The people knew nothing about Putin. And in three months he became president. Of course, we thought it was cool. We thought we’d saved the country from the Communists, from Primakov and Luzhkov. But now it’s not clear which outcome would have been worse.
—Former Kremlin banker Sergei Pugachev, quoted in Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on The West, by Catherine Belton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
Back in the summer of 2013, when the Russian government of Vladimir Putin introduced some of the most homophobic laws on the planet during the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, I asked a friend—an out and proud gay man who places himself politically on the progressive left—what he thought about this disturbing news. By this point, there was already enough information about Putin to indict him in the global court of public opinion. From those highly suspicious apartment bombings, which had brought him to power on a wave of popularity after triggering the second Chechen war, to the crushing of independent news media, the jailing of dissidents, the poisoning of opponents, the phony presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (Putin’s Machiavellian ploy to undermine Russian democracy by hiding his own dictatorial intentions), the openly lustful designs on Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, and the self-enriching, rampant kleptocracy he had enabled by rewarding the oligarchs most loyal to him, there was a good case to be made that Putin—as one of his earliest targets, former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, put it recently—was “the enemy of humankind.”
But my friend thought otherwise. When I asked him about Russia’s new gay-bashing laws, he defended Putin as a by-product of neo-liberalism, a necessary counterbalance to the hard power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the West. At first, I thought he must be joking—he does like to rattle my chain, to provoke me, when I am being earnest—but no, his apparent lack of outrage over Putin was real and his absurdly reductionist logic genuine. And so, with some desperation, I appealed to his sexual orientation: how could any self-respecting gay man defend someone who uses hired thugs and riot police to break up Pride parades, arrest people for same-sex public kissing or handholding, imprison anyone who makes pro-queer speeches, and even stop foreigners from making public statements or actions promoting LGBTQ equality? Surely he would condemn Putin for all this AND for banning gay adoption, right? No, wrong: my queer comrade merely sighed, dismissing reports of state-sanctioned homophobia in Russia as social media-generated propaganda by the West. On the contrary: my argument was flawed because I had not considered all the geopolitical factors at play.
When I raised the same issues with a mutual friend, a progressive heterosexual leftie I admire for his many qualities, he shocked me with a similar answer. Reducing the voluminous record of the Russian leader’s villainy to what he called “Putin’s alleged misdeeds,” he said that opposition to the Russian president was whipped up by the corporate Western media as part of a strategy to maintain NATO influence in Eastern Europe. Again: no acknowledgement of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the man, the complete lack of common decency or regard for human life. In their defence of Putin, my two friends—like me, both educated white men aged fifty or above—seemed indifferent not only to his brutish homophobic machismo but also to his ethno-nationalist racism, his petro-capitalist greed, and his reprehensible opportunism as a pathological liar and murderer. All they countered with was a flurry of whataboutisms and deflections of hard evidence. U.S. presidents kill people, too, they reminded me, pointing to Barack Obama’s fondness for drone strikes. A year later, they dismissed reports of a Russian missile shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as a “false flag” invented by neo-Nazi elements in eastern Ukraine. Two years after that, during the battle for Aleppo in Syria, they dismissed Putin’s widely documented support of the repulsive dictator Bashar al Assad, which included the barrel bombing of civilians. This was another false flag, they said, aimed at getting a no-fly zone declaration for Syrian airspace. Yes, when it came to justifying Vladimir Putin’s existence, there seemed no end to such blinkered neo-Stalinist apologetics.
Today Ukraine is a bloody mess, its population under siege after Putin’s criminal and barbaric invasion of their country on February 24. With untold numbers of dead and injured, nuclear incidents barely avoided, NATO on high alert as neighbouring countries brace for similar attacks, and Europe’s refugee population swelling by more than three million (with another two million internally displaced), my Putin-defending buddies haven’t been saying much lately. And why would they? Better to lay low and reassess, right? Besides, there are more than enough useful idiots out there willing to defend the loathsome Russian president on social media. Some of these folks are still grieving the events of 2014, lamenting that year’s defeat of the anti-European Union, pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was ousted in a U.S.-supported coup. Some think the West should have just caved in and handed over Donetsk and Lukhansk to Putin, just as the Allied nations surrendered the Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938. And some attempt to soften their opinions with “I’m no friend of Putin, but…”, as if there can be any “but” in that statement. (One either supports the despicable psychopath and his modus operandi of corruption, lies, and terror, or one doesn’t.)
Most Putin defenders let their man off the hook by blaming NATO and European Union expansionism. They use expressions like “NATO-led war,” even though it’s obvious who’s been doing the “leading” since 2014: that would be the Russian president and his toxic nostalgia for the Soviet Union glory days, of which he has never made a secret. Opposition to NATO has always been an article of faith for the anti-imperialist left, as fundamental to its identity as Yanqui-bashing Fidelismo: they want it disbanded entirely. If there was any time to shut down NATO, the opportune moment might have been thirty years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union and death of the Warsaw Pact. But now? As long as Vladimir Putin lives and breathes, most people living and breathing in Western-style European democracies are thanking their lucky stars for NATO’s existence. NATO was created for moments exactly like this. As of this writing, Ukraine had reportedly agreed not to apply for membership. Will that be enough to stop Putin’s war? Hardly.
Other Putin defenders say the Ukraine conflict must be solved at the United Nations. I would like to agree with them, and I’d be grateful if such a miracle occurred. But it’s hard to give the idea much credence when Russia and China consistently use their permanent seats on the UN’s Security Council to veto democracy, cancelling the aspirations of peace and justice for all sorts of the downtrodden on this planet. Try asking the people of Myanmar what they think of the UN right now, more than a year after a coup that signalled the permanent return of military dictatorship. (One of my Burmese friends calls it “the United Nothing.”) Or the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, et cetera. Come to think of it: no one asks the Uyghurs what they think of the UN, either—but then, those folks tend to be thrown in jail for saying anything, so it’s probably just as well.
To what can we attribute the intellectual malaise of Western Putin apologetics? Could it be the fear factor? It’s true that much of the hand-wringing about NATO is less about ideology and more about realpolitik concerns around the risk of military provocation. We must not poke the bear, the thinking goes, lest we anger him. Putin is indeed a madman of the most frightening sort: a paranoid autocrat drunk with power, possessing both a medieval sense of masculinity and the post-modern, high-tech weaponry with which to express it. He’s the ultimate Bond villain turned real, a character beyond even Ian Fleming’s wildest dreams: a former KGB officer-turned-head-of-state, an evil politician with a boatload of historic grievances and personal resentments, access to nuclear codes, and the professional know-how to guarantee his own security. Spend any time listening to recent speeches by this man, and you will soon feel sick to your stomach as he pontificates about the contemptible West, expounds mythologically on Russian greatness, and otherwise presents a drearily hateful world view that is completely devoid of true happiness. The antithesis of a life force, Russia’s post-millennial tzar is all about death. He is the sum of our worst fears. One tries not to lose sleep at night, contemplating the escalation of atrocities in Ukraine—including direct conflict with NATO countries and an assist from China—the longer it takes for Putin to get what he wants. World War III? It feels like we’re already there.
State footage from the Kremlin typically shows Putin seated alone at the end of a long table, his advisors frittering nervously at the other end, or facing them from a desk as they sit in a row of chairs like unruly schoolchildren being disciplined. During a meeting of Russia’s security council just before the invasion, staged to imply consensus for Putin’s outrageous attack, the grim expression on the faces of senior advisors is most revealing as, one by one, they endorse Putin’s gruesome plan for the bombing raids. At one point the president browbeats his spy chief, Sergei Naryshkin, for seeming less than enthusiastic about the campaign. (“You mean we should start negotiations? Or recognize sovereignty? Speak plainly, Sergei.”) The poor guy looks like he’s about to wet himself as he stammers away awkwardly. He must be wondering if there’s a trap door beneath him leading to a shark tank.
But fear is only an excuse for appeasement. A more important reason for Western pro-Putinism is the binary logic of the anti-imperialist left in their construction of political narratives, a way of thinking that has long incorporated self-criticism as its guiding principle. By “self-criticism” I mean the recognition by Western people of conscience that the imperialist actions of the most powerful nation on earth have military, industrial, economic, and social impacts on the rest of the planet; and that these actions—all in the name of capitalism, growth, and development—have led to no end of misery, inequality, and injustice for less privileged, mostly non-white populations. A compelling argument for collective responsibility more than half a century ago, this was a critical alternative to liberal and conservative narratives of individual enterprise and acquisition. As a response to anti-Communist hysteria and McCarthyism in the 1950s, it gained currency as American atrocities piled up in Vietnam; during the 1970s and 80s, it gained further legitimacy when New Left thinkers like Noam Chomsky connected the dots between U.S. military and corporate interests overseas as a vast network of CIA-sponsored proxy wars unfolded.
The problem for the anti-imperialist left began with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, and their steamrolling agenda of neoliberal economics. The emergence of “Third Way” social democrats (the Clintons, Tony Blair, Obama) only led to increasing disillusionment with electoral politics, as these supposed reformers turned out to be neoliberal wolves in sheep’s clothing. Left-wing cynicism deepened to the extent that neoliberalism became their default explanation for everything wrong with the planet. Such lefties became “tankies”, their thinking guided by “the simple-minded assumption that only the U.S. can be imperialist, and thus any country that opposes the U.S. must be supported.” Tankies, writes Roane Carey in a recent article for The Intercept, “tend to be correctly critical and probing about U.S. empire but don’t apply these critical faculties to Russia.” The most celebrated tankie in Hollywood is film director Oliver Stone, whose hagiographic interviews with Putin in 2017 flattered the Russian leader while cementing his own reputation as a sycophantic enabler of anti-American, alpha male dictators. (Fifteen years earlier, he enjoyed a similar lovefest with Fidel Castro.) The best-known tankie journalist is Glenn Greenwald, once a darling of the left whose politics Slate recently summed up as “contrarian anti-woke civil libertarianism.” Ouch!
Apart from the wrongheadedness of supporting tyrants of any stripe, the tankies tend to ignore other narratives that don’t lend themselves to tidy explanation, their obsession with neoliberalism sidelining other issues for which Western hegemonic designs can be irrelevant. Things like ethnonationalism, crony capitalism, and transnational cyber sabotage, to name a few. Climate change cannot be blamed entirely on the West, and human rights are universal—not something to be cherrypicked for activist support based on whoever America’s enemies happen to be bankrolling. (Yes, the Palestinian struggle is important. But the Syrian people could have used some help when Putin was aiding Bashar al Assad’s slaughter of them. So could the Afghans under the Taliban, and so could any other subjugated people you care to name who just happen to be under the yoke of forces opposed to the U.S.) There comes a point where attributing all power to “the West” and zero sense of agency to people in developing countries can seem a bit, well, racist.
Tankies further embarrass themselves because their Putin fandom puts them in league with American and European neo-Nazis who applaud the Russian leader as a champion of traditional values and saviour of the white race. (Want to break bread with Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson? Fill your boots.) Some Putin defenders even swallow the Orwellian doublethink of his ridiculous lie that Ukraine’s government is a “junta” led by a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” a way of justifying the invasion as an attempt to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine”. Apart from the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky was elected by a landslide in 2019, and that the former comedian-turned-national-hero is a Jew who lost relatives to the Holocaust, it’s important to remember that fascist militias in Ukraine, like those in the U.S. and other Western countries, have been soundly rejected at the polls. Yes, the Ukrainian people rid themselves of this problem through elections. They didn’t need the help of a lebensraum-obsessed bully whose idea of “help” is to bomb the shit out of his coveted ground, killing as many of its inhabitants as possible. Right now, the greatest Nazification threat to all of humanity, not just Ukraine, is the triumph of Putin’s will.
To my friends on the anti-imperialist left: it is still not too late to turn against Putin, and turn on him you must. For regardless of the outcome in Ukraine and the rest of Europe—and perhaps even Russia, where his successor may not be much of an improvement, if at all—there is only one progressive position on the Russian leader, and that is to oppose him with every fibre of your being. You must stand with the Ukrainian people, just as you do with the Palestinians, in their resistance of mass murder. And you must stand with those brave Russians who, in increasing numbers, are risking imprisonment by opposing the Ukrainian bloodbath in their country’s name. If you cannot stomach the calls for Putin’s prosecution as a war criminal (because, after all, the Americans have refused to acknowledge their own Henry Kissinger as such), then you must at least hope, against all odds, for his ouster as Russian president. If he cannot be imprisoned, assassinated, executed, or otherwise “taken out”, then you must pray that he will be forced to resign his office in exchange for internal exile at some well-appointed dacha in the Urals, supplied with his own private retinue of judo enthusiasts, horse trainers, and food tasters—but no phone or Internet access—for the rest of his miserably nihilistic life.