To judge by Russia’s Kremlin-aligned media, the G20 summit in Brisbane was a historic triumph for Vladimir Putin. Defiant and unyielding, the Russian president had once again outplayed his hapless Western foes on the chessboard of global politics. Yuri Girenko, a pro-Kremlin publicist, hailed Putin’s “virtuosic” brinkmanship, his upholding of Russia’s position as a superpower, his indifference to Western criticism, and his nonchalantly contemptuous departure before the final breakfast. No less effusive was the philosopher Sergei Roganov, who celebrated Putin as a colossus towering above a rabble of pygmies from the Western democracies. In the newspaper Izvestiya, Roganov addressed that rabble with scathing contempt:
Amongst you, there is not one leader who has shown to his citizens and the world that he is a real leader. A leader of a new, reborn nation and a great country… Not one of your presidents or prime ministers deserves or can become the basis for the naming of a new phenomenon in world politics, such as “Putinism” has become… Many politicians and ordinary citizens in your own countries are applauding my president and exhorting you to behave, somehow, sometime, as the President of Russia Vladimir Putin behaves.
Even the embarrassing photograph of Putin sitting alone and forlorn at a large breakfast table at the G20 was evidence of his ascendancy. One of the Kremlin’s most sycophantic propagandists, Vladimir Soloviev, explained on his weekly television program that in medieval times an emperor would dine in solitary splendour, while servants and hangers-on would gather elsewhere.
This strange adulation might be dismissed as the excesses of a propaganda apparatus that is increasingly disconnected from reality, but it has left its mark on Russian diplomacy. On 1 December, one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers, Vasili Nebenzi, issued a gratuitously insulting statement about the decay of political life in the Western democracies, which were now ruled “not by leaders” but by “colourless managers, hired to work for a four- to five-year term.” In the face of these lacklustre functionaries, it was hardly surprising that Putin could dominate the world stage. “Where in the Western world is his equal?” asked Nebenzi. “I do not see a single one.”
On one level, the incessant assertion of Putin’s uniqueness is a kind of reaction to the breakdown of Russia’s relations with the Western democracies. The Kremlin is reassuring ordinary Russians that these former partners were unworthy of attention in the first place.
That breakdown approached the point of no return during the G20. Putin had evidently hoped to split the West with a proposal for a compromise on Ukraine. In return for Russia’s military disengagement from the separatist republics, the West would recognise the annexation of Crimea, promise to block Ukraine from joining NATO, and enforce Ukraine’s “federalisation.”
This gambit was a total failure. Never before has a Russian president been the focus of such unrelenting hostility at an gathering. The tone was set by a series of snubs from his hosts, which began with Tony Abbott’s demands for an apology for the MH17 atrocity, continued on the airport tarmac where Putin was greeted by the lowest-ranking member of the government, and climaxed with the summit photograph, where Putin was banished to the far edge of the frame.
Nor did Putin find much support from other guests. There was the curt rebuke from the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who grudgingly shook Putin’s hand while bluntly demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. There was Obama’s speech at the University of Queensland, where he again categorised Russian aggression in Ukraine in a list of threats to world order that included Ebola and the terrorists of ISIL. There was the joint declaration of the United States, Australia and Japan, which restated their opposition to “Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea and its actions to destabilise eastern Ukraine.” Little comfort was offered by Putin’s BRICS partners, who showed no willingness to complicate their own relations with the West for the sake of Russian territorial ambitions. No sooner was Putin airborne than Obama was meeting EU leaders to discuss a common strategy on Ukraine.
Putin’s status as an outsider at the G20 was aggravated by his own miscalculations. No other visiting leader found it necessary to dispatch a naval squadron to the South Pacific, where the guided missile cruiser Varyag conducted exercises at the head of a small flotilla on the eve of the summit. Of course, this was not the first time a Russian leader has been accompanied abroad by Russian warships. In 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to California coincided with the arrival of the Varyag in American waters. But that was clearly a goodwill visit. For a week, Varyag was docked at San Francisco, where it was opened to the public for guided tours. The show of force in the Coral Sea sent a very different signal. No one had any illusions that this was anything but a kind of gunboat diplomacy, a crude display of power which was probably intended as a reminder of Russia’s military might and as a ruse for distracting the media from its renewed focus on MH17.
The impression of a reckless, erratic leader was compounded by Putin’s premature departure from the summit. After a night of fruitless negotiations with European leaders about Ukraine, including a marathon four-hour confrontation with Angela Merkel, Putin was evidently exasperated and decided to skip the final session and working breakfast. The public resonance of his walkout was amplified by his press secretary’s insistence that Putin would stay to the end and by the implausibility of Putin’s own explanation that he could not wait another few hours because of his need for sleep and a busy schedule in Moscow.
The failure of Putin’s effort to split the United States and Europe was confirmed by Merkel’s address to the Lowy Institute two days later. At once strident and pessimistic, Merkel lambasted the Kremlin for the “outdated thinking” behind its assault on Ukraine. Clearly echoing the terms of her late-night clash with Putin, she noted that Russia regarded Ukraine as “part of a sphere of influence.” This approach, she lamented, “calls the entire European peaceful order into question.” To emphasise her outrage, she asked, “Who would have thought that, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the end of the Cold War and the end of the division of Europe and the world into two blocs, something like this could happen in the heart of Europe?”
Russian democrats were no less outspoken about Putin’s performance at the summit, which they quickly termed his “Australian fiasco.” Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who served as vice-premier in the late 1990s, contrasted Putin’s predicament unfavourably with the drunken clowning of Boris Yeltsin, who had once seized a conductor’s baton and tried to conduct an orchestra during a visit to Berlin. According to Nemtsov, Putin had inflicted far more damage to Russia’s position, because sobriety would not help him to regain the respect of foreign counterparts who now treated him as a “pariah.” The problem was aggravated by the fact that no one in Putin’s entourage “will dare to tell the ‘national leader’ that his policies are a disgrace and a dead-end. A dead-end for him and for Russia.”
Putin has given no hint of a change of direction since his return to Russia. Instead, he swings like a pendulum between assurances that everything is normal and fulminations about the insidious plots of his Western enemies. His optimistic side was on display during an address to the All-Russian Popular Front, the Kremlin-sponsored organisation that orchestrated public displays of support for his last presidential campaign. Here he praised the businesslike, “constructive” discussion in Brisbane and claimed that he had been touched by an outpouring of popular affection. “I was astonished by the warmth with which our delegation was greeted by ordinary citizens in the streets,” Putin explained. “I don’t know how to explain it, but really with applause, with signs of attention and very benevolently.”
More often, Putin has sounded hostile and paranoid. Perhaps the most reliable indication of his reaction to the G20 was the succession of meetings with military and security officials that dominated his agenda in late November. Particularly ominous for Russia’s beleaguered civil society was a session of the Security Council ostensibly devoted to “extremism.” Putin opened the discussion with a tirade about the “coloured revolutions” in the former Soviet space. For Putin and his propagandists, it is axiomatic that these popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes were coups covertly instigated by the West as part of a plot to destroy Russia as a world power. Since 2005, this conspiracy theory has been used to rationalise the Kremlin’s subjugation of Russia’s political and civic life. This year, it was recycled to justify the dismemberment of Ukraine.
The intensity of Putin’s loathing for the West was evident during his annual address to the State Duma on 4 December. Once again, he made an argument about relations that revolved around an implausible conspiracy theory. This time, he accused the West of supporting Chechen separatism in the 1990s as part of a “Yugoslav scenario” for the disintegration and dismemberment of Russia. Boasting that “we didn’t permit it,” he proceeded to draw a parallel between Russia’s current adversaries and Adolf Hitler, “who with his human-hating ideas intended to destroy Russia and throw us behind the Urals.” In a veiled threat to Washington and Brussels, he warned, “Everyone should remember how that ended.”
Putin also embraced the arguments of Russian nationalist ideologues like Natalya Narochnitskaya about the West’s innate hostility towards Russia. Western sanctions, declared Putin, should be understood not as a response to the annexation of Crimea, but as part of a containment strategy stretching back to Soviet times: “Whenever anyone thinks that Russia has become strong [and] independent, such instruments are applied immediately.” Conveniently, this interpretation minimises Putin’s personal responsibility for Russia’s isolation and the economic repercussions of Western sanctions.
The G20 has set the stage for a period of sustained confrontation between the Putin regime and the Western democracies. What makes this confrontation dangerous for the West is its permeability. In the Cold War, the boundaries marked by the Iron Curtain were easier to patrol. Now the Kremlin is exploiting Russia’s integration into the economy to employ against the West many of the techniques that were used to subvert Russia’s own democratic institutions. It is backing an array of ultranationalist parties in a bid to destabilise the European Union. It is demonising the United States in a global “information war” of unparalleled intensity. It is sponsoring numerous NGOs, websites and newspapers to distort public debate. And it is trying to co-opt Western elites with sinecures, business opportunities, and jobs in the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus.
Some Western leaders may hope that sanctions, plummeting oil prices and diplomatic isolation will precipitate regime change in Moscow or at least an amelioration of Russian conduct. The problem is that the most ingrained reflex of Putin’s political behaviour is to deflect domestic protest by anti-Western propaganda and anti-Western actions. The terminal crisis of his regime is likely to have dangerous repercussions. •