Vladimir Putin: Russia’s weak strongman

Shannon Gormley: Putin has maybe by no means been extra insecure than he’s at this second. Naturally, he has simply made a seize for lifelong energy.


Vladimir Putin evokes many ideas (“He’s an evil man,” thinks John McCain in his memoirs; “Will he turn into my new greatest pal?” thinks Trump in a tweet), however none so frequent as two competing concepts of the Russian president’s energy, every ruminated upon by his adversaries however every seeming to oppose the opposite: “Putin is weak,” suppose some; or, suppose others, “Putin is robust.”

In truth Putin is each weak and powerful. The connection between every high quality is extra dynamic than mere coexistence, and his frailty reinforces his menace and his menace reinforces his frailty, as Russia-watchers have noticed. The extra insecure Putin turns into, the extra frightened he turns into; the extra frightened he turns into, the extra aggressive he turns into; the extra aggressive he turns into, the extra reckless he turns into; the extra reckless he turns into, the extra insecure he turns into—and so forth and so forth as Crimea is annexed, American elections are meddled with, Syria is sacrificed.

And Putin has maybe by no means been extra insecure than he’s at this second; naturally, he has simply made a seize for lifelong energy. As his recognition has declined, he has held a referendum to increase presidential time period limits that might enable him to rule into his 80s. It’s out of weak point that he has tried to make sure he can rule as a strongman for all times.


The “Putin is weak, not robust” perception is compelling: beneath him, Russia is affected by grave and apparent issues. There are the financial issues: oil costs are down; the ruble could be very down; sanctions are up; sanctions are staying up; younger persons are leaving. Previous folks, his political base, have threatened to go away him, notably over an abortive proposal to lift the retirement age. The nation is spending an excessive amount of cash supporting separatists exterior its borders, and inside its borders not sufficient cash holding folks above the poverty line; folks residing under the poverty line—one in each 4 households with kids—watch angrily because the president’s allies and the president’s son-in-law and the president himself turn into multi-billionaires. A few of these allies have been focused by sanctions.

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Along with the financial issues, there are the well being issues—fairly, there may be the well being downside, made worse by all of the financial issues and making the financial issues altogether worse in flip. Russia—wherein half of all medical amenities haven’t any scorching water and half of all hospital beds had been minimize between 2000 and 2015, in line with the Wall Street Journal—has the third-largest variety of confirmed COVID-19 circumstances on the planet: over 650,000. Although it’s not recognized exactly what number of Russian folks have died from the virus, Putin may have actually executed extra to curb its unfold, which could have curbed the decline in Russia’s GDP.


Though the Russian president’s weaknesses could go unreported because of the Russian media’s weaknesses, Russian folks can’t assist noticing that beneath the current system they undergo manifold insupportable weaknesses of their very own. Previously few years, a few of Putin’s personal allies have spoken out towards his coverage failures; a few of Putin’s personal get together members have run as independents. Putin’s approval score is decrease than it has been in three a long time.

So, sure, Putin is weak—certainly, the one argument as persuasive because the “Putin is weak, not robust” argument is the “Putin is robust, not weak” argument.

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Inside its borders, Russian media is basically beneath Putin’s thumb, Russian establishments are largely dwarfed by Putin’s management, Putin is Russia’s longest-ruling chief since Stalin, and although his recognition is low in comparison with his previous self, it’s excessive in comparison with many previous and current Western leaders.

Past Russia, the nation can seem even stronger. Russia has invaded Georgia. It has invaded Ukraine. Nordic international locations are afraid it would invade them. It has fairly presumably swayed a civil warfare within the Center East in favour of a dictator who has murdered, tortured and displaced thousands and thousands of his personal folks, swayed an American presidential election in favour of a serial sexual assailant whose companies have needed to declare chapter a number of occasions, and swayed a British referendum in favour of ruining that nation.

These will not be the actions of a weak man however a powerful one—at the very least, they might be had been he not so weak. Putin’s adventures overseas are supposed to enchantment to his personal folks, who’ve good motive to really feel disempowered of their nation and would possibly want to not really feel disempowered on the planet.


The hazard Putin poses amplifies and obscures the state of endangerment wherein he lives. And now, when Putin’s energy is threatened—by pandemic, by economics, by the disillusionment of Russian folks—it’s shored up in a transfer animated by a spirit of fragile fortitude that Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe as soon as described as “classically Putin, and classically Russian: utilizing daring aggression to masks weak point, to avenge deep resentments and, in any respect prices, to outlive.”

This text seems in print within the August 2020 subject of Maclean’s journal with the headline, “The weak strongman.” Subscribe to the month-to-month print journal here.