A Case of Putin Envy: Behind the Obsession With Russia's Leader

Putin, unlike politicians in a democratic regime, can happily avoid the endless stress of political campaigning, of having to defend his policy positions, vie for attention, and build an arsenal of post-hoc justifications for gaffes, misstatements, and errors. He is a dictator and does what he wants.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin once said, “A bear doesn’t ask permission from anybody.” Indeed, over the past two years, he has shown the world that he is a political bear—from land grabbing and perpetuating conflict in Ukraine to the recent military intervention in Syria. And yet, even as Western leaders have been angered and unnerved by Putin’s actions, conservative political figures in the United States have experienced a bit of Putin envy. While bemoaning U.S. President Barack Obama’s supposed weakness, for example, Sarah Palin seemed to pine for a president who, like Putin, “wrestles bears and drills for oil.” Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has also hinted at his admiration for Putin, saying, “He makes a decision and he executes it…That’s what you call a leader.”

Since winning a third term as president, Putin has achieved the remarkable feat of approval ratings purportedly hovering in the 80 to 90 percent range. Even with a “dictatorship discount”—the assumption that some fraction of those stellar approval ratings is fictional—Putin is far more popular than his Western counterparts, who must endure a relatively independent and muckraking media and a lively public debate over every policy and every personal issue, from sexual liaisons to the proper use of e-mail servers. Putin, unlike politicians in a democratic regime, can happily avoid the endless stress of political campaigning, of having to defend his policy positions, vie for attention, and build an arsenal of post-hoc justifications for gaffes, misstatements, and errors.

Although Putin is free of such pesky inconveniences, his administration—like all governments that aim to stay in power—still needs a modicum of public support. Few regimes survive for decades purely on coercion, an expensive option in any case. Much of what Putin has been doing abroad is calculated for his domestic audience. What might look like aggressive, risky, or even dangerous foreign policy decisions have been largely welcomed by the Russian populace as evidence of their leader’s muscularity and clout.  

Part of the public’s popular enthusiasm for Putin, and for what appears to be an increasingly rash foreign policy, stems from resentment about the deterioration of Russian power and influence in the 1990s. Following the Soviet collapse, the newly independent Russia—under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin—saw its economy atrophy and its superpower status evaporate. Russians soon formed the impression that the Western countries that had advised Yeltsin’s administration were out to destroy the Russian economy, undermine their country’s military might, and gain influence in Russia’s “near abroad” (the former Soviet states).

By the time Putin won his first presidential election in 2000, Russia was regarded at home and abroad as a weak state in a unipolar world dominated by the United States. The Russian public and the Kremlin were therefore eager to resuscitate the country’s pride and its international image—what Russian social scientists Tatiana Riabova and Oleg Riabov have referred to as “remasculinizing” Russia. When Putin came to power, his machismo was mobilized as a public relations tool, as a way to broadcast his legitimacy as well as Russia’s strength. Because weakness is like kryptonite to an individual’s perceived manliness and to a country’s perceived power, Putin’s propaganda stunts (riding a horse bare-chested, subduing a Siberian tiger, and so on) and foreign policy pugnacity were designed mostly to portray him as strong, assertive, tough, and unmoved by other countries’ conniving efforts to mellow him.

The ploy worked. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, his approval ratings skyrocketed: from 65 percent in January 2014 to 85 percent in December 2014, despite the ruble’s collapse. In October 2015, a major Russian polling agency marked Putin’s approval rating at an astonishing 89.9 percent, and judged that this “surge” in popularity reflected Russia’s initiation of “anti-terrorist” air strikes in Syria, a move that more than 70 percent of Russians were said to have supported. The use of Russia’s semi-new “Kalibr” cruise missiles, fired into Syria from Russian ships in the far-off Caspian Sea (the footage was released in a video by Russia’s Defense Ministry), and the sight of Russian fighter jets targeting terrorists from above seemed to signal to Russians that their country was once more a star on the world stage. 

Putin has successfully painted his actions as defending Russian national interests against the West, and particularly from the United States and NATO, which are ostensibly trying to weaken the Russian state and prevent it from occupying its rightful place in the international arena. Putin, for example, remarked in January 2015 that in Ukraine the fight was not against the Ukrainian army but against a “foreign legion” sponsored by NATO aimed at containing Russia. Public opinion reflects Putin’s view. In June 2015, 86 percent of Russians surveyed reportedly agreed to some extent that the United States was “taking advantage of Russia’s current difficulties to turn Russia into a second-rate power and raw materials appendage of the West.” 

These themes are also present in propaganda from pro-Kremlin groups, such as the Young Guard (the youth arm of the pro-Putin United Russia Party). This group believes that Putin is protecting Russian national interests in the face of Western-sponsored meddling, including the supposedly U.S.-led overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych. In October of last year, for Putin’s birthday, the Young Guard organized an exhibit of political posters, several of which featured Putin dominating U.S. President Barack Obama, taking him down in a martial-arts move or gripping him by the ear. Also as a birthday present, another pro-Putin group called Network produced an art exhibit emphasizing Putin’s achievements as an unshakeable national leader navigating a hostile international environment. This exhibit was titled “The Twelve Labors of Putin,” modeled after the Twelve Labors of Hercules. In one illustration, Putin could be seen shielding Russia from the Western economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The sanctions were portrayed as a multi-headed serpent (the Hydra), with Putin having chopped off the head belonging to the United States.

Along similarly patriotic lines, to mark Putin’s birthday this year the Young Guard released a collection of excerpts from interviews where their members talked about Putin and what he represents to them. “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]’s wisdom, will, the speed of his decision making, his honesty, and his strength are helping Russia achieve new heights in the global arena,” one activist said. Another said, “I consider Vladimir Vladimirovich’s main achievement during his presidency to be that Russia regained its former glory and has taken a leadership position on the world stage. I’m proud of Russia. I’m proud of Putin!” Darya Kriukova, the Young Guard coordinator for the Siberian Federal District, summed it up when she said, “I want to wish a happy birthday to the strongest and most respected politician in the world: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

The views of these pro-Kremlin groups, although not necessarily shared by all Russians, do reflect the sentiments of a broad subset of them. For example, a number of popular signs and slogans have cropped up comparing the United States to Nazi Germany or showing Russia metaphorically raping the United States. One widely circulated bumper sticker encapsulating this “patriotic” ideal appeared on cars’ rear windshields in Russia following the start of the war in Ukraine. Framed by the words “We can do it again!” and “Love your enemies in such a way that your friends will be afraid!” it depicted a stick figure dressed in the Russian flag’s colors violating a stick figure dressed in the red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag. 

Michael Klimentyev (RIA Novosti) / Reuters

Putin exercises in a gym at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, August 30, 2015.

A Russian website selling these stickers explained the parallel between the Nazi government and the contemporary United States as follows: “The victorious defeat of fascist Germany in 1945 has apparently not cooled the contemporary ambitions of the United States; they have not only forgotten history, but are doing their best to reshape it to suit themselves. This is visible in the events currently happening in Ukraine. But, just as before, fascism and Americanism achieve nothing other than people’s hatred toward them as invaders. There will be only one outcome of their atrocities—the complete defeat of the aggressors.”

Another bumper sticker from that website—specifically, from their “Our retaliation against NATO” series—portrays an enormous phallic-shaped nuclear missile with the jocular pun-loving caption “We’re not ashamed of our complexes.” Whether it is the self-consciously humorous focus on Russia’s bigger missiles or the violently sexual image of Russia “dominating” a United States on its knees, there is an unmistakable comparison between Russian masculinity and Western weakness in these decals.

In other words, in Russia, Putin’s supporters may have found symbolic ways to top the United States, but the country has some power envy of its own as it strives to compete with the United States’ projection of military, economic, and political influence far beyond its borders. By claiming to decisively protect Russia’s interests against threats (whether in Ukraine or Syria), Putin’s displays of symbolically masculine strength abroad reinforce his standing as someone who is tougher than the other guy, and thus bolster his position at home.

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