In a brilliant piece of political science, American journalist Mark Ames explains Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the Ukraine crisis as part of a cynical bid to maintain domestic political power by appealing to the values and attitudes of his country’s provincial “Silent Majority” after losing the support of liberals.
“One of the biggest problems” with the presentation of the Ukraine crisis in America, Ames states, “is that everyone who riffs on Putin and Ukraine frames their analysis through a very narrow, Americanized lens. … Either Putin is behaving evilly because he fears America’s empire of liberty and freedom; or Putin is behaving perfectly rationally because the evil American empire has bullied Putin into a corner, forcing him to annex Crimea and support pro-Russian separatists.” Alternately, Putin is said to be driven by an antique desire to revive Russian imperialism.
But, as Ames reminds us, “all politics is local,” and Putin is best understood as a political animal capitalizing on “a huge pool of human resentment and nostalgia,” propelled by the majority of Russians’ bitter experience of capitalism-caused wealth inequality that didn’t exist under the Soviet Union. A global wealth study published by financial services group Credit Suisse this year found that Russia tops the world in wealth inequality, with a mere 110 citizens holding 35 percent of household wealth across the country. These people and the intelligentsia attached to them are “hated by the rest of Russia. ... What this means politically is eleven time zones of untapped resentment, surrounding an island of wealth and liberal elitism—Moscow.”
Ames continues, “Although Putin has thrown [those on the losing side of the wealth gap] plenty of bones over the years, the Kremlin never fashioned an entire politics around the Silent Majority, in part because it never had to. The thinking has been that no matter how desperate and resentful the Russian ‘aborigines’ in the provinces get, they’ll never pose a serious threat to Kremlin power. Moscow’s liberals and its ‘manager class’ were taken far more seriously as a class.”
That view was revealed as a bitter conceit held by the Moscow liberal and bourgeois “managing class” that had helped put Putin in power at the turn of the century when in 2011 Putin returned to the presidency after, as Ames puts it, letting the “liberal, well-liked” Dmitry Medvedev hold the office for four years. It allowed these Russians, who are tied culturally and economically to the West, to think of themselves as “plausibly European.” They held their heads high as they traveled France, Germany and England. But when he sought the presidency again, Putin humiliated them on the world stage, becoming “your despot shoving his despotism in your bourgeois face.”
Ames explains as follows:
This is a long background way of getting to the point that I want to make about understanding Putin by way of “all politics is local.” Putin lost the crucial big city yuppie class. They’re gone for good. There are a lot of ways an autocrat in a nominally democratic country can respond to that. Putin has chosen a new politics appealing to the Russian Silent Majority, and that means appealing to their resentments, heating up the culture wars between liberal Moscow and the slower, fearful masses in the rest of those eleven time zones. To exploit the huge differences between the Moscow liberals and yuppies opposed to Putin, and the rest of the country that resents them.
The Silent Majority has waited at least two decades for payback, and now it’s on, and it’s not pretty. It’s why Putin targeted Pussy Riot. We Westerners loved them; they were heroes to us, brave punk rock babes fighting the Man and getting jailed for being punk. In our world, that’s cool. But in Russia, Pussy Riot was completely despised by nearly everyone, across class and regional lines. One poll after they were jailed showed only 6 percent of Russians supported Pussy Riot; the poll could not find a single respondent who said they respected the jailed band members.
By exploiting Russian disgust for Pussy Riot and equating the opposition movement with Pussy Riot, Putin was able to conflate the liberal opposition with a decadent, alien art troupe whose purpose seemed to be to humiliate Russia and mock their culture. Nixon couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect symbol of his opponents.
And that brings Ames to Putin and Ukraine. The Russian president didn’t plan the crisis, but he did exploit the situation, netting a massive political victory by doing what Russia’s Silent Majority would have wanted him to do: protect their nation’s pride against any and all forms of encroachment by the West. “What he’s doing is shoring up his new political base while tightening the screws on whatever remained of liberal freedom in Russia,” Ames writes, “taking control of the Internet, seizing control of the handful of opposition online media sites, and ramping up the culture war against liberals, gays, the decadent West. … The fact that we, the US and EU and a few billionaires, funded violent regime change groups in bed with west Ukraine fascists and Russophobes has only made Putin’s domestic job easier.”
Taking all that into account, what would be a sane American policy? “Stay the hell out of Russia’s way for awhile,” Ames suggests. Further American meddling will only harden the country’s 145 million people against the West and grant more of the demagogue’s power to Putin.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.