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Re-evaluating Putin

| Friday, April 4, 2014

The Western world’s fear of Russia has been ever present in the last century. Americans felt that the Marxist ideals that created the Soviet Union were a threat to our existence, forever driving a wedge between the two countries. Even when united in opposing Nazi Germany, America’s alliance with the Soviet Union was tenuous at best. The Cold War that followed ratcheted tensions still higher, as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Americans grew to fear and loathe the image of “the Russian.”
The Cold War, of course, has ended, but a hundred years of ingrained animosity is not so easily dissipated. Casual “Russophobia” effortlessly weathered the end of the Cold War, and our cultural impressions of the country remain sharply negative. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared Russia “our biggest geopolitical foe.” Russian characters in the media have remained uncomplicated villains, with Rocky’s Ivan Drago giving way to Call of Duty’s Vladimir Makarov. Americans remain distrustful and vaguely contemptuous of the Russian Federation, with many believing it to be no more than a Xerox copy of the Soviet Union it replaced.
Nothing more exemplifies this attitude than the media’s recent treatment of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Putin’s impassive demeanor, history as a colonel in the KGB and over-the-top macho persona have made him a target for derision by the West since the day he took office. Russia’s offer of asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Putin’s criticism of our support for the rebels in Syria certainly did nothing to repair his image with the American people. However, it was the Winter Olympics in Sochi and subsequent invasion of the Crimean Peninsula that recently brought anti-Putin sentiment to a boil.
Before I go any farther, I want to make this clear: I wholeheartedly oppose many of the Putin administration’s policies. Russia’s recent effort to stamp out so-called “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” by criminalizing the free speech of LGBT activists is a human rights violation unbecoming of a first-world country. Putin’s territorial expansions into Chechnya, South Ossetia and Crimea have likewise been ham-fisted bullying worthy of harsh criticism.
With that said, I find it impossible to write Putin off as inept. Many of his other policies have benefitted Russia and the world immensely and thus must be included when discussing his quality as a world leader.
Vladimir Putin took control of Russia in 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned in the middle of a national depression and government default. Over the next eight years, the Russian economy saw an incredible rebound, averaging a gain of 7 percent per year. Putin’s policies sextupled the Russian GDP and massively expanded the middle class. Russian wages tripled; unemployment and poverty were halved while murder and terrorism rates plummeted.
Although Russia has also made plenty of mistakes internationally, there remains much to commend. Russia became a member of the World Trade Organization in the early 2000s, signaling a desire not to fight the new era of globalism, but to participate. Putin signed both the Kyoto Accord and the New START missile treaty, and Russia is neatly meeting its targets for both. More recently, the Putin administration defused the Syrian crisis with a much-needed compromise. When Washington seemed bent on a protracted war that would needlessly kill thousands of people on both sides, it was the Kremlin that stepped in and negotiated the destruction of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles.
Finally, I believe that Putin and his government deserve the benefit of the doubt in their actions due to the circumstances of the new Russia. In times of great crisis for a nation, even Americans have condoned authoritarian measures we would otherwise scorn. Would we have tolerated the Sedition Act or Abraham Lincoln’s internment of war protesters had these acts not occurred during the most uncertain times in American history? Perhaps this double standard is what Putin himself was referring to when his New York Times editorial warned that “[i]t is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”
Only cult members honestly claim to share all political opinions with their leaders. It’s perfectly possible to disagree with some of Vladimir Putin’s policies — which, I repeat, I do — but we ought also to recognize the positive contributions he’s made to Russian life. Only then can we accurately judge him.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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