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How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of Putin?

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun.
1.8.16

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun. We hope it'll help you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one slippery fucker. For instance, remember that time he faked an IED attack on his own troops in the Jordan Valley in order to tempt the US military to try and sneak into the attack site, sparking a disastrous battle that allowed him to stop a multinational peacekeeping project on his own terms? Holy shit, what a crafty chess master!

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Wait, I'm thinking of fictional Russian President Viktor Petrov from House of Cards! But I should be just as scared of Putin as President Frank Underwood is of Petrov, right?

According to Anthony D'Agostino, a "Kremlinologist" and professor of Russian history at San Francisco State University, no I shouldn't. Putin's Russia is just one more country with its own interests, and the recently regained ability to stick up for them. Russia now "bucks us on a range of things," D'Agostino told me. "This is not fatal, or it would not be if we did not still expect Russia to cave [on] everything."

This week, the big story on Putin is the theory, largely out of lefty publications like Talking Points Memo, that he and presidential candidate Donald Trump are in bed together. The media consensus seems to be that the hacker or hackers who stole a huge cache of internal communications from the Democratic National Committee, and sowed discord among Democrats, must have been backed—or even directly hired—by the Russian state. "The move has also helped cement Russian President Vladimir Putin in the minds of many US observers as not only a strategic mastermind, but also the Trump campaign's secret weapon," Julia Ioffee wrote in Foreign Policy.

Then again, when it comes to Putin's involvement, there are a lot more questions than answers.

On one hand, there is the Trump/Putin "bromance." Yes, Trump's isolationist views mean the Kremlin most likely prefers Trump to Clinton. And yes, Trump has praised Putin's leadership, and kinda-sorta-but-not-really said the Putin hacker machine should go after Hillary Clinton's emails next.

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On the other hand, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, latching onto the first opportunity to smear a presidential candidate as though he's some kind of Russian sleeper agent isn't just drastic; it's borderline McCarthyesque. "The history of linking your political opponents to Russia is a really dangerous and ugly one in the US. That's basically how, for a decade, the right demonized the left," Greenwald said in a recent Slate interview.

So granted, this conspiracy theory about Putin holding the puppet strings of President Trump is a paranoid Cold War fantasy, but what is the agenda that Putin would be furthering if he hypothetically had a Trump Manchurian Candidate working for him?

"Putin has, step-by-step, acquired this mythical quality," said Nikolai Sokov, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Sokov described Putin's reputation in the West as that of "the ultimate bad guy, who is behind everything that we don't like." Although he hastens to add that "Putin is not a nice guy," and that some of his aims are "harmful."

Putin's tendency to act like an emperor and an autocrat is pretty scary if you're inside of, or near, Russia. Putin appoints regional governors instead of holding elections, including the iron-fisted Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. And while he entertains the idea of term limits for elected officials, he does not, himself, adhere to such limits, and looks like he plans to reign for at least 24 years. And of course, through a protracted show of force, and some sleazy justifications, Putin has redrawn Russia to include the Ukrainian state of Crimea.

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And even if you set aside hearsay—some of which is pretty compelling—about Putin's support for political violence, his domestic policies are monstrous by US standards. A notorious gay "propaganda" law Putin supports provides a legal framework for the crackdown of out-of-the-closet gays. Putin's government literally orders dissenting news stories to be clipped from magazines before they can be sold, and unsanctioned protests are now punishable by lengthy prison terms. Even Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whom Putin is shielding from extradition and prosecution in the US, is horrified by Putin's surveillance measures. Oh, and Putin has banned bad words.

But according to D'Agostino, we all just need to get used to Russia as a major world player again, regardless of how we feel about its internal politics. Fifteen years ago, he said, "Russia was falling apart, yielded to our advice on all things, and looked to us as a model for economic policy." Today, it has "revived somewhat," D'Agostino told me.

For instance, last September, Russia began carrying out airstrikes against militants who opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was an act of defiance against the Obama administration's vision of a future Syria that's free of ISIS, but also free of Assad. In Sokov's opinion, "[Putin] does undermine the credibility of our policy—the credibility of spreading democracy." But he added that when our strategy isn't working out, "we undermine the credibility [of our] policy ourselves."

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But if you take Putin at his word, there's no Russian mission to destroy America. "America is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that," Putin said at last month's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. "We want to and are ready to work with the United States," he added. Sure that quote is obvious political glad-handing, but the alternative to cautiously believing Putin when he's saying reasonable things is surrendering to paranoia.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Putin?

1/5: IDGAF

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.