Simplistic portrayals of Putin as Bond villain cripple diplomacy

By Darragh McDowell

The West needs to look beyond the stereotypes if relations with Russia are to improve

Vladimir Putin made his final address to the Russian Duma as prime minister. In a few weeks he will move his offices from the Russian White House and back to the Kremlin.

Beyond this is it is difficult to say what tangible change has occurred in the country since thousands of Russians poured into the streets of Moscow this winter to protest the parliamentary and presidential elections that returned Putin and his United Russia party to power. Putin is still, far and away, the country's most popular politician, and United Russia the most popular party. While prognostication is a fool's game, there are few signs indicating Putin is in any threat of being ejected from the Kremlin before his latest six-year term expires.

The great shame of all this is that those six years will likely see a continuation of the pattern of Russia and the West fundamentally misunderstanding one another, through a mixture of ingrained prejudice and often simplistic understanding of each other's politics. Putin has become a caricature dictator in the public eye, not helped by his resemblance to a Bond villain and his aggressive rhetorical style. The rest of the political class has been all but ignored outside the specialist press, and the idea that "l'etat c'est Putin" has taken hold.

The truth is, of course, far more complex. The Russian leadership is a collective one, consisting of multiple groups with often competing agendas. Putin is by far the most powerful actor, but his power derives from ensuring no single element of Russia's governing class gains the strength to dominate the others. Putin's regime is authoritarian, but he is not a dictator.

The simpler narrative that focuses on Putin the man, and not the regime he governs, misses a lot of what is going on in Russia, what is under the control of the authorities and what is not. And this has prevented the kind of engagement with Russia that we need to undertake. Instead the relentless personalisation of the West's relationship with Russia, both in its press and its political discourse has continually soured relations.

This is not surprising. I have not met Putin, but I am told that his private and public personae don't differ much. He has both a paranoid and a mean streak, and nurses grudges. Whatever his positive qualities as a leader, these aren't the traits of a diplomat. It's no coincidence that even after the South Ossetia war at the beginning of outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev's term, East-West relations saw a brief flourishing. The acquiescence to Nato intervention in Libya marked a massive departure from Russian foreign policy, which has traditionally upheld state sovereignty as supreme.

Medvedev has often been portrayed as a man who operated simply as a puppet of Putin. The gradual but significant improvement in relations during his term shows otherwise. While Putin was more powerful, Medvedev's position forced an acknowledgement of a more complex Russian leadership and granted new ways to engage with and manipulate it. The return of Putin, and the simplified narrative of him as a repressive dictator, seizing back power threatens to undo much of the progress of the past four years.

That doesn't mean we should overlook the persistent violation of human rights and democratic norms in Russia. But we should pick our friends more carefully. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has become one of the main voices of opposition in the Western media and thus popular consciousness. In Russia he is sometimes known as Misha Two Percent, due to allegations that as finance minister he took a two per cent commission for ignoring bribes and corrupt deals during the Nineties. And this pales in comparison to the actions of oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, no matter how unjust and cruel their subsequent treatment by the Putin regime. Elevating them as symbols of the opposition to Putin will only strengthen Putinism.

In fact much of the corruption and economic chaos that befell Russian in the Nineties is identified by many Russians with the kind of liberalism and democracy the West is now trying to promote, even if they are frustrated by the failings of Putinism. The more Russia and the West come into conflict, the more the Kremlin can raise the fear of the past in order to quell dissent and stabilise the present. It's a strategy of diminishing returns, but still effective.

In order to avoid further antagonism in the next six, or even 12 years Russia will live under Putin, we need to better understand the state that he runs and the people that he governs. This will increase our ability to influence both. But only if we eject a few stereotypes about Putin and Putinism, will we accomplish this.
The Independent