On the heels of the NATO summit, President Biden is having his first meeting Wednesday with Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman who has become a quasi-mythic adversary for many Americans. Long-standing rivalries between the United States and the Kremlin regime have been exacerbated by Putin’s strange bromance with Donald Trump and his well-deserved image as a democracy subverter. His stance vis-à-vis Biden is likely to be a mix of charm offensive and macho posturing in an effort to obtain concessions, particularly on economic sanctions.
The Biden-Putin summit is very unlikely to signal change in Russia or in U.S.-Russian relations. But the U.S. can hope to contain the damage done by Russian authoritarianism, whether by interceding for political prisoners or by standing with Russia's bullied neighbors.
Putin has now led Russia for 21 years as president and prime minister, circumventing and amending the constitution to keep power. It is now a shock to remember that he began as a pro-Western leader pursuing modernity, prosperity and a stable democratic order. Today, he is the man whose rhetoric usually treats the West as the enemy and domestic opposition as foreign subversion — even while his agents cultivate both far-right and far-left extremist forces abroad. In Russia he has muzzled the media, brought back Soviet-era political prosecutions, and almost certainly presided over murders or attempted murders of critics.
Some blame Putin’s turn toward aggressive authoritarian nationalism on Western hostility. But these tendencies were visible from the beginning, even when he still wore a quasi-liberal mask. He made no secret of his continuing allegiance to the KGB. His encroachments against freedom of the press began as early as 2001. His turn against the West in the mid-2000s was driven by fear and loathing of pro-Western, liberal governments in ex-Soviet states — especially Ukraine — which refused to bow to the Kremlin’s diktat.
The core of Putinism is hatred of freedom. Notably, Putin has embraced and promoted nostalgia for both czarism and the Soviet empire. His rule has seen a partial rehabilitation of mass murderer Josef Stalin as a flawed national hero, along with a nascent cult of some of Russia’s most reactionary czars. Two weeks ago, Putin unveiled a new monument in St. Petersburg to Alexander III, the late 19th Century autocrat who strenuously resisted liberal reforms — and whom Putin has repeatedly hailed as a great patriot.
In a video commentary on Alexander III as Putin’s role model, Russian liberal activist Ilya Yashin pointed out that Alexander’s repressive policies paved the way for the collapse of the Russian monarchy 20 years after his death. In our age, historical processes happen much faster, and information is much harder to control; the Putin regime may not outlive Putin.
In the meantime, what can the U.S. do? Avoid unnecessary confrontation, of course, but also continue to oppose Russian malfeasance that includes ongoing support for an illegal war in Ukraine. The Russian economy today is far more integrated into the global economy than it was in Soviet times, giving the U.S. more leverage; the Russian elites whose backing is essential to Putin are particularly vulnerable to Western sanctions that target their wealth. This is one area where, quaint as the phrase may sound in 2021, America can show moral leadership by taking a firm stand for human rights and against international aggression.
The views of Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.