Vladimir Putin and the Return of Russophobia: Symbols of a Changing WorldMichael Orion Powell-Deschamps I Geopolitics I Commentary I December 20th, 2016
Something peculiar has happened in modern geopolitics. Russia, a country that arose nearly as a fractured version of the much larger Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, has arisen in our time as one of the most powerful and feared power brokers in the world.
President Vladimir Putin's role in Russia's rebound has led to his vilification in the United States and much of the Western world. He has been featured numerous times on the cover of mainstream Western magazines, whether leading a rebellion of nationalist leaders on the cover of the Economist or being accused of attempting to subvert American elections on the cover of Time. Some covers have even gone as far as picturing him with enhanced, evil green eyes.
Putin is a chameleon. American progressives see him as a white nationalist, while leftists such as Venezuelean leader Nicholas Maduro award him peace prizes. American conservatives see him as a "KGB thug," as Adam Taylor of Business Insider put it, while America's new Trump-style crop of "Alt Right" nationalists see him as an icon. Putin somehow gets a warm reception in Bejiing, Caracas, America's Rust Belt, and even Jerusalem.
Putin's decade-plus-long ascent comes at the time of America's great decline from global control, and his combination of power and charisma is timed just when much of the world, including the United States itself, is looking for alternatives to the Western order. A general alienation from American command is the uniting facet from the quite disparate leaders that have attracted to Putin's rise, be it Nicholas Maduro, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Rodrigo Duterte, and the various groups that they represent.
Putin is popular in Latin America. In early October 2016, only a month before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Putin was awarded the 'Hugo Chavez Prize for Peace and Sovereignty' award in Venezuela. Speaking emphatically of the Russian president, Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro said of Putin that he was "a leader that I believe is the most outstanding there is in the world today, a fighter for peace, for balance, and a builder of a pluri-polar, multi-centric world."
Venezuela is not the only country that sees Putin as a peacemaker. In 2011, Putin was awarded with China's 'Confucius Peace Prize.' Whereas the Venezuelans saw Putin as a leader in creating a world of more diversified power, the Chinese praised Putin for his toughness and leadership in fighting terrorism, citing the conflict in Chechnya especially. Translated to English, the accompanying document stated, "His iron hand and toughness revealed in this war impressed the Russians a lot, and he was regarded to be capable of bringing safety and stability to Russia. He became anti-terrorist No. 1 and the national hero."
Pope Francis, the widely popular pontiff, has said that Vladimir Putin is the "the only one with whom the Catholic Church can unite to defend Christians in the East." Francis has also made outreach to the Eastern Orthodox Church a priority for his papacy, a move that the Economist has said is akin to "kissing Putin's ring."
Adding to Chinese and Latin American appeal, and perhaps drastically contrasting to, Putin has been praised by figures within the rising Alternative Right, the once fringe element of American conservatism - widely seen as a "white supremacist" and "fascist" movement -- that has been credited with propelling Trump in to the White House.
Matthew Heimbach, a widely known American white nationalist and leader of the Traditionalist Worker's Party, said quite simply when asked by the New York Times, "Russia is our biggest inspiration. I see President Putin as the leader of the free world."
Sam Dickson, a former Ku Klux Klan lawyer who speaks often at "alt-right" events, said of Putin, "I've always seen Russia as the guardian at the gate, as the easternmost outpost of our people. They are our barrier to the Oriental invasion of our homeland and the great protector of Christendom. I admire the Russian people. They are the strongest white people on earth."
For a white supremacist to claim Putin's Russia as the "barrier to the Oriental invasion of our homeland" while China simultaneously rewards Putin for his "iron hand and toughness" is truly fascinating. Groups that do not like, trust, or respect one another have somehow found a common admiration of Vladimir Putin for the same characteristics.
While Alan Feurer and Andrew Higgins, in their New York Times report, accounted Trump's admiration for Putin as "a dog whistle to a small but highly motivated part of his base," the reality may be much more daunting. Russia's leadership has managed to win over even the most trusted and reliable of American allies. For example, while relations between the United States and Israel declined, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly reached out frequently to Russia.
While the US-Israeli bond is likely to be strengthened with incoming president Trump, who has pledged various itinerary that Israel has sought for years, such as approving Israel's West Bank settlements and the recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital, the trend of Putin winning over countries alienated during the Obama years was still very striking, especially with the internationalist image Barack Obama himself ran with when he campaigned for president.
The popularity and admiration of the Russian president, coming from so many very different audiences, tells us of the increasingly tumultuous and inconsistent state of the world in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
A Post-American World
In 2008, right as Barack Obama was cascading toward his first term as president, American journalist Fareed Zakaria published the book "The Post American World," where he postulated that the policy decisions of Western powers were leading to a world of declined authority for American and other Western powers.
Zakaria primarily saw the economic heft of India and China as the major players in a post-American world. China has a GDP of $9.4 trillion while India has a GDP of nearly $1.9 trillion. With growth rates that exceed the US, both countries represent fierce competition for the American leviathan, which incurs $16 trillion annual GDP as of 2013. Russia, on the other hand, has only $2.1 trillion annual GDP, putting it ahead of India but well behind China and the United States.
For all of their economic weight, China and India have not yet taken on military obligations of the level superpowers usually do. Putin's Russia has taken the lead in the various chaotic situations left behind by America's interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. From Duterte in the Philippines to white nationalists in the US, Putin seems to appeal to people who once looked to the United States military as a source of global dominance.
This in effect explains some of Putin's wide-spanning appeal. In contrast to Obama, who won the more traditional Nobel peace prize in 2008, Putin's prizes from Venezuela and China represent an emerging global culture, breaking the shell of the old world signified by the Nobel -- a world that has been dominated by Western interests for roughly the past half of a millennium. The prize was set up in 1898 in the name of Alfred Nobel, a repentant industrialist and arms profiteer. The peace prizes that Putin received enjoyed him as one of the inaugural recipients.
The 2016 American presidential race especially illustrated how Putin had stepped in to the power vacuum of a declining United States. Russia is being routinely accused of interfering in the elections, much as the US itself boasted of doing in the election of Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s. In response, Putin has asked rhetorically if the US still was a "great country" or if it now was a "banana republic," a term used to malign the unstable governments that riddled Central America in the early twentieth century.
Ironically, the phraseology once reserved for so-called "Third World" countries which invariably found themselves within the realm of western dominance, too chaotic and disoriented themselves to be powers of their own, and almost always exploited into oblivion, is now being directed at the US. In this time, with a bevy of countries like the US eroding from within while being spread thin throughout, we may begin to associate terms like "developing country," "banana republic" or even "Third World" with the once great Western powers, which have failed to adapt or aide their people in meeting a changing world. Putin's role in history specifically may be as the man who symbolized the decline of America's superpower role and the ascent of many other soon-to-be stronger nations in a rapidly changing world.
Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps has been published by the Blue Ocean Network, the San Francisco Examiner, the Heritage Foundation, Tikkun and Talking Points Memo. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from California State University - East Bay and maintains a website, Radical Second Things, which is dedicated to exploring liberation theology and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
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