The Western world may be divided on how to deal with Vladimir Putin. But one thing we can all agree on, right? The President of Russia is the evil guy in this particular drama.
Actually no. One of the more revealing and depressing features of international politics is the existence of a Putin cult. There is a significant group of world leaders and influential political figures who greatly admire Putin. His fan club is global and spans Asia, the Middle East, America and Europe.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was on hand when he remarked in 2018: “There is a worldwide demand for special, sovereign leaders, for crucial… Putin’s Russia was the starting point.”
When Putin first emerged as Russia’s leader in 1999-2000, he looked like an anomaly – a powerful nationalist in an era of technocratic globalists. Angela Merkel, Germany’s former chancellor, once suggested that Putin try to apply 19th-century techniques to another era.
But with democratic values challenged around the world, Putin increasingly looks like a man who foresaw the future of global politics rather than a relic of the past. The Russian leader has attracted fans and emulators who admire his ruthlessness, his willingness to use violence, his macho despite “political correctness” and his autocratic leadership style. As Russian commentator Dmitry Trenin put it last week: “Putin is a pre-communist leader. . . He’s a tsar. “
A major danger of the current Ukraine crisis is that if Putin looks victorious, his leadership style will gain even more prestige and imitators around the world. Land grabs, military threats, lies and assassinations will resemble a winning techniques.
Putin has already served as a model for a new generation of autocratic leaders and populists, including in Europe and the United States. Donald Trump had to be a little emperor over his admiration for Putin. But some of the former US president’s close aides were more open. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Rudy Giuliani praised Putin: “He makes a decision and he executes quickly…. This is what is called a leader.” During the current crisis over Ukraine, Tucker Carlson, the most influential commentator on Fox News, has openly supported Putin.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister and the self-proclaimed champion of “illiberal democracy” in the EU, is visiting Putin this week. In the past, Orban has argued that the EU needs to recognize that “Putin has made his country great again”. Like Putin, Orban has positioned himself as a champion of a minority in Ukraine – in his case, ethnic Hungarians.
Putin’s other prominent fans in Western Europe include Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit campaigner, and Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s hard right-wing league and former deputy prime minister. Farage commented on Putin’s deployment of troops to the Middle East: “That’s how he played it all with Syria. Brilliant.” Salvini once posed for pictures in Red Square wearing a Putin T-shirt.
The Putin fan club extends into Asia and the Middle East. Rodrigo Duterte, leader of the Philippines, has been widely accused of sponsoring death squads during his time as president. When Duterte was asked which world leader he most admired, he replied “my favorite hero is Putin”.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, another self-proclaimed tough guy, enjoyed going to Russia to discuss geopolitics with Putin. His re-election campaign in 2019 included a poster of the Israeli leader shaking hands with Putin under the slogan “Netanyahu: In a league of his own”.
Putin has forged ties with strong leaders elsewhere in the Middle East. He handed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt, a gift of a Kalashnikov rifle. Sisi, whose security forces have killed hundreds of protesters on the streets of Egypt, seemed delighted with the gift.
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto leader, is another Putin fan. When he came to power, some British advisers to MBS noted his astonishing admiration for Putin and commented: “He was fascinated by him… He liked what he was doing.”
The sympathy between the Saudi and Russian strongmen took on a new dimension after MBS was accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. For a while, it seemed as if MBS was risking becoming an international pariah. It was Putin who did a lot to welcome him back into the club of world leaders. At MBS ‘first G20 summit after the Khashoggi assassination, the Saudi leader was high-fived by a grinning Putin. Putin himself was later accused of approving the assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader.
The effervescent handshake between Putin and MBS goes to the heart of the international Putin cult. The Russian admirers’ biggest admirers are often those, like Duterte and MBS, who share his taste for violence and his contempt for human rights.
Therefore, the current confrontation between Russia and the West is about more than Ukraine’s independence, although it is important. The outcome of the crisis may also determine the tone of world politics. If Putin faces Western democracies, his dull, strong leadership style will look like the wave of the future.