Putin’s Patriotism is Phony, His Desperation is Real

Russia’s president is gambling the future of his country to consolidate his grip on power. But his economy is a wreck and the people who support him today may well revile him tomorrow.

In a series of autobiographical interviews that were released as a book in 2000, the first year of his presidency, Vladimir Putin portrayed himself as “a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” Ever since, he has read from that same script, describing everything he does as motivated by his patriotism—now for Russia, since the Soviet Union is no more.

There is only one problem with his version of what motivates him: it is patently false. 

Whether in the case of his forcible annexation of Crimea, his continued threats against Ukraine or his systematic destruction inside Russia of any vestiges of democracy and free speech from the 1990s, Putin is cloaking himself in a phony patriotism to hide his real motives. He is, in every sense of the term, the anti-patriot, committed to a course that can only steadily weaken his country, hurt its citizens’ prospects for a decent life, and diminish Russia’s influence in the world.

All this may sound strange at a time when Putin’s popularity at home is soaring and he is swaggering across the world stage, defying the Obama Administration’s, the EU’s and the UN General Assembly’s admonitions with seeming impunity. Many Russians are responding with instinctive satisfaction to the fact that their country inspires renewed fear—which means, as those with a “Soviet patriotic education” see it, that it’s a superpower to be reckoned with again.

But those tactical gains are likely to evaporate soon. Already, the anti-Putin demonstrators have outnumbered their pro-regime counterparts on the streets of Moscow, despite the risks of speaking out. Already, dissident intellectuals are drawing a clear distinction between how they see the country’s interests and the Putin regime’s aggressive actions. The fact that they are clearly in the minority now should be no comfort to the Kremlin.

The reason is that time is not on Putin’s side. His seizure of Crimea and military build-up on the Ukrainian border damages Russian national interests in three main ways:

First, it undercuts an already vulnerable, weakening economy. Second, it undoes more than two decades of efforts to establish new, constructive ties between Moscow, its former Soviet bloc subjects and the rest of Europe. And, third, it sends a clear message that Putin is so unnerved by the vision of a democratic movement toppling a highly corrupt, incompetent crony in Kiev that he is willing to sacrifice the dreams of his own people to stay in power.

Unlike during Putin’s first two terms when high energy prices fueled rapid growth and rising living standards, the outlook for the Russian economy was looking grim even before the latest crisis. Growth was expected to be near zero this year, and capital flight—a perennial problem in a regime where the rule of law is often no more than the law of retribution—has continued.

Those trends are now accelerating. The World Bank has warned that the ripple effect from Putin’s actions could make Russia’s GDP shrink by 1.8 per cent this year. In the first quarter, according to Russia’s Economy Ministry, capital flight already exceeded last year’s total of $63 billion, reaching an estimated $70 billion. Even a modest hit from sanctions or pullback by foreign investors will only add to that downward spiral.

In the long term, the greatest threat to the Russian economy is that its neighbors will find new energy sources elsewhere. By dramatically reviving fears of the Russian bear across Europe, Putin has triggered their first serious efforts to devise strategies to wean themselves off Russian natural gas and oil. He can wield energy as a weapon now, but it is already proving a double-edged sword.

Putin may not care because he sees himself as fighting a more immediate battle for political survival. Whatever his approval ratings, the Russian leader knows how ephemeral they can be. He only has to remind himself of the huge anti-government demonstrations triggered by his return to the presidency in 2012. Putin’s real motive for his behavior since the downfall of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is his recognition of the example this could set for his own people.

Admittedly, Ukraine has been mismanaged on a catastrophic scale by a succession of leaders, including the putative reformers who took over after the Orange Revolution of 2004. By comparison, Russia sometimes looked better run. But Putin’s concentration of power and privileges among his favored officials and oligarchs has allowed corruption on a magnitude that now dwarfs Ukraine’s record.

Just imagine for a moment triumphant protesters bursting into the counterpart of Yanukovych’s presidential estate—and what kind of photos that would produce. Putin can surely imagine this as well.

To avoid that kind of outcome, he is intent on making sure that Ukraine’s new democratic government fails, discrediting the whole notion of popular movements. That is his real motive, not any vision of patriotism. To that end, he could invade the eastern part of the country. But it may be enough for him to create enough uncertainty about his intentions to keep Ukraine permanently on edge, not allowing the situation to stabilize and its new leaders to succeed.

A true Russian patriot and Slavic brother would see the world differently. He would welcome the rapid development of a democratic, prosperous Ukraine. He would see it as a positive model for a Russia that could live in peace with its neighbors, and that could nurture the conditions for new economic growth based on deepening rather than dwindling ties with the outside world.

In the hands of a true national leader, patriotism can be a powerful constructive force. But all too often, as Samuel Johnson famously pointed out, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” 

Russia now has its scoundrel, fully exposed.