No More Mister Nice Guy: Newsweek's Kremlin Fairy Tale

"Putin's Dark Descent." That's the minatory headline on the latest Newsweek International Edition. (I'm not sure what's on the current cover of the Stateside edition: "Did Jesus Raise Puppies From the Dead? Theologians Weigh In," or some other burning topic, I imagine.)

In any case, Newsweek International draws up a bill of indictment against the Russian president, who is not at all a nice guy, it seems. The big whopping article is by Owen Matthews (who, as it happens, was once a colleague of mine at the Moscow Times, more than 10 years ago, although aside from his  patented "young fogey" look and jaded aristo mannerisms, I don't recall that much about him.) Matthews' story is a standard rehash of recent low points in Russia's relations with the United States. (Oddly enough, Matthews entirely ignores the far more interesting -- and turbulent -- turn in Russia's relationship with Britain, which has just expelled four Russian diplomats over the Litvinenko affair. Britain wants Moscow to extradite the man that UK police believe was behind Livenenko's fatal radiation poisoning; Russia wants Britain to stop sheltering exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who has lately been using his safe London perch to call for armed revolution in Russia. UK experts say that Moscow-London relations are now at their lowest point since the 1970s.)

The Newsweek piece is not uninteresting, as far as regurgitations of conventional wisdom go. We get the usual quotes from Russian think-tankers and Kremlin insiders, the usual cod-psychology ("Putin desperately wants to be seen as Bush's equal"), and the usual conclusion that sooner or later, the recalcitrant foreigner will have to play ball with his Anglo-American betters: "In time Putin, or more likely his hand-picked successor, will come to see that true greatness means more than just saying 'nyet' to the West." Quite right. For as we all know, the only true greatness in this world comes from saying "Yowza, Boss" to the West.

But again, there's nothing really wrong with the story as such. Putin's regime is increasingly authoritarian. He has cracked down on press and political freedom in Russia. His rhetoric is more hostile toward America's attempts to impose "full spectrum dominance" over the world. He is asserting that he will deal with his "terrorist enemies" just as ruthlessly as the Bush Regime does. He does feel threatened by the US plan to ring Russia with a "missile shield" and fully-loaded NATO bases on former Soviet soil. He is flush with oil money -- thanks in large part to the huge spike in oil prices from Bush's Iraq war -- and thus no longer dependent on Western largess to keep Russia afloat. And so on.

What is objectionable is not the portrait of Putin as a hard man with blood on his hands and a boot on the throat of liberty -- in that regard, our not-so-young-now fogey probably doesn't go far enough. No, it's the whole framing of the piece. (Which, to be fair, might come more from Newsweek's editors than Matthews himself, who was probably given the frame and ordered to go fill it with whatever might fit.) It's the same conventional wisdom that now guides every Western story about Russia: Putin's "descent" into tyranny, Putin's "transformation" from friendly, pro-American "reformer" into the malevolent progenitor of a new Cold War. "Though his shy smile remains the same, behind it is a very changed man, "Matthews writes.

But of course, the reality is that Putin is now what he has always been, even when George Bush was looking into his "soul" and finding a good buddy, even when the Russian leader was being praised in every Western capital as a breath of fresh air after the fetid Yeltsin era. Putin is a creature -- and ardent champion -- of the Russian "security organs": a KGB man through and through, dedicated to control, authority, secrecy, and lawlessness in the service of "security" and "stability" and "national greatness." (Yes, this sounds exactly like a good Bushist; the L'il Pretzel wasn't lying when he said he saw a kindred spirit in Putin.)  This is what he was when he first took office -- or rather, was shoehorned into office by that same despised, corrupt Yeltsin. Putin is now what he was when he directed the second Chechen War with overwhelming savagery, to near-total silence from the West. His "descent" into an ugly authoritarianism is nothing but the natural outgrowth of the brutal values he brought to the presidency. The more he has consolidated his hold on the various institutions and levers of power in the weak, chaotic Russian state, the more he has been able to impose his long-held vision of a "managed democracy" on society as a whole.

There is nothing surprising at all about the course Putin has taken. Only those who believe in the fairy-tale version of world events (or the think-tank version, which is largely the same) would be shocked that a KGB apparatchik who took power under murky circumstances in a humiliated land with a nearly unbroken history of authoritarian rule would go on to install a strong-arm regime aimed at "bringing order" to society and "restoring national greatness."

Putin's Russia is an increasingly unpleasant place to live -- or die. (Although it's nowhere near as draconian as, say, China -- and is a veritable paradise of human freedom compared to such Bush allies as Saudi Arabia, Libya and Ethiopia.) One needn't romanticize Russia today -- or paint Putin in glowing colors just because he has a few harsh words for Bush's deranged policies every now and then. He's a cold, ruthless man pursuing his own agenda without any special regard for morality, legality, or the niceties of liberal democracy -- just like his counterpart in Washington. (Although it must be said that Putin has pursued his agenda much more intelligently and successfully than his dimbulb counterpart.) But these jejune fantasies about a deep-souled reformer morphing into a scary monster are ludicrous -- and dangerous -- distortions of reality. Putin is what he is, what he's always been, and he must be dealt with on that basis. The lazy demonizations so beloved of the press, and of policymakers, lead only to disaster -- as we can see every day on the streets of Iraq. They are doubly dangerous when dealing with Russia -- a great power that still possesses the capability of blowing up the world. America's relationship with Russia requires a steady, unfearful, thoroughly informed and unsentimental wisdom to keep it from spiraling out of control. But where in Washington, in either party, can such wisdom be found?