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Putin’s Hold Beyond Russia

The activities surrounding the 70th anniversary Normandy landing commemorations on June 6 displayed the tensions between western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper avoided meeting Putin altogether, while other leaders, including President Obama, participated in the minimum photo-ops to honor the sacrifice of those who liberated Europe.

Maybe it is a sign of the times, but I am perplexed by some of the western media’s treatment of Putin. Never mind that he violated international law by unilaterally annexing Crimea this past spring or that he systematically used his Security Council veto to avoid a possible alternative to the atrocious civil war in Syria in its early stages.  Now we have a humanitarian crisis that is out of control.

Last September when it was discovered that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, President Obama was faced with a real challenge to his “red line” ultimatum about the use of such weapons in the conflict. With Obama unable to get Congressional endorsement for air strikes to counter Assad’s regime and its tactics, Putin took the lead in the removal of chemical weapons operation, with backing from the UN. The result was interpreted as a successful outcome for Putin and an embarrassing moment for both the Obama administration and the western powers. The general consensus was that Putin put one over on Obama, but few questioned Putin’s real role in the conflict.

Last summer whistleblower Edward Snowden was making the headlines about the U.S. security apparatus’ illegal surveillance on American citizens. Not only did he divulge the National Security Agency (NSA) policy, but he may have revealed information considered damaging to national security. We know the rest. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong, was charged by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act, and eventually received refuge in Russia. An ironic twist, given the repressive nature of the Putin regime, that Russia is now harboring a U.S. charged criminal.

Compare this with the Russian authorities’ treatment of the local punk rock group, Pussy Riot, which has been subjected to police brutality and imprisonment in their homeland. The recent visit to the West by members of the group in response to questions by the Western press,   painted an ominous picture of life in Russia if you challenge Putin and his government.

Prior to the Sochi Olympics Putin announced his anti-gay proposals leading to widespread condemnation, although not much else.  The Games went on with few disturbances and generally favorable media coverage in the West.

It is fair to say that Putin has probably been the most dominant newsmaker in the world in the past year.  Even his threat to invade the Ukraine continues to be part of the news cycle as the U.S. and Iran grapple with a terrorist insurgence in Iraq. No one should doubt Putin’s skills in the world of realpolitik. What I question is the lack of media scrutiny behind the skills and his ultimate aims.

U.S. politicians opposed to Obama and western journalists add to the coverage of Putin by acknowledging his success at defeating his opponents, particularly President Obama. As part of their partisan agenda, Republicans do not hesitate to portray the American President as weak and outmatched by the Russian President—as if it was a heavyweight championship match between the two.

Why is it that Putin has such a strong hold in the West? After all, his policies range from ultra-nationalist paranoia, to outright repression, to systematic provocation, to blatant disrespect for international law, and to hard-core strategic calculation no matter what the humanitarian costs are.

Clearly, Putin has a plan and has no hesitancy in executing it. He is counting on war-fatigue and polarization in the U.S. and Western Europe as he whips up nationalist fervor in his own country. He is also benefitting from “scorecard” reporting—who won the latest confrontation—in the western press and lack of analysis from an international law perspective.  Sanctions are one way to isolate Putin, but so is widespread scrutiny of his motives in the world press.

Moreover, Putin seems to be getting away with his questionable tactics and no one seems to assess how he is emboldened in the process. The crisis in the Ukraine is far from over, the Middle East is more unstable than ever and the UN is less effective as Putin never fails to use his veto if it is in his interests.

In the meantime, western allies are divided on how to interpret the true nature of Putin’s actions, how to counter them and how they are contributing to instability in the world.  Hopefully, this will change before it’s too late.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, transnational politics

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