Americans have three models to choose from when trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is all about. The Russian president can be seen as a nationalist convinced of his country's historic right to bully its neighbors; this is the Russophobic interpretation that sees Putin as a product of a historically vicious culture. He can be seen as an ideologue, either a secret Bolshevik, given his KGB history, or the purveyor of some new authoritarian doctrine, but in any event an active advocate for tyranny. Putin can also be seen as a simple thug or crook -- and this seems to be the approach of Ben Judah, who has written the latest book about him, and of David Frum, the Atlantic contributing editor who has reviewed Judah's book. The thesis of the review, if not the book, is that whatever ideology Putin appears to expound is simply raw meat for the rabble, the assumption being that Putin is only out to enrich himself and his cronies. In Frum's words, Putin is "a combination of Tony Soprano and one of the backup dancers for the Village People, posing as a Siberian tough guy to compensate for the aching weakness of his country and his position in it." Frum appears to share Judah's concern that Putin's cynicism may end up clearing the way for "a real Putin" -- someone who really believes what Putin supposedly believes. Even figures hailed in the west as brave critics of Putin, and thus as liberals by default, have disturbingly populist tendencies and violent rhetoric that makes them sound hardly better than what we have now. Meanwhile, the Russian masses are "nostalgic for the welfare state" of the USSR, if not for its Cold War empire. Their anger makes their embrace of western-style liberalism unlikely, and Putin has allegedly made things worse by egging on hatred of ethnic minorities within Russia and foreigners outside.
Americans may disagree on the exact nature of Putin's dysfunction, but there seems to be a national consensus that he can't simply be a typical statesman, albeit with a less magnanimous attitude toward opponents than some countries credit themselves with. On that point, Frum notes that Putin's dreaded censoriousness is restricted to the realm of television, while Internet critics can get away with more. That aside, our analysts' determination to see Putin as an abnormal ruler implies a standard of normal politics and government that most likely conforms quite closely to American models. I bring this up not to argue that American politics is abnormal, but to question whether our inevitably subjective observers have any business deciding who is normal or abnormal -- or who is legitimate or illegitimate. Americans in particular have a problem dealing with governments and rulers who don't conform to our standards of political conduct; witness our persistent resentment at having to accept equal standing with all those miserable little tyrannies in the U.N. General Assembly or other international bodies where we lack veto power. We deem other countries "cynical" when they do business without questioning the moral legitimacy of the governments they treat with. We tend to blame international problems on the dysfunctions of governments and leaders, e.g. the problem with Ukraine is Putin. Hence Judah also, and Frum implicitly, repeat the cliche that Putin perceives liberal democracy in Ukraine as a threat to his authority in Russia. This obsession with the power of leaders continues to muddy our perceptions of national and ethnic conflicts that predate one man's rise to power. Americans seem enthralled by a Great (or Bad) Man theory of history that misses the point of the Ukraine conflict. And if our policy is to undermine the Great Bad Man, our approach will most likely miss its target and only hurt the little people.