For the best part of a decade, much of the Western world has been in thrall to an illusion: that Vladimir Putin is a latter-day tsar who has only to snap his fingers (or snarl an order) and everyone, from government ministers through lowly citizens to Siberian tigers, rolls over and does his bidding.
Of course, Putin has done his bit to foster that illusion – as Boris Yeltsin did before him. A case in point is the annual state-of-the-nation speech, directly modelled on the US, which acquires an additional aura of sanctity from the solemnity of the President’s manner and the splendour of the Kremlin hall where it is delivered.
Appearance, however, should not be mistaken for reality. The ceremonial that attends the Russian President’s state-of-the-nation address, like the formality of Russian presidential protocol generally, is recent. Elements were borrowed from the ritual associated with presidencies elsewhere (especially the US) and, yes, there were nods to tsarist ceremonial. But the idea was to banish the indignity of the Soviet Union’s collapse and reflect, so it was thought, the rebirth of the Russian state.
Not that respect for the dignity of the office is unique to Russia. Think of the way France responded to reports that François Hollande had been gallivanting around Paris on a motorcycle in the early morning. And I remember when the then president, Jacques Chirac, allowed himself to be interviewed on US television in English (which he speaks very well). The outcry was such that no French president will ever do that again.
The dignity and trappings of the office, however, are not always and automatically to be equated with power. In Russia, the one can be seen partly as a substitute for the other; something similar could be said of Putin’s periodic he-man stunts. And nowhere has the mismatch between apparent and real power in Russia been clearer than in the tragedy of Ukraine.
Tensions between Russia and the Western world
Tensions between Russia and the Western world
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The widespread assumption has been that, because Russia was able to annex Crimea so swiftly and so surgically, Putin had the rest of Ukraine, and then – perhaps – the Baltic States, Moldova and even Poland, in his presidential sights. Or, conversely, that he had only to hand down the order and the anti-Kiev rebels who had taken up arms in eastern Ukraine would come to heel. Specifically, that they would delay the referendum they went ahead with in May; that they would secure the Malaysian Airlines crash site, and that they would abide by the terms of the Minsk ceasefire deal.
Putin called for all these things to happen; he was ignored – as he is ignored time and again by regional officials across the vast expanse of Russia. In his third term as President, and with two periods as Prime Minister behind him, Putin probably has a better idea than anyone in Russia where the levers of real power lie. But there are many that he can barely influence.
The West can demonise him as the author of all evil, as leaders and media have done almost daily over the past year. But what he has to contend with is weakness rather than strength – both his own as President and that of Russia as a power. This does not make today’s Russia any easier to deal with; maybe even the reverse. But it requires a different approach from the one being applied at present: the attempt to meet supposed strength with strength. The contradictions in Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech yesterday were illustrative. Anyone outside Russia who was expecting an olive branch would have been disappointed. But the state-of-the-nation address is not the place you would look for one. Remember George W Bush and his “axis of evil”.
At the same time, however, Putin’s address was not the unmitigated patriotic tub-thumping that might have been expected. There was, of course, some of that. But there were also echoes of “blood, sweat, toil and tears” – the oil price fall and international distrust, if not the West’s sanctions, are taking their toll. Putin also declared an amnesty for Russians prepared to repatriate their money in a probably futile attempt to stem “capital flight”. And there were other statements in another tone, that Russia wants to be open for business and that if it is circling its wagons, it is because it feels beleaguered, not because it wants either to cut itself or turn to the East.
Along with what will be seen in the West as an unconscionable defence of Crimea’s return to Russia, there was categorical recognition of Ukraine’s independence. “Every nation,” he said, “has an inalienable, sovereign right to its own path of development... Russia always has and always will respect that. This applies fully to Ukraine, the brotherly Ukrainian nation.”
There are those who will scoff at such an assurance, but it could offer a bridgehead, fragile maybe, to an eventual accommodation. If we take the tub-thumping and the warnings of austerity at face value, then we should take these words at face value, too.
But here is strange development. The western view of Putin as an all-powerful tsar is suddenly being revised, by some of the very same people once most wedded to it. Putin’s position could be weakened, they say, from an emboldened nationalist current frustrated that he is not fighting for the rest of Ukraine, and/or from those fearful for their living standards. Indeed it could – and the danger presented by an unstable Russia would be infinitely greater than that presented by a Russia cognisant of its weakness and a leader who recognises, perhaps reluctantly, the limits of his power.Reuse content