The West Needs To Stop Obsessing About Putin – Analysis


By Simon Hoellerbauer and Melinda Haring*

Whether the Western media views Russian President Vladimir Putin as losing or winning, as strong or weak, as having a plan or lacking one entirely, it focuses almost exclusively on him as the driving force behind everything that happens in Russia and everything Russia does abroad. For good reason. Putin’s aggression is one of the top foreign policy challenges today. From Ukraine to Syria, no one stands in starker opposition to the Western world order.

Thus, Putin must go.  Focusing on the man, however, ignores the system that he’s put into place, and that system is the key to understanding today’s Russia and how we should deal with it.

The West’s Putin obsession feeds the misconception that if Putin were to step down tomorrow, Russia would be able to democratize and retake its place in the international community. Perhaps at one point in the early 2000s the removal of Putin would have made it possible for Russia to avoid a darker path. But that thought is no more than fantasy today. Putin is the central figure in the government apparatus, and members of his government cannot envision a Russia without him. Yet he has made the political future of Russia unstable by co-opting its political system, twisting it to serve himself and the elite who serve him, instead of the Russian people, and forging a system of rule that will, paradoxically, survive him and hinder democratization.

Putin’s regime is not an effective, responsive government. He has based his authority on corruption, the negation of basic political rights, the alternating appeasement and subjugation of the oligarchs, and manipulation of his people through control of the media. Even if Putin felt secure enough to appoint a successor who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution, as Putin did for Yeltsin, that successor would face problems simply by not being Putin.

This does not mean that Putin must stay for the sake of stability, or that his presence guarantees stability. Russia is not a stable country under Putin. Since the invasion of Crimea, the ruble has lost 50 percent of its value in relation to the dollar, Russia’s GDP has dropped by almost 1 trillion dollars since 2013, and Russia’s oil and gas industry has a bleak future. Russia is not a status quo international actor, as its mischief-making in Ukraine and muscle-flexing in Syria demonstrate. And with xenophobia and propaganda-induced nationalist hysteria on the rise, it could get worse, especially if a more erratic, nationalist politician were to succeed, or supplant, Putin.

If democracy is to have any hope in Russia, change must be organic, with the Russian people at its head. Democratic reformers hope that Putin’s powerbase, with its reliance on economics and the menace of external enemies, eventually crumbles and collapses under its own weight. Putin’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, spinning from crisis to crisis as he tries to maintain momentum and keep his people’s attention away from the country’s economic downturn and the population’s lack of basic rights and democratic freedoms, does not seem sustainable in the long term. Democratic hopefuls may get their wish.

An implosion may not bring about a positive outcome, however, as Russia’s own experience with the dismantling of the Soviet Union shows. The chaotic end of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rollercoaster of what the West called reform, but many Russians called ruin, had frightening consequences. It largely discredited democracy in the eyes of Russians. They do not want to go through anything similar again.

The sad truth is that only time and more failure can push Putin from his throne. Direct external pressure will only serve to ignite the volatile mix of nationalism and fear—of the past and the future—that reigns in Russia. The West must do its best to make Putin an anachronism, to show Russians that there is a better world. If the United States wants to see Putin out of power, it must be ready for a Russia without Putin and a period of turmoil that could make the end of the Soviet Union look downright peaceful in comparison. The media can help by focusing less on Putin as an epic villain and more on the system that he’s created, how that system blights Russia’s present, and the problems it is likely to bequeath to our common future.

*About the authors:
Simon Hoellerbauer
is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers. Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

this article was published by FPRI.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

One thought on “The West Needs To Stop Obsessing About Putin – Analysis

  • November 27, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Some unstated assumptions underlying this analysis need to be examined: first, the situation in Russia today is the result of Western economic meddling, led by such prominent westerners as Jeffrey Sachs; second,the decline in the rouble’s value resulted from the corrupt relationship between the US and the leader of OPEC, Saudi Arabia (the precipitous decline in oil prices, has been deliberately arranged in order to ruin Russia economically); third, the neo-Cons in D.C. have not the remotest desire to show Russians “there is a better world”; (their policies are designed to weaken and, if possible, to rid the world of Russia, a plan carefully laid out in Z. Brzezinski’s book “The Grand Chessboard”); fourth, the “meddling in Ukraine” was US State Dept./CIA meddling with an assist from our flunkeys in the EU and the IMF, not Russian, in order to install a US-controlled puppet govt. led by Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko, Natalie Jaresko, and other US-chosen figures imported from outside Ukraine and naturalized.
    Background: When Pres. GHW Bush got Mr. Gorbachev’s agreement to reunify Germany, he promised Gorbachev that NATO “would not move one inch closer to Russia’s borders,” a promise subsequently violated by Clinton and all his successors. The US Council on Foreign Relations, packed with disciples of Z. Brzezinski who hates Russia, has too much influence in D.C. The constant US refrain is that Russia is an “expansionist power” whereas it is the US, not Russia, that has roughly 1000 military bases around the planet and the infamous PNAC plan to maintain US military/economic hegemony for the 21st Century.
    The biggest fantasy, underlying this article, however is the fantasy that the US has a democracy and that it would be desirable for Russians to have something similar. True, the US maintains its farcical election processes, but via SCOTUS, the corporations running the military/industrial complex and the media have bought up every section of the US government. Feeble discussions ensue about “getting corporate money out of US politics” but they mean nothing and go nowhere. The notion that the people of the US have any influence over the Congress, the Executive Branch, or the CIA has almost no basis in reality. The passage of the Patriot Act and NDAA #1021 has turned the US into a totalitarian state in which any citizen can be arrested, denied habeas corpus, and put into indefinite military detention for as long as the government deems necessary. This ability to “disappear” citizens is the hallmark of a totalitarian state, which is what we now are. We are not in a position to preach the desirability of “democracy” to Russia. Last, the major threat to international peace is now the US, which, as its illegal invasion of Iraq showed, acts in the world outside of international law or the mandates of the U.N. And it does so with impunity and an unparalleled arrogance not seen before in the history of the West.The vast destructive potential of nuclear weapons coupled with the arrogance of the neo-Cons embedded in the US government (not removable via elections)is created a world situation of unprecedented danger for the people (whose beliefs and reactions are controlled almost entirely by Big Brother).


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