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The Politics of Russian Nationalism

Vladimir Putin as Centrist

With new revelations about the possible connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign emerging every day, Public Seminar contacted some specialists to answer the question: “What do Americans need to know about Russia to understand why Vladimir Putin interfered with an American election?” We will be publishing their responses over the next few days.

In this essay, national intelligence expert Richard D. Anderson forwards our first critical perspective: Vladimir Putin is, in the context of Russian authoritarianism, a political centrist. Promoting and managing conflict with the United States, Anderson argues, allows Putin to balance the competing demands of kleptocracy and nationalism without giving in to forces on his left or his right.

Vladimir Putin rules Russia because he is a centrist.  Since the Soviet dissolution in 1991, strange bedfellows in a coalition that combines communists with tsarists have urged reunification.  They are opposed by a few democrats, who urge Russians to content themselves with those 1991 boundaries. Americans certainly should understand why people anywhere feel safer in a larger state that aggressively patrols its own border. The feeling is a snare, a trap and a delusion, but plenty of people feel that way, and an American like myself who relaxes about it already inhabits a big, safe country.  Russians live with the trauma of having witnessed half the population, and a third of the territory, separate in 1991. Putin occupies the political middle by promising to stand up for Russia without reunifying.

Behind Putin’s promise of national safety hides a kleptocracy. All the stealing that Putin orchestrates alienates the Russians who are being robbed. Many take to the streets in protest, but should either Putin or unprotesting Russian victims of his robberies concede the protesters’ truthful accusations that Putin leads a gang of thieves, a new problem emerges: he loses those anxious about protecting Russia and they lose the nation’s champion.

To give anxious Russians a tale they can cling to, Putin blames the protests on staging by an imaginary villainess whom her fellow American, Donald Trump, conveniently derides as “Lying Crooked Hillary.” Once Putin blames Secretary Clinton for interfering with his administration by engineering the protests, failing to retaliate by interfering in her election would tell Russians that he does not believe his own tale. So he organizes clandestine interference.  He never boasts about it.  With his own credibility in doubt, it is much better for Russians to learn what he has done from media they trust: a free press in the United States.

Everything Putin does in foreign policy repeats his mantra: stand up for Russia. He does not invade Georgia in 2008, he defends Russia’s one ally in the Caucasus, the Ossetians, who alone help secure Russia’s southern border, when the Georgian president tries to reoccupy territory lost in 1991. Having drubbed the Georgians, Russian troops withdraw.  In Ukraine he rigs elections to keep its government cooperative.  But his Ukrainian henchman cannot hold power. Putin shifts to plan B, annexing Crimea to tell a story about rectifying a historical injustice done to Russia by a communist discarding a Russian province. That helps Russians tell him apart from his communist rival. Is it aggression? Six-sevenths of Ukraine’s troops there take an offer to join Russia’s armed forces. With Russia isolated in the world, he stands up for an old Soviet ally, Syria, partly because states with allies deceptively seem more secure than states without and even more because the threat to Syria can be blamed on US interference when standing up against US interference is what he promises Russians.

Russia today is a democracy, albeit one with fraudulent elections. But Americans seeing fellow citizens vote in terror of some mostly amicable migrants crossing our border should understand how Russians elected Putin, having watched their own borders crumble.

A former CIA Soviet analyst and then House intelligence committee staffer, Richard D. Anderson, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at UCLA and most recently author of Discourse, Dictators and Democrats: Russia’s Place in a Global Process (2014).

Richard D. Anderson

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