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If You Think of Putin, He Has Won

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Is President Vladimir Putin strong or weak? Is Russia a paper tiger or can it roar? This is suddenly a hot topic among Russia experts. It's fun to follow, but it's also depressing, because it shows how successful the Russian leader has been in achieving his self-serving goals.

Vladimir Putin

Brandon Valeriano of the University of Glasgow and Ryan Maness of Northeastern University started the debate in Foreign Affairs magazine on April 30. Claiming that "Putin is not as strong as he might seem or, more important, as he might hope," they argued that Russia had achieved nothing of value by interfering in Ukraine, selling arms to Iran, using energy exports to pressure eastern European countries or waging cyber warfare against its global rivals.

"Letting Russia assert its regional interests has resulted in outcomes that counter its own goals," Valeriano and Maness wrote. "And that is why rushing to deal with a perceived Russian threat would be folly. Continued support for Western allies and investment in alternative energy sources and cyberdefenses as (opposed to cyberoffensive capabilities) would lead to continued stability in the international system despite Russia’s use of force."

In effect, they suggested a kind of judo approach to Putin: Use what he sees as his strength against him, and he will prove weak.

This elicited an exasperated reply from Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank who is no Putin ally. He warned against underestimating the man in the Kremlin.

"Putin seems to believe that Russia, which possesses less soft power than the West, can use hard power to get what it wants in today’s world," Aleksashenko wrote. "It would be a mistake to expect that he would not challenge the territorial integrity of another country in Europe or Asia, or that he would not obstruct the West’s ongoing efforts vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, or North Korea."

If Putin and his Russia are weak, he suggested, let leaders in Europe in the U.S. "demonstrate that fact to the world and to the Russian president himself." 

Then Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo weighed in: Russia's economy, he wrote, is breaking "through one false bottom after another," and its military strength is waning.

"Putin knows uncomfortable truths about the Kremlin, rife with petty quarrels and ill-begotten fortunes, and knows there are limits to its trustworthiness," Baev posited."His supreme authority is, therefore, far more vulnerable than it appears."

In Baev's view, Putin is merely trying to use what remains of his military advantage to maintain his grip on power. Although he disagreed with Aleksashenko on Russia's relative strength, he concurred with his recommendation that the West be more forceful in dealing with Putin.

On Wednesday, there were two more contributions to the discussion. Amanda Taub published a lengthy article on Vox, based on conversations with Putin's critics. She suggested that the Russian president was worried about his ability to hold on to power. Mariya Snegovaya, a Columbia University Ph. D. student, wrote a column pointing out that Putin was far from beaten and would "likely roar again." "Russia’s current regime may not be sustainable in the long run, but as Keynes said, we are all dead in the long run," she wrote.

To me, the debate has two depressing features. One is the almost universal equation of Russia with Putin. To me, that is in itself a reflection of Putin's strength: He has managed to get people who are hostile to him to associate him with the country he runs. Putin's opponents might dismiss his seeming popularity in the polls -- he has close to 90 percent support -- but the fact remains that many Russians now share his paranoia about a global conspiracy against Russia, and he has successfully portrayed himself as the nation's best defender. 

Another unfortunate similarity of these contributions is that, weak or strong, and with or without Putin, Russia is seen as hostile and dangerous. The Kremlin dictator is scary whether he is boxed in or capable of wreaking havoc on the world. That perception is more proof of Putin's particular kind of soft power: He exudes danger and uncertainty, and that serves his purpose. 

On Wednesday, a meeting of BRICS -- the loose group of economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization began in the Russian city of Ufa. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other non-Western leaders were there to see Putin.

"This is compensation for 18 months of diplomatic blockade, for friends and subordinates barred from traveling to the West, for the aborted G-8 summit at Sochi," Alexander Gabuev of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote. It is also a reflection of Russia's sheer size and geographical importance: With or without Putin, the country itself resists efforts to marginalize it and responds sluggishly to any kind of aggressive prodding.

Both tactics by the West strengthen Putin because, in the eyes of his domestic audience, they prove him right. Even in Europe, there are some who see him as a leader of the non-American world. A much more nuanced approach is needed. The West needs to find people in Moscow who are capable of running the country after Putin. They probably won't be in the discredited opposition camp, and talking to them will be difficult, but contact must be established and a common ground mapped out. 

The West also needs to find a way to prove to ordinary Russians that it's not plotting to destroy their country. Easing visa restrictions and taking measures to boost trade may seem to be a counter-intuitive response to Putin's aggression, but he is strong only if Russians believe what he says about the hostile West. Working out a policy that benefits Russians but not the Putin regime is tricky. But the easy solutions only freeze conflicts and strengthen an inherently weak regime that must feed on external hostility to survive.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net