According to most articles written by American “journalists” and the information presented by the current administration, Vladimir Putin is a despicable person who cannot be trusted. Clearly he wants to expand Russia to the old borders of the Soviet Union according to these “experts.” Additionally, anyone who does not treat Putin in this manner is somehow a “stooge.” The first article on my news feed this morning was the suggestion by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager that her opponent, Donald Trump, is a “puppet” for the Kremlin. The legacy of Joseph McCarthy lives again in the campaign of one most would call a liberal democrat. Distaste for and distrust of Vladimir Putin cuts across party lines, however. There are plenty of conservative Republicans giving life to the same legacy.
Back at the beginning of this summer some major, trusted polls indicated that Putin’s popularity in Russia had fallen to a two year low. It is down to 80%. One does not see any Western leader coming anywhere close to this kind of positive rating from their constituents in the best of times! So pundits and observers were forced to explain how this terrible person is so popular in his own country. I surveyed a few articles by authors who tried. One option is the military explanation (Bloomberg). When the Ukraine crisis flared and “Putin annexed Crimea” his ratings went up to 88%. The same phenomenon happened when Russia went into to Syria. The weakness of this explanation is that Putin has maintained high approval ratings for sixteen years, and not just in times of conflict.
Others actually interviewed a few Russians. Unfortunately, the ones I could find that did so, chose to follow up with either the very rich or the very poor. The rich like him because even though energy prices are down and the sanctions are in place the economy could have been much worse. On the other hand, the poor Russians like him just because they are patriotic toward whomever is in charge. The unstated presupposition was that poor Russians are too ignorant to know any better. But the very rich and the very poor hardly make up 80% of the population of Russia. Now, there was one other option I read: Deny, deny, deny. Tim Daiss wrote a piece in Forbes that just ignored the polling and stayed on theme with how the sanctions had “ripped” into Russia and were causing “angst” for Putin. I looked up his bio information because I’m thinking where is he living in Russia that led him to believe this view is accurate. Well, he lives in Vietnam and apparently does know something about that part of the world. I hope so, anyway, because he knows nothing of Russia.
I want this blog to be more about everyday life here. But one can’t ignore the political situation between America and Russia. To be able to communicate what life is really like here I find I have to disspell so much misinformation (aka lies by “journalists”). I do try to read what economists and energy experts say, but I’m no economist. I can, however, look at life here and compare it to trends I have seen since visting here in 2002 and 2003 and living here 2005-2008 and living here now. I also have tried as best as I could to familiarize myself with persons with stronger academic credientials in Russian studies than I who also maintain an academic and intellectual integrity in their studies.
Even before our move I have enjoyed learning as much as possible about the history, politics and language of Russia. I have learned to filter out those, like Daiss or any writer on Russia for Newsweek. I want to learn from those who give me greater insight into Russia which goes beyond (but not in contradiction to) my experiences here. Frankly, I have excluded most of what I see in the Western press. I find writers like Stephen Cohen, Gilbert Doctorow and a few others really understand Russia and Russians. They’ve devoted their careers to finding answers that have nothing to do with the political winds or what sells. My focus, however, is on finding out what “regular” Russians think. What do I sense from conversations with Russians and addresses I hear from President Putin himself here in Russia? How does one explain his enormous popularity for over sixteen years?
First, I think he articulates in a clear, serious, and careful way what his goals are and the rationale for actions he takes. The first thing that impressed me here was that he does not speak “sound bite” language. You know, the kind of political speeches I hear in America that have no real theme and no rationale for the attempts at a theme. The political speeches I’ve heard this year sound even more disjointed than ever. Now, I’m not putting all the blame on the politicians. The massive lack of integrity in the media in America is on display when they lift portions of quotes and apply them in a totally different contexts than what the speaker intended. Fortunately, the media do get caught more now because of the impact of Facebook and other forms of social media. On the other hand, Putin’s answers are usually longer and more complex than what I was accustomed to hearing from politicians in America. Overall, I would say this keeps the interested Russian population more informed, and they get a better understanding of why he does what he does and where he intends to lead the country.
Further, in 2002 (I believe) he started having regular Q & A sessions with local groups of citizens from various places in Russia. Some of the questions are complex and deal with matters and numbers that are researched beforehand. But in one of them I watched recently a grandmother got up and complained that the power had repeatedly been cut off in their apartment buildings. She had contacted the mayor and got no results. The “city” she lived in had a population of 10,000. Putin handled the irate grandmother with compassion and humor. He got involved. The mayor got involved. Things got done! I watched it thinking there is no way any Western leader would even let her in.
The reason it struck me was because I recently read an article by Peggy Noonan on Angela Merkel and the “global mindset” of Western leaders which is so far removed from their constituencies. They welcome “unvetted” refugees to look good to other leaders who have also bought into the global mindset. Merkel’s life is not threatened by her decision. The study showed refugees live primarily in the poorer neighborhoods, and yes, the crime rates there go up. It makes no more impact on Merkel’s daily life than bringing in illegals to America affects the life of Barack Obama. It is easy to be global when you live above the fray, above those who illegals steal from and harm. Do illegals do this? Clearly most do not, but enough do that citizens in Germany ended up dead. But the leaders don’t live in fear because of them. Putin is liked by his people because he does not get caught up in the euphoria of how he has helped these illegal folks without realizing some of them kill people. Just ask the leader of France. Or those who have suffered in Germany because of Merkel’s global vision. Political and religious leaders find it easy to proclaim the virtues of openness when they know those to whom we are open won’t be living next door. Putin makes it clear he welcomes immigrants and hope they come. But he will not lower the standards for entering Russia and risk dangers to citizens so that he will appear “global” to the West.
When turning to how Putin deals with issues within the country, the issue of religion often comes up. He is Russian Orthodox. There is separation of Church and State, but there is a harmonious relationship between Orthodoxy and the State that is not true of the relationship of other religions and the government. He has used government money to rebuild churches and monasteries damaged or destroyed during the era of Communism. There is no law prohibiting Islam, Judaism or any other Protestant or Catholic variation of Christianity or any religion. My own observations are that inter-faith relations are better than ever. I think I addressed the matters of his “anti-missionary” biases fully enough in my earlier blogs.
Putin is also frequently asked about homosexuality by reporters from the West. He insists he is the President of all citizens and that includes homosexuals or those of “minority sexual orientation.” They have a right to a job, fair promotions, recognitions, and the like. They have a right to live together and have their own home or apartment. Yet Russia does not allow “homosexual propaganda” in the schools where minors are taught. Putin stresses that sexual idenity is something that individuals discover for themselves over time, and teachers should not propogate a homosexual lifestyle. As far as other rights for gays and lesbians, e.g., the display of public affection, he leaves that up to each oblast (region) to decide. He makes it clear he believes in traditional marriage and only traditional marriages produce children. In Russia homosexual couples are not allowed to adopt children. The majority of the population of Russia agrees with him. They do not believe any minority gets to tell the majority how the country should be run. On the minority controlling the majority I humorously recall what my sixteen year old said of his experience in America: “It means if one kid got sick from eating yogurt in school the rest of us would never get to eat yogurt at school again.”
Third, the point where Russians and the West see Putin in a completely different light is over international policies. Russians in general see him as strong but not aggressive. The West seems to think Putin is “fixated” on expanding Russian territory. He apparently has this seething desire to restore the Soviet Union borders. In a quote widely published, Putin stated in 2005 that the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”
The Associated Press translation is the one that got picked up (instead of the official Kremlin translation) subbing “catastrophe” for “disaster,” and calling the breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
I read the entire speech, and it is a great speech. His point was that tens of millions of people living in the fifteen Republics were suddenly without the basic necessities of life and no clear understanding of the political future of their Republic. I don’t really have to read about what an awful time it was. My wife doesn’t complain or whine, but to hear what that time was like from her is very moving. What an awful time. And millions of people were suddenly without the staples of life. But the West didn’t “feel their pain,” and did not care. It was no disaster for us, so it was no disaster. The quote which I find in Putin’s speeches more often is, “He who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who wants it restored has no head.” I actually memorized that quote in Russian.
No one here I talk to and nothing I see in Putin’s leadership from here indicates in any way that Putin wants to reclaim the Baltic States or Ukraine or anywhere else. The first reason is he is too smart. I found even in reading Ukrainian historians who were positive about their country, that they were extremely distressed by the continued presence of corrupt oligarchs. Now, the oligarchs who had positioned themselves well in the last days of the Soviet empire were a problem in every Republic. Yeltsin chose not to deal with the corruption in Russia. Putin handled them better than anyone, although he was roundly condemned in the West as a murderer. He let them continue investments and business, but he did not allow them to manipulate politics. If they crossed the line they paid for it, although the accusations the Putin murdered them did not hold up to the light of day.
The International Monetary Fund has constantly warned Ukraine about its corruption in 2015 and 2016. The one sure source of income for Ukraine has been the United States. The truth is Ukraine is on very shaky financial ground and were it not for the West sending the big bucks, it would be even worse. Our veterans and domestic needs be damned. We must save the Ukraine from Putin. Putin has no desire to take over Ukraine, although he clearly would like to see a representative government that respects the “left bank” of Ukraine which is largely Russian speaking. And he will protect them. Putin will not allow Russian speaking Ukrainians left vulnerable to the revolutionaries who took over the leadership of their country illegally. Victoria Nuland’s phone call that was hacked made it clear it was the US, not Russia, pushing the “revolution.” We wanted Yanukovich out even if he was the duly elected President.
Putin is accused of “taking over” Crimea. Crimea has historically been Russian. The overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to re-join Russia. They speak Russian, and they live as Russians. Most Crimeans have never thought of themselves as Ukrainian. Putin has pointed to how different the US attitude was when Albania was a province of Serbia, and the US backed the “Kosovo Albanian’s” quest for independence, and Joe Biden was a leading proponent of bombing Serbia. If the Albanians wanted independence from Serbia then they should have it we insisted. And we would force the issue militarily (as we often do). But when the Crimeans wanted freedom from Ukraine to return to being a part of Russia (as it was originally) we issued sanctions against Russia for the horrible action of giving them the freedom to do what they wanted. When the US said the situation with the Albanians was different from Crimea, Putin said he agreed: The difference, however, was no one was killed when Crimea voted to rejoin Russia. Again, Russians see Putin as pointing out the US hypocrisy.
The Baltic States are also way too risky for any country to want to “take.” While Estonia seems to have stabilized and the relationship with Russia is uncertain, last year Latvia’s population decreased by 8.7% and Lithuania by 11.3%. Since the fall of the USSR about half the ethnic Russians have returned to Russia. Since both countries are members of the EU many skilled workers left for better paying jobs in Western Europe. There seems to be little that can be done to stem the dire consequences of the dwindling population and work force. No one here writes or talks about Putin wanting to expand Russia’s borders.
It is important to keep the bigger international picture in mind. America has bases literally all over the world. They participate to some degree in the majority of wars and conflicts in the world. Russia tried that in Afghanistan, and it went poorly. They don’t want a repeat. Putin is strong against terrorists. Make no mistake. He believes ISIS and others of like spirit are very dangerous, and if asked by any country Russia will join the fight. Putin has tried repeatedly to get America to fight terrorism together. But America insist on calling the shots even when it has called so many shots wrongly. Our Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, has that rare combination of diplomatic idiocy, narcissism, and “lap dogism” that one rarely sees in one person. He insists that America has a right to go into Syria and tell the Syrians how we will handle this ISIS situation, and if they harm any of the “moderate” rebels (as deemed by the US) we will retaliate. We declared a no-fly zone in their country.
The point is Russians see through this duplicity. Putin’s agenda is not about expanding the borders of Russia. That myth is a creation of the Military Industrial Complex of America. Retired General Richard Cody recently spoke to US Defense Contractors and lamented that after Communism and the Berlin Wall fell, business “went south.” In his words, “peace broke out all over.” But better days are ahead he assured them. With Russia’s saber-rattling, they can sell a lot of arms. Never mind that Russia isn’t rattling any sabers. The US spends $609 billion dollars on its military and Russia spends $85 billion. That’s a lot more sabers to rattle. Russia has ten military bases outside the borders of Russia, and all but two of them are in the old Soviet Republics. I really could not get a firm count on how many military bases the United States has around the world. It is at least 800, more than any empire in history. If we choose to spend our money all around the world to show our strength and influence then we ought to stop the national hypocrisy of acting like Russia is the aggressive one. We want the right to join with NATO in placing bases very close to Russian borders but would scream to high heaven if the worked out a deal with Mexico or Canada and did the same. If you are an American and your son or daughter goes in the military there is a good chance he or she will fight and risk life and limb for a country that cares nothing for America. In Russia, that is not likely to happen. Putin focuses on Russian security and does not try to play “king maker” around the world.
Putin has indicated on different occasions the nature of the Russian economy and the goals he has for the country. First, Russia is the third largest producer of oil and the second largest producer of natural gas in the world. Thus, the low price of oil right now means that things are harder economically. But he still has plans to increase Russia’s ability to deliver oil to China and other places. BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) may be the undoing of the “petro-dollar.” If so, the US is in trouble.
Second, Russia has upped its production of grain. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted 2016 will be a record harvest for grains in Russia. It appears now that Russia may be the largest supplier of wheat in the world this year. Also, Putin’s goal is to make Russia the largest producer of non-GMO foods in the world. Two thirds of EU states reject GMOs, so this goal is quite important. I was shocked when I came here and saw huge wheat and corn fields where the farm land was formerly fallow.
Related to the grain production, Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient in terms of food production by 2020. In 2005 Russia imported half of its food. In 2014 it exported more than $20 billion worth of grain alone. Predictions are that in 2016 it will be $30 billion. Inflation remains a problem at about 6%, but most predictions are that it will continue to drop. Clearly the economy is growing and is more diversified.
Putin has also done a very good job of keeping Russia’s external debt manageable. The latest figures I could find rank Russia at 19th in terms of external debt. The US ranks as number 1, which is not surprising. The US maintains a huge external debt, about twice what the next highest is (UK). Third and fourth on the list is France and Germany. So Russia’s main western antagonizers are far more deeply into external debt than Russia. In 2014 President Obama said it was important to remember “Russia doesn’t make anything.” Then in January of 2016 he stated that the sanctions had “left Russia isolated, its economy in tatters.” Clearly that is not true. I live here. I keep up with the news here. Russia’s economy is far from being in tatters, and international relationships in Eurasia are looking more positive.
Russians are not a gullible people. They have had some “interesting” political leaders who have made them suspicious. Putin was chosen by Yeltsin as his successor, and Yeltsin was dispised. Putin took over a horrible political, economic situation. But even as Prime Minister before he was named as President he had already impressed many in Russia in those very awful days. The country was down emotionally, economically and spiritually. I saw this personally when I came here in 2002. Putin earned their approval; he did not inherit it. It is now pretty clear the West did not think anyone could pull Russia out of its low condition. They made promises they did not keep because they thought Russia would continue to be weak. They miscalculated. Russia is no longer weak, so it is important for Western leaders to make their leader look corrupt—as if American politicians remain above corruption.
I think there is a significant number of Russians who do not really like Putin, but still would give him their approval as a leader. And he is roundly criticized by some journalists, although definitely not the majority of them. So in some ways opinions are quite divided over him as a person. Do not think everyone here likes Putin. But still many who do not like him are able to detach their own personal distaste for his leadership style and other details from their evaluation of what he has done for the country. They do not like him, they long for someone else, but they do understand and approve of many things he has accomplished. I don’t have to read statistics to know life in Russia is better by a long shot than when Putin came to power. My purpose has not been to show what a great guy Vladimir Putin is. Clearly he has done more than most imagined for Russia. I dealt with him at length in this blog because when I start talking about life in Russia, the first response I get, “Yeah, but that awful guy Putin…” I hope this blog has dispelled some of the falsehoods. My own perspective, I admit, is when I look at the political leaders and the political situation in my home country of America and the leadership and the situation in the country in which I live now, I think the latter is in much better hands–by far.