Staunton, November 13 – A remarkable change has come over Vladimir Putin in recent months, one that few anticipated but that carries with it some serious risks. He is no longer offering answers and plans; instead, the Kremlin leader is asking Russians to share his emotions over past events and the lack of respect he sees himself and thus Russia as having received.
Somehow and in an almost unnoticed way, Gleb Pavlovsky says, Russians have ceased to expect from Vladimir Putin political declarations and instead to get only confessions.” Earlier, he was quite restrained about doing that; now he does so at length on any and all occasions stressing “the hurt which has been inflicted on him personally by history, Russian and world alike.”
The upshot of these declarations, the Moscow commentator says, is that Putin “is demanding respect, and for such respect, Russia may pay dearly” now and in the future.
In speech after speech, “Putin offers no strategies but only experiences” and explains “the emotional motives of his actions” rather than their logic. Everyone is thus supposed to share his feelings even though they appear to be those of someone “who has come from a world which hasn’t existed for a long time.”
Such experiences “are existentially important,” of course, “but as political speech,” they offer little guidance. It may be interesting to know how Putin feels about the end of the Soviet Union or even more distant historical events, but few except for him are really interested in discussing them or deciding now who deceived whom, the question Putin asks.
Just how odd Putin’s words now sound becomes obvious if one compares them with those he used in Munich in 2007. Some equate what he is saying now with that, but doing so misses the fundamental point. Seven years, Putin gave a political speech in which he said what many were thinking about the dangers presented by the actions of George W. Bush.
Stripped of some verbiage, Putin said at that time only “the bitter truth about the unacceptability and impossibility of a ‘unipolar world’ and about global crises,” Pavlovsky argues.
But now at Sochi, the Kremlin leader engaged in a kind of “emotional theater.” Facing domestic problems and a world in which the declared goal of the United States is to “create covertly a disloyal party of those at the top who could put pressure on Putin’s course,” the Russian president spoke not about what to do but about how he feels about past events.
The only message Putin sent with this speech was to his subordinates, and that message was that Russians have been treated so badly in the past that no anything they want to do is justified, perhaps even required. But that is a form of self-deception that carries with it a heavy price.
A quarter of a century ago, Moscow “had the right to arrange the world order,” but that time “has passed.” To put Russia in a position to do so again would require that Moscow give “the necessary content” in terms of consumption, finance, and ideology that would allow it to act. But Putin isn’t offering anything in any of these sectors now.
Instead, what the Kremlin leader is saying is needed is something that is “dangerously little: respect.” That is both flexible and something that can come cheap, especially if respect is offered in exchange for something real as happened when Moscow was offered a seat on the G8 in exchange for NATO moving eastward.
What is dangerous, Pavlovsky says, is that Putin’s tone now suggests that he is prepared to make similar exchanges internationally to get respect, but “in this situation, a healthy isolationism would be more appropriate, which would offer the chance” to get out of the Ukrainian mess, focus on domestic problems and seek an escape from sanctions.
“In the game which is being carried on now,” the commentator says, Russia “can only lose. One must not try to redraw the world as teenagers love to do.” Engaging in such a quest as Putin is now doing, Pavlovsky concludes, “will end badly.”