Putin Is Here To Stay And The West Has To Live With Him

The hit film of London right now is “The Death of Stalin” – a Monty Python-esque black comedy in which the Soviet tyrant mocks his lieutenants and then collapses from a terminal stroke as his cronies fight each other, some to the death, over the succession.

It is not clear whether the film will be shown in Russia but the Russian people can now look forward to life under their new voszhd – leader – for about the same length of time as Stalin reigned supreme.

No-one in Russia doubts for a second that Vladimir Putin is heading for a clear victory in the presidential election due to be held on 18th March 2018 – four years to the day that he signed the decree annexing Crimea in 2014.

Putin first arrived as president in 1999 and if he wins a fourth six-year presidential term next year to add his two terms as prime minister it means he will have been running Russia for nearly a quarter of a century.

When he was first elected Tony Blair rushed to Moscow and the two men, still in their forties, clinked steins of beer in a Russian pub. George W Bush went one better and declared he had looked into Putin’s eyes and “I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

That was in Slovenia in June 2001 when Putin warned Bush that Saudi Arabia was financing jihad terrorist groups with help from Pakistan. Three months later Saudi terrorists from Al Qaeda struck on 9/11 and ever since the Taliban and their jihadis have had all the help they need from Pakistan.

One does not need to admire Putin to note that on geo-politics, the rise of Gulf financed Islamist terrorism, and his warning against destroying state structures in Iraq, Libya and Syria, Putin was right and the know-nothings in Washington, London and Paris who plunged into into Arab quagmires this century have been disastrously wrong.

Yet no-one seems able to offer a convincing explanation of his enduring popularity in Russia. In municipal elections held in September, Putin Team candidates scored between 64 and 89 per cent. In Moscow where 1500 seats were contested just 200 went to opposition parties. The two opposition parties were the so-called Liberal Democratic Party headed by Vladimir Zhrinovsky who is a foul-mouthed belligerent nationalist extremist who makes Putin look like a Nordic social democrat by comparision and the Communist Party home to all the Stalin nostalgics.

The official leadership party remains United Russia but Putin is now soaring above party politics and his campaign and supporters are called Putin Team. The latest opinion poll by the respected Levada opinion pollsters places Putin on 68 per cent of popular support with none of the possible opponents next March breaking into double figures.

Like Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled as the Turkish variant of Putin since 2003, the new politics that wins elections is based on an appeal to conservative small-town or rural nationalists far away from metropolitan multi-cultural, liberal elite milieux. Mix in traditional religious iconism, a rejection of bring lectured by the European Union, and enough national wealth to provide a better standard of life for at least a majority if not all people and the formula wins elections.

Much hope is placed in the West on Alexei Navalny and his criticisms of Putin’s corruption, the lack of core democratic freedoms and the confiscation of state assets by a network of former secret police and intelligence officers who have grown in wealth since the 1990s by sticking close to Putin and never challenging his supremacy in the political sphere.

But on the issue that has brought about the biggest confrontation between Putin and the West – the annexation of Crimea and the continuing Kremlin support for the armed rebellion by secessionists in east Ukraine – Navalny dare not profile himself in favour of returning Crimea to rule from Kiev.

As Nikolay Klimenyuk wrote for Open Democracy Navalny does not even mention Crimea in his 2018 presidential manifesto.

Tax a Russian with Crimea and they reply “Kosovo”. Attack Russia’s role in Syria and they retort “Who invaded and destroyed states in Iraq and Libya and opened the path to the Islamic state and millions of refugees seeking to escape to Europe?”

As with Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland or the new mutli-billionaire nationalist populist prime minister in the Cech Republic, Andrej Babis, Vladimir Putin and his Putin Team seems to be made for today’s times. Indeed they have helped create the idea that money and media manipulation are the new tools to win political power via the ballot box as Donald Trump, the Brexit ideologues, and a raft of East European or Turkish strongmen political leaders have shown.

Liberals in the West can lament this development, deplore and denounce Putin but like Erdogan, Kaczynski or Orban he is winning and making the political weather.

Moralising about Putin is no longer an adequate response. The question, as Lenin once asked is: What is to be done? Perhaps after his inevitable re-election someone will provide an answer.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe