy-to-defend former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus in a mere 48 hours.

Putin has consistently shown an impressive ability to concentrate on his available resources and achieve much with limited means. By contrast, American Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were bizarrely united in their determination to dissipate the power of the United States and exhaust the manpower and infrastructure of the U.S. Army and Marines in almost endless nation-building wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Putin, perhaps all the wiser from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, has not repeated their mistake. But he must have wondered why his U.S. counterparts did.

Writing in the London Daily Mail in 2008, the eminent British historian Lord Correlli Barnett praised Putin as an ultrarealist national leader who pursued his country's national interests in a coherent, determined and undeviating manner.

This view found no traction in the United States. Over the past year especially, the popular protests and toppling of governments across the Middle East in the so-called Arab Spring have revived the optimistic hope — never far from American intellectual hearts, whether liberal or neoconservative — that the same could happen in Russia. It is most vividly expressed in Francis Fukuyama's End of History, his vision of the universal triumph of liberal democracy, free markets and universal free trade.

The popular anti-government protests in Russia and the relatively disappointing showing of Putin's United Russia Party in recent parliamentary elections are boosting the hopes of American pundits that Putin may be squeezed out of power. They still dream that a kinder, gentler leader — perhaps current President Dmitri Medvedev, "freed" of the shadow of his more powerful and intimidating partner — may take his place.

Putin's Russia is certainly not an attractive model for the United States to take seriously or for the prosperous democratic nations of the European Union to emulate. But it has survived, it is getting stronger and it has vast energy resources, which it is developing energetically and effectively.

At the same time, as I document in my upcoming book That Still Should Be Us, there are now seven billion human beings who ultimately compete through a range of disparately organized political structures for the scarce resources of this finite planet in order to survive and prosper. Considering that more than half of those seven billion people still live in some kind of authoritarian political structure or, far worse, in states of anarchy and chaos, whether in collapsed states or in the poverty-stricken rural villages and urban slums in supposedly better structured countries, Russia may have its very own appeal to people around the globe.

There is, therefore, plenty of despair from hundreds of millions of people to generate support for authoritarian regimes. And, in that particular context, while it may insult our Western preferences, Russia may not look so bad to those still living in utter despair.

Russia remains the supreme military power across the entire Eurasian landmass. In an increasingly chaotic world, driven by an ever more acute competition over resources, that real military power may well end up counting for a lot. And in navigating the dangers of such a world, Vladimir Putin may prove to be a remarkably prescient and well-prepared guide for his nation, ensuring that he might indeed have the last laugh.
(This comment first appeared in the Globalist)
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