Moving Beyond the Cold War without Embracing Putin
See also: Russia Flunks Out
Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity among some conservatives is drastically changing the way he and his country are perceived in the US. This transformation has played out against the backdrop of a deeper shift in attitudes towards Russia, with cultural clichés from the Cold War giving way to more nuanced views.
It is a positive sign to see Americans escaping the mentality of the past and re-envisioning the world in new light. It will no doubt be a better world than my generation has known. Russia is not the country it was two decades ago and American foreign policy should not be predicated on an outdated understanding of the world.
Putin, however, is not the rugged conservative figure some conservatives make him out to be.
The man, the myth
At home and abroad, Putin likes to paint himself as the savior of Russia, bringing his country back from the nadir of the Yeltsin years and defending the values of the Orthodox Church along the way.
More recently, his undeniable diplomatic prowess was showcased during the Syria crisis. The Obama administration poorly handled events and Americans found themselves on the brink of military intervention to uphold a "red line" with little meaning. As Ariel Cohen wrote, "Obama seemed to have climbed up the proverbial tree, and it was... Putin who... provid[ed] him a ladder to climb down."
Behind Putin's newfound popularity is a rejection of the foreign policy tenets of the Bush presidency by grassroots conservatives. A new generation of neo-realists led by politicians, such as Rand Paul, is fed up with American finger pointing and lecturing. They're very rightly aware of the giant headache that interventionism has caused the country.
Conservative leaders that speak out against Putin have been lambasted as warmongers and delusional relics of the Cold War. Following his op-ed in Pravda, John McCain was treated as a senile holdout of the Republican old guard. A pundit that recently spoke out on Glenn Beck's media outfit, The Blaze, saw himself similarly treated.
In one sense, it is a positive sign to see a new generation move past the cliché views of Russia. The country and the wider post-Soviet sphere is a dynamic and diverse region. But, the Putin narrative that is emerging among conservatives is woefully flawed.
The Christian façade that Putin has carefully built is as hollow as the country's democracy. He has strategically used the Orthodox Church to reinforce his hold on the country and Russia's Christian neighbors, turning the Church into a nationalist rallying point and leaving spirituality by the wayside.
Putin's image as the strong leader that has brought order and prosperity to a country on the precipice of chaos is a fragile myth fed by the constant rise of oil prices over the past decade. Oil and gas prices, which represent half of the Russian government's budget revenue, have sky-rocketed from prices in the mid-$30 range when Putin took office to well over $100 per barrel today.
High oil prices are the only thing that stand between Putin and the demise of his entire regime. According to a study conducted by Citigroup Russia, he will need to maintain oil prices at $150 a barrel or higher if he hopes to fulfill his campaign promises. Also at stake is his personal fortune, estimated at between 40 and 70 billion dollars. Putin's pillaging of public coffers, which may have made him the richest man in the world, can only be rivaled by Libya's late ruler Muammar Gadhafi.
Russia's neighbors are deserting the country and Putin's Eurasian Customs Union left and right. Putin has resorted to economic warfare to keep Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova from signing free trade deals with the European Union. Armenia only dropped its bid for a trade agreement with Europe after Putin threatened to raise the country's gas bill by a staggering 60%.
Putin is no hero, but neither are Russians the enemy. They are just as much the victims of his petro-dictatorship as the rest of the world. Celebrating Putin as a heroic conservative leader is the wrong way to move past the old paradigm of American-Russian relations.
Chris Stakhovsky is a Ukrainian-born and American-educated oil professional currently living in Kiev.