by Gordon M. Hahn
There are at least four sound reasons why U.S. President Joseph Biden’s statement calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer” was misguided.
1] It will rally Russians around Putin.
If U.S. policy seeks the fall of Putin’s present authoritarian regime or at least Putin’s replacement by another leader or leadership team, then Biden’s statement is demonstratively counterproductive. Russians have learned over at least five centuries that it must be vigilant against foreigners, most especially the West. Russia developed a political and strategic culture that in most historical periods and under most ruling regimes is security oriented. Russian leaders are almost always arch-vigilant against internal threats to stability and the traditional or ‘official’ culture’s or ideology’s integrity emanating from internal dissent, against external political and military intervention and invasion, and against, in particular, the most grave danger of all: collusion between any domestic and foreign enemies of the Russian state. Although this cultural matrix relaxes or becomes ‘recessive’ in periods of liberal, always Westernizing reforms or of improving relations with the West’s main powers, it is always present and on Russian leaders’ minds and not far from the top of their list of concerns.
Russia’s security culture, which survived in new form throughout the Soviet era but was weakened in the USSR’s last years, revived by the provocation of NATO’s expansion east after the early post-Cold War East-West honeymoon in violation of late Cold War Western promises made to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that this would not be done. Into this reviving Russian security culture and vigilance norm, encouraged, embodied, and shared by Vladimir Putin, the new U.S. president clumsily has stumbled.
The Putin era has seen numerous examples of intensified conflict with the West adding to Putin’s support among the Russian populace. Twice during Putin’s tenure as Russia’s president, the West has helped to spark a conflict in a post-Soviet state bordering Russia that in turn produced a ‘bump’ in Putin’s approval ratings: (1) Saakashvili’s brutal bombing of Tskhinvali on 7 August 2008 and the resulting Five-Day Georgian-South Ossetin/Russian War and (2) the Maidan revolt in winter 2013-2014, which saw a 20 point bump for Putin’s approval rating from October 2013 to October 2014 (from 40 to 60 percent). Years of sanctions have produced no appreciable change in Putin’s popularity.
It is clear that Biden made his statement with the recent events of Alexei Navalnyi in mind. It was also likely made on the background of the standard American misperception that Putin is really unpopular and Navalnyi is popular, despite opinion polls proving the contrary. Despite the Navalnyi debacle, COVID, a stagnant economy, and disastrous relations with the West, Putin’s ratings still remain high. No significant change occurred in Putin’s ratings since Navalnyi’s return from Germany, standing at 64 percent in January 2021 and 65 percent in February 2021 (www.levada.ru/indikatory/). Nor has there been significant change since Navalnyi’s arrest and imprisonment. According to VTsIOM, Putin’s trust rating fell from 27.7 percent to 25.7 percent, remaining the highest of any Russian politician (https://wciom.ru/ratings/doverie-politikam/). VTsIOM’s data shows Putin’s approval rating fell from 67.7 percent in January 2020 to 66.1 percent in January 2021 (https://wciom.ru/ratings/doverie-politikam/). Russians’ views of whether the country is moving in the right or wrong direction saw in December the highest result for the ‘wrong direction’ since 2013, hitting 43 percent. However, the highest sense of wrong direction was 50 percent in 2004, and Putin has been around seventeen years since (https://www.levada.ru/en/2020/11/24/approval-ratings-17/).
Navalnyi is not nearly as popular or as trusted as Putin. Navalnyi’s approval rating fell from 20 percent in September 2020 to 19 percent in February 2021 after his return, arrest, and sentencing, though it is worth noting it was at 6 percent in 2013. At the same time, his disapproval is at 56 percent, growing from 50 percent in September and 35 percent in 2013 (www.levada.ru/2021/02/05/vozvrashhenie-alekseya-navalnogo/). Navalnyi’s trust rating rose slightly, according to VTsIOM, from 3.0 percent before his return to Germany to 3.5 percent after he was sentenced to 3 years in prison in early February (https://wciom.ru/ratings/doverie-politikam/). Nor is his protest activity popular. A Levada Center poll shows only 19 percent approve of Navalnyi’s activity since returning to Russia (www.levada.ru/2021/02/05/vozvrashhenie-alekseya-navalnogo/). Similarly, the two nationwide protests in support of Navalnyi after his return and detention, now arrest and imprisonment were not popular even among youth among which they are most popular out of all the different age groupings. Only 38 percent of those ages 18-24 have a popular view of those protests; 41 percent – neutral, and 22 percent – negative . Of all age groups, 22 percent had a positive attitude, 37 percent neutral, and 33 percent – negative. Moreover, the pro-Navalnyi protests were significantly less popular than the August 2019 Moscow City Duma protests and the August 2020 Khabarovski protests, with the latter receiving 47 percent positive assessments to 22 percent for January’s Navalnyi protests (www.levada.ru/2021/02/10/yanvarskie-protesty/).
To be sure, Russians’ general perception of massive corruption among the Putin elite and the perhaps small hit Putin’s reputation has taken as a result of the Navalnyi poisoning and imprisonment, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, could together with the more corruption reports and/or more COVID or a ‘black swan could more seriously undermine Putin, whose position has seen some gradual, but limited weakening in recent years. But the possibility of such a confluence of crises that propels Navalnyi or anyone else in view to a popularity greater than that enjoyed by Putin remains a long shot, and a long shot cannot justify the eccentric nature of Biden’s assertion.
2] It is a statement that does not stand up to the available evidence.
Although there have been several murders of Putin opponents among politicians and journalists, none of these murders has been proven to have been ordered or encouraged by Putin or was in the interests of Putin himself. To the contrary, they have made Putin’s efforts to revive something akin to normal relations with the U.S. and Europe and help the Russian economy advance, as dependent as that is on those relations, and have often occurred on the eve of important potential improvements in relations. To be sure, Putin is responsible morally and politically for his system’s failure to bring the perpetrators of these various murders to justice. He may not even want or dare push the system to do so out of fears either for his own political or physical life. We do not know and will not know the real story behind these crimes for years if ever. These leads to another reason why Biden’s statement was misguided. Basing a policy on an uncertain foundation is a fundamental error.
3] The U.S. has dealt with many, many far worse leaders and has not resorted to such rhetoric.
Throughout its history, U.S. government has cooperated with numerous leaders of murderous states, even executors of mass terror without publicly calling them ‘killers.’ This was done to achieve important foreign policy goals conducive to the national interest. The list is long: Stalin, the other pre-perestroika Soviet leaders, Mao and other CCP leaders, Pinochet, Sadaam Hussein, and so on. In this century, U.S. governments have negotiated absent name-calling with the likes of Iran’s ayatollahs, Saudi crown princes, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, among others. What in the U.S. mind or at least that of Biden’s that puts Putin on a level equal or surpassing these leaders in terms of wielding state violence and repression?
4] The statement risks what remains of any productive cooperation between Russia and the U.S.
There are still a range of important issues for which Washington will need or at least the Biden administration will want Russia on board. But Moscow immediately recalled its ambassador to Washington, and a wave of anti-Americanism in media and among the public is bound to ensue, further pushing the Putin government away from cooperation on such issues as: counter-jihadism cooperation; conflict resolution and stabilization in Ukraine, Syria, and Lebanon, confidence-building in Europe, and a new nuclear treaty with Iran.
The question begging an answer is: ‘What if any policy goal was in Biden’s head when he made this statement?’ Or was this good old Joe getting working class and gritty, shooting his mouth off? If it is the former, it seems the foreign policy goal is unlikely to be one that adds to stability. If the latter is the case, then it seems Biden will not be an upgrade from the Trump administration either in terms of White House rhetoric or U.S. foreign policy.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.