Commentary: Putin’s dangerous fan club

A clutch of leaders who will certainly or likely be in power next year have made clear their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It may not last; we should hope it doesn’t.

Vladimir Putin makes a 2016 guest appearance in Club of the Cheerful and Sharp-Witted, a comedy show that has been on Russian national television since 1961. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via REUTERS .

Donald Trump, leader-elect of the leaders of the free world, has repeatedly said that he likes the Russian autocrat’s governing style, and that he has always “felt fine” about Putin. “He's a strong leader. He's a powerful leader.”  As Russia commentator Masha Gessen observed, the two are strikingly similar in their disregard for the facts. “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie,” writes Gessen, “it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.”

In France, both the main presidential challengers from the right also regard Putin, and Russia, with fondness. National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, who benefited from the generosity of one of Russia's state banks after taking a 9.4 million euro ($9.8 million) loan to help fund her run for the Elysee Palace, has expressed her admiration of Putin’s "cool head' when faced with “the West's new Cold War.” 

Francois Fillon, the Republican Party leader expected to beat LePen when a demoralized left swings behind him faute de mieux - for want of a better choice - is also considered a friend of Cool Hand Vlad.  

Italy, weaker after the defeat of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's referendum on the constitution, will be keener than before on easing sanctions against Moscow so that the Italian economy can benefit from renewed trade. Italy’s interim prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said while still foreign minister last month that it would be good for Rome if Trump improved relations with Moscow “without giving up on principles.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful politician, has stolidly reiterated the need for sanctions - but she's been under pressure from some months from her business lobby and could be forced to shift her stance when Russian-friendly presidents occupy the White House and the Elysee Palace in 2017.

At present, the three democracies among the UN Security Council’s five permanent members - France, the United Kingdom and the United States - are committed to sanctions. Yet by the middle of next year, the UK could be the only Western country still adamant about maintaining them - and London no longer exerts much influence on the members of a European Union from which it is withdrawing.

Given the likelihood of this forecast we should be clear about the Russia we will, if not embrace, at least air-kiss on both cheeks (or do so three times, twice on one and once on the other cheek, in the Russian manner).

First, the sanctions were imposed because Moscow snatched a large province of Ukraine - Crimea - and fed Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine to help rouse inhabitants there against the elected government in Kiev. Russia now controls, overtly or de facto, two provinces of Georgia, Abkhazia and North Ossetia; Transnistria in Moldova and Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in Ukraine.

Second, Putin’s alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has brought both victory over the rebels and shame on the West. The smashed city of Aleppo, with its thousands of unburied dead, is there to prove it. Single- mindedly, Putin has assisted Assad in flattening the rebels by destroying everything and everybody. Aleppo's fall is a tribute to the unflinching cruelty deployed, and to the endless prevarications of a West now determined never to be militarily involved in assisting the fall of tyrants. Which leaves Russia as their best friend, head of the “Authoritarian International.”

Third, Russia's media isn't just state-controlled, it's state-directed - at the West. The propaganda on the domestic channels is relentless, enthusiastic and dramatic to watch. Its foreign broadcasts - Russia Today, in several languages - use glossiness and sophisticated production techniques to paint a uniformly dystopian view of the West.  

Allied to that is the determined hacking of Western websites, now with the purpose - always denied - of intervening in Western elections. The CIA has concluded that Moscow was behind the hacking into the U.S. Democratic National Committee's files and the dissemination, via Julian Assange's Wikileaks, of the embarrassing parts. Not only did Trump deny the report was true, he belittled what will be his major intelligence service as one which blunders routinely, adding that he's a “smart person” who doesn’t need all of its briefings. A better relationship with Russia could mean a benign indifference, at least on the part of the U.S. president, to Moscow’s hacking activities.  

The Kremlin makes sure that no opposition party can come within striking difference of power, and that popular oppositionists, such as Alexei Navalny, are rendered politically impotent. It has put thousands of entrepreneurs in jail, determined to keep the now meager fruits of the economy for its own circle. It has banned NGOs from taking money from abroad and from engaging in (broadly defined) politics - and has even sought to crush Memorial, the institution founded at the end of the Soviet period to record the lives and deaths of at least some of the millions who perished in the Gulag. It shows more and more signs of being, not a loose, but a highly controlled cannon on both the home and the world scene.

It is true, as Zachary Karabell writes, that democratic states work daily with despots in China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But Russia differs, for several reasons. It borders with several European states, and is eyeing some of them up for subversion if not seizure. It is both of, and not of, Europe; sometimes contemptuous, sometimes envious. At times proclaiming itself European; at other times, a separate Eurasian civilization. Its culture - especially music, fiction and drama - has enriched Western culture. And while its present rulers are determined to be anti-Western, more and more of its people, free to travel, read, debate and think things through for themselves, are becoming more European. Neither Europe, nor Russia, can leave the other alone.

In Putin’s zero-sum world, what belongs to another is his to get, what’s his is non-negotiable. It will be fascinating to see how the Deal-Maker in Chief in the White House, seeks deals with the world’s poster boy for authoritarians. Or it would be if we could be mere spectators. But we are not. All of us will be deeply affected by, if not the victims of, the moves these two deeply illiberal leaders make.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.