What is it about Vladimir Putin?
The president of Russia is a ruthless thug. A dictator. He has turned a nation with one of the richest cultures on Earth, already so battered by the scars of communism and the anarchic 1990s, into a corrupt mafia state. He cynically uses the beautiful religion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to further his amoral goals. He works mischief in places like Syria and Ukraine, putting women and children in body bags.
What's more, he promotes his version of conservative authoritarianism as an alternative model to Western-style liberal democracy; if there is a "new Cold War," it is not because Russia sends bombers dangerously close to NATO airspace, but because this confrontation between states, as old as humanity itself, now has a component of global ideological combat. Like in the old days of the Cold War, the master of the Kremlin is sowing fifth columns into the West and finding some success in doing so. Everybody in the West thinks their leaders are some variation of clueless or incompetent; Putin at least appears to know what he is doing.
All of this is true. Putin is the ruler of the world's largest country, which has the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, and he has shown contempt for international norms. Of course we should worry about him. But that doesn't mean we should turn him into a bogeyman.
Take Russia's role in the U.S. presidential election. Did Russia attempt to influence the election against Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. But according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, Russian interference mostly amounted to publishing a few Facebook memes. If you want to talk about swinging an election, as The New York Times' Ross Douthat points out, you might want to talk about the estimated $2 billion in free advertising that the major news channels gave to Donald Trump, a decision that was completely free of Russian interference.
If you know anything about Putin, you know that he's a KGB man through and through. That means that he's a master of deception and manipulation. Why was the Russian 2016 operation, whatever its true code name, a success for him? Not because of the election results, which he is too smart to believe he swung. It's because of the perception in the West that he swung the election, or at least played a major role in it. A KGB man knows fear is one of the most powerful levers there is.
From Putin's perspective, the Trump administration is probably a wash, if not a net negative. Sure, the chaos at the top probably creates some opportunities, but Trump is also too volatile and unpredictable to be played the way a normal fool (in Putin's mind, that probably means Trump's two predecessors) would be. Precisely because of the perception of collusion with Russia, the Trump administration has been much more hawkish on Russian sanctions than the Obama administration. And given that Russia shares a land border with North Korea which would surely be flooded with millions of refugees in the event of war, he probably feels just as nervous about Trump's saber-rattling there as any member of #TheResistance.
But the election of Trump has given Putin one major benefit: fear. The West used to see Russia as a joke; now the West sees Russia as a dangerous threat.
This makes Putin happy. That's an amazing return on investment for a few Facebook ads.
I am a Frenchman who, for reasons I still don't fully understand myself, happens to follow U.S. news and politics for a living. This dual perspective has enabled me to notice something peculiar. Most of the news coverage in France about America isn't really about America — it's about us. France's national identity is about being a world leader, a status we lost somewhere in the 19th century. America is who we want to be. But it's not a desire we like. So we need to be told: "Maybe our economy has been a wreck for 40 years, maybe most of our youth are unemployed, maybe we have no idea what to do about our masses of immigrants, maybe our international influence keeps declining, but at least we're not like those Christian fundamentalist, redneck, racist Americans who let their poor and their sick die on the sidewalk." It's a security blanket.
A similar thing is going on with America's coverage of Putin. If you paid only slight attention to the news about the recent presidential election, you'll have learned that Putin rigged the election and that he's a dictator. True. But flipping channels, browsing through stories, I never saw anyone point out that Putin's approval rating is above 80 percent. In fact, it never dipped below 60 percent throughout his tenure. A KGB man takes no chances, but he really didn't need to rig that election. Sure, he controls the media and the opposition, but there are plenty of countries where the strongman has that same propaganda power but is broadly loathed by the population, especially when they've been in power for 20 years like Putin. Honest coverage of the Russian election would have tried to grapple with that side of it.
Except that it was not about Russia at all. "Sure, our leaders are loathsome and incompetent, but at least they're not Putin." (Fair enough! I'll take any G-7 leader, yes, including Trump, over Putin.) But what is it about late-modern democracy that "we" choose the leaders and the policies and yet we always seem to end up with a result we hate? Putin and democracy seem like antonyms, and yet even by the standards of democracy — public approval — he seems to be doing better at it than us. That's an uncomfortable question. Asking uncomfortable questions, supposedly, is the media's job.
Putin is a bad actor, but we've robbed ourselves of our capacity to deal with him by refusing to try to actually understand him. Instead, we've elected to turn him into a scapegoat and bogeyman.
That's bad for figuring out how to deal with Russia, but it's also bad for figuring out how to deal with our own problems.