Monday, February 23, 2015

Putin’s a Thug, but He’s No Hypocrite

I just recently finished reading Masha Gessen’s book, The Man Without a Face, a journalistic recounting of the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, and how he managed to rather quickly snuff out Russia’s hopelessly corrupt democratic interlude under Boris Yeltsin and return the country to the kind of charismatic authoritarian regime a majority of Russians have always been more comfortable with. In light of the quickly rising tensions between Russia and the U.S. in recent years, it’s almost amazing to recall how positively western leaders initially viewed his anointment. None more so than the imbecilic George W. Bush and his now infamous claim to have looked Putin in the eye and seen a man he could trust.

It is fashionable in leftist and antiwar circles these days to defend Putin and Russia’s stance regarding Ukraine, and certainly U.S. meddling in that beleaguered country has been very bad for the Ukrainian people as well as a direct provocation towards Russia itself. But in our condemnations of yet another American imperial misadventure, lets us not forget one important fact: Putin is a vicious thug. And I’m not insulting the man by calling him that either given that, as Gessen recounts, he highlighted examples of his own personal thuggery during his first presidential campaign. Why would he do that? Because it was a subtle signal to the Russian voters that he would end the chaos of the Yeltsin years and give them what so many of them crave above all else: stability and a restoration of the idea of Russia as a great nation.

With the exception of about six months in 1917 and eight years under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Russia has never been a democracy. And by taking advantage of Russia’s geopolitical weakness after the fall of Soviet Union by expanding NATO and encouraging Yeltsin to pursue harsh neoliberal economic policies, the U.S. did about everything in its power to ensure that Russia’s second democratic experiment would fail miserably. Russia in the 1990s needed a modern version of the Marshall Plan to get back on its feet, money that could have come from the so-called “peace dividend” if our so-called “leaders” had any imagination whatsoever. Instead, the country got knee to the groin intended to keep it down forever. The surprise is not that Russia turned to someone like Putin—the surprise is that the lunatics in charge of the American insane asylum are at all surprised that it happened.

Yes, Putin is a thug—but he makes no bones about it. Unlike our last two presidents, he doesn’t pretend that he’s fighting for freedom and democracy. As Gessen recounts, under Putin’s direction Russia has eliminated elections for ALL federal officials, except the presidency—and he has used the mechanics of power (including vote stealing) to make it all but impossible for any challenger to have a chance of defeating him or whomever he anoints to the job in his stead. Yet George W. Bush, having lost the 2000 election by half a million popular votes, sent an army of operatives to Florida to screw up recount activities there just long enough to allow the Supreme Court to install him as president by judicial fiat on a purely partisan vote. That same Supreme Court would a decade later issue the infamous Citizens United decision, which has not only made it all but impossible for any third party challenger to achieve victory, but has also made it all but impossible for a true outsider to win the nomination of either of the two major parties.

Under Putin, Russia has engaged in collective punishment by invading and indiscriminately bombing Chechnya in response to terrorist attacks—at least some of which were likely false flag attacks carried out by Putin’s old buddies at the FSB. At the very least, as Gessen recounts, Putin’s military response to terrorist hostage taking has been designed to maximize civilian casualties, whose deaths he has then used to justify curtailing the civil liberties of Russian citizens. Similarly, Bush and congress used the 9/11 attacks to inflict massive collective punishment upon Iraq and Afghanistan while greatly curtailing the civil liberties of American citizens. Obama has not only continued the mindlessly destructive war on terror, he has expanded it by dropping drones on Yemen and Pakistan, by bombing Libya until it became a failed state and lately by bombing Iraq and Syria in response to the rise of a mass terrorist movement his own policies did much to help create.

Under Putin, Russian opposition journalists have been murdered and Alexander Litvinenko, a whistleblower who fled the country, was assassinated—likely by the FSB. In America, journalists who have been too vocal in opposition to the many war crimes of Bush and Obama have been fired or otherwise lost access to the mass media—being instead relegated to relatively obscure blogs and websites. And while the most prominent American whistleblowers—Manning, Snowden and Kiriakau—are still alive, two are rotting in prison as negative examples to others and the other certainly would be had he not fled to Russia.

Under Putin, the Russian mass media has been brought under the thumb of the president and no longer reports anything but officially sanctioned information. In America a handful of large corporations control virtually all mass media organs, and while the media may at times still report corruption and abuses, it does not ever question the basic idea of American exceptionalism. The American mass media also constantly demonizes Putin and Russia, while the latter use their English language channel, Russia Today, to throw it right back in America’s face.

Under Putin, Russia has become a classic cleptocracy, with the president and his cronies stealing everything that isn’t tied down. The former FSB functionary himself is said to have a current net worth of around $70 billion. American presidents by contrast are well provided for when they leave office, making huge amounts of money from sweetheart book deals, consultancies and speaking tours. Meanwhile, during the presidencies of Bush and Obama wealth inequality has reached record heights as the elite cronies who put them in office have been allowed to engage in systemic fraud and corruption, and then were bailed out when their own corrupt schemes blew up in their faces.

Overall, when comparing the current American versus Russian systems a few minor differences are apparent—but they are mostly a matter of style. American presidents are far less likely than Putin to kill their own citizens but far more likely to indiscriminately kill citizens of other countries, for example. Bush and Obama have a far higher overall body count on their bloody hands, but Putin is by far the more personally corrupt.

Yes, Putin is a definitely a thug and thief. But unlike Bush and Obama, at least he’s not a hypocrite.

Bonus: "Mother Russia rain down down down"


  1. I think the important question here, the one the majority of Americans would like answered, is: 'Who has better hair - Obama or Putin?'

    1. Sorry, Alan, but I have to disagree with you on this one. The question is instead, who looks better with their shirt off?

    2. Bill, it's a tie. Hair? A tie. Murder? Another tie. Now let's talk chess, not chests. Done deal, right?
      Regardless, another succinct summation.
      Now let's talk climate. Done deal, right? Fuck chests and chess.

  2. Thank you for this, it pretty much sums up the situation.

    That America is now a country that produces white political prisoners and refugees is a sort of dark novelty. Not to mention the sort of surveillance we take for granted - they don't have to have cameras, just backdoors. The quality of the propaganda and the ability to pass off political crackdowns like the Occupy crackdown is way, way more sophisticated than Orwell expected, I think.

    But as for peasants like me, we just keep our heads mostly down and try not to get caught up in the machinery. The way Occupy was handled pretty much sealed my opinion of the possibilities for real change.

    As for radical Islam, I think that beast has been growing for a long, long time and mostly I see that as a historical inevitability. While US policy certainly has catalyzed and energized the confrontation, I feel that in many ways it was inevitable. Not that it absolves the US of even a tiny portion of the blood, but in following this over time I've come to see this much like Tolstoy saw the Napoleonic wars - a tide of history. Like Tolstoy I feel that world leaders are compelled by forces much deeper than themselves.

    Have you read War and Peace? A lot of people find Tolstoy's theory of history to be distracting but I found it very powerful. It also raises the question, "what in the people or society gave rise to these wars and these leaders?" This whole blog is partly an answer to this but just like with Tolstoy I feel like it's not totally answered. Like the Supreme Court handing the White House to Bush the lesser - why did it go that way? It was a 5-4 vote and before the Supreme Court was truly packed by the right wing (Alito and Roberts were not even members).

    1. I'm not sure the radicalization of Islam was inevitable--but that is one of those questions we will never know the answer to--certainly Western imperialism in the region has not helped matters in that regard.

      I've never actually read War and Peace, but I will note that Alito and Roberts replaced two other Republican appointed justices, Rehnquist and O'Connor, the former of whom in particular was very right wing.

      As for what gives rise to wars and warlike leaders, I think has to do with the fact that appeals to fear is the easiest way to control a population. Hence the infamous Hermann Goering quote: "...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.'