In September, President Vladimir Putin became the longest serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. Putin’s longevity is too often forgotten. Instead, we tend to focus more on what seems new. This week, for example, much of the US media was whipped up by the first charges made in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Other new stories have surfaced as well. As I write in an essay in the latest Foreign Affairs, the Russian military buildup along the country’s western border has come about only in the last few years. But the origin of these and other problems — what connects them all — is not new. Responsibility lies with the shadowy man who has controlled the Kremlin for so long.
“Putin and his cronies want only to preserve their wealth and their power,” former Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday when he gave the fifth annual Louis B. Susman Lecture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He’s absolutely right, and Biden’s speech (which you can watch here) is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of explaining the Russian leader and his motives.
PBS Frontline has produced a superb two-part program titled “Putin’s Revenge,” the second hour of which aired Wednesday. It tells an uncompromising account of how and why the Russian leader decided to target the United States. There is also the latest Economist cover, which features an image of a bemedaled Putin and the words “A tzar is born.” The accompanying article is well worth the read. More specialized publications, such as the Journal of Democracy with its new suite of essays titled “The Kremlin Emboldened,” have added to the discussion as well.
The image that emerges is of an authoritarian leader who has bent the state into a barricade around himself through fear, intimidation, and violence. Putin is consumed with preserving the status quo, and actively opposed to anything approximating liberal democracy or a routine transition of power. More to the point, he’s not even a reform-minded autocrat in the mold of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who viewed piecemeal economic development and professionalization as a necessary sop to his people. For Putin, any change, other than what further strengthens his power, is bad.
The result is a bitter paranoia about authority that has seeped down into the state, salting the earth of any meaningful political opposition or deliberation. As M. Steven Fish writes in the Journal of Democracy, "There is no Politburo, just Putin’s inner circle. There are no powerful politicians, just Putin’s administrators. There is no Party, just a party that lacks a shred of authority apart from its association with Putin." As one presidential aide amplifies in the Economist cover story, “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”
For now, many in Russia may cheer Putin’s years in power, and the likely additional years he will serve after securing victory in the 2018 presidential election. The former KGB agent has brought stability and a modicum of prosperity to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they say. Not quite. Putin has placed his country on the edge of a cliff, and there are no institutions, procedures, or norms set to prevent the country from tumbling over when the Russian president, years from now or tomorrow, himself succumbs to oblivion.
“The Kremlin’s habitual use of history as a resource for shaping the present makes its reticence about the 1917 revolution all the more conspicuous,” notes the Economist in its briefing section this week. There might be a simple explanation. One hundred years on from the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian oligarchy seems to have more in common with the ancien régime of the czars than the young political upstarts of the revolution. Putin himself, as the Economist explains, certainly has many of the trappings of a 21st-century czar.
“I strongly recommend you read my colleague’s speech,” Joe Biden said on the Council stage on Wednesday about this address, which Senator John McCain gave upon receiving the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia on Oct. 16. It’s a good recommendation. “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” the senator from Arizona said. “We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.” In all, it is a resolute and clear statement of American values at a time when such clarity of thought and concision of language is most welcome in politics.
John Wagner and Scott Clement/The Washington Post
“I was determined we were going to change the damn world,” Joe Biden said of the optimism that drove his early life in politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s hard to find such optimism today. A new poll by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland yields many dispiriting results: 7 in 10 Americans say political divisions are at least as big now as during the Vietnam War; 6 in 10 say Donald Trump’s presidency is making US politics more dysfunctional; 7 in 10 say the nation’s politics have reached a dangerous low point; and a majority of Americans say this is a “new normal,” rather than a temporary anomaly.
Philip Stephens/Financial Times
It was really just a matter of time. Since Britain voted to leave the European Union — decided, definitively, on that one issue — the number of ways in which Brexit could happen has furiously multiplied. Hard and soft, deal and no-deal, each flavor of Brexit has been cooked up, tasted, and spat out. The only bit that has seemed fixed and non-negotiable was that, per Article 50, whatever happened would happen by 2019. In this smart piece in the Financial Times, Philip Stephens says, no, even that bit isn’t set in stone. In the process, he adds two more possible outcomes: late Brexit and no Brexit.
David Sanger, Choe Sang-Hun, and Motoko Rich/The New York Times
The most effective and unsung international agreement preventing nuclear proliferation over the last few decades has been countries entering into alliances with the United States. For years, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Germany, and other nations have foregone obtaining the devastating weapons because they felt confident in US commitments to come to their defense if needed. Yet that looks to be changing, at least in Asia, as this expertly reported piece in the New York Times reveals. Recent nuclear belligerence by Pyongyang and growing doubts about Washington’s steadfastness have led some in Seoul and Canberra — as well as in Taipei and Naypyidaw — to look afresh on the possibility of atomic weapons.
Tom Mitchell/Financial Times
“Mr. Xi has clearly had a very good year,” writes Tom Mitchell in the Financial Times. The Chinese president began 2017 with a much-lauded speech at Davos that cast his country as a responsible global citizen. Then came several months of strong economic news. And in the last few days Xi has overseen the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, which presented him with a raft of new accolades and laurels. Nonetheless, writes Mitchell, Xi has a long way to go before he can credibly claim to be a historical rival to Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong.
Philip Bowring/The New York Review of Books
“Xi is making China great again,” Philip Bowring writes of the Chinese president in the New York Review of Books. Xi is accomplishing this feat through his ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which invokes romantic notions of the Silk Road of ages past. Yet Xi and many Chinese may be viewing the history of the Silk Road through rose-colored glasses, Bowring argues. The actual history of trading and trekking across the Eurasian landmass is fraught with challenges and — most relevant to the present — rising nations overreaching abroad and wasting wealth.
Adam LeBor/Financial Times
“In short, it is all, as Israelis call it, a giant balagan, or mess,” writes Adam LeBor of Israel nearly seven decades into its modern existence. The upcoming anniversary, and LeBor’s visit back to the country to sort out the balagan, results in a wonderfully written and insightful essay in the Financial Times that is as much about looking ahead as it is about reflection. LeBor’s deep care for and knowledge about Israel clearly comes across as he travels to some of the country’s lesser known locales, such as Tel Lachish, Ein Sarid, and the outskirts of Jaffa.
“Climate Change” is a politically charged but somewhat poorly understood term outside of the specialized realm of climatologists. After all, it involves a lot of math. To translate the problem out of the argot of scientists, a group of European researchers has set out in the pages of Science to explain in layman’s language what would need to happen for the world to achieve the goals of the Paris climate accord. In Vox, Brad Plumer translates the report a step further into bullet points and timelines, revealing a simple but sobering analysis of the massive task much of the world has set out for itself.