Whether the Western media views Russian President Vladimir Putin as losing or winning, as strong or weak, as having a plan or lacking one entirely, it focuses almost exclusively on him as the driving force behind everything that happens in Russia and everything Russia does abroad. For good reason. Putin’s aggression is one of the top foreign policy challenges today. From Ukraine to Syria, no one stands in starker opposition to the Western world order.
Thus, Putin must go. Focusing on the man, however, ignores the system that he’s put into place, and that system is the key to understanding today’s Russia and how we should deal with it.
The West’s Putin obsession feeds the misconception that if Putin were to step down tomorrow, Russia would be able to democratize and retake its place in the international community. Perhaps at one point in the early 2000s the removal of Putin would have made it possible for Russia to avoid a darker path. But that thought is no more than fantasy today. Putin is the central figure in the government apparatus, and members of his government cannot envision a Russia without him. Yet he has made the political future of Russia unstable by co-opting its political system, twisting it to serve himself and the elite who serve him, instead of the Russian people, and forging a system of rule that will, paradoxically, survive him and hinder democratization.
Putin’s regime is not an effective, responsive government. He has based his authority on corruption, the negation of basic political rights, the alternating appeasement and subjugation of the oligarchs, and manipulation of his people through control of the media. Even if Putin felt secure enough to appoint a successor who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution, as Putin did for Yeltsin, that successor would face problems simply by not being Putin.
If democracy is to have any hope in Russia, change must be organic, with the Russian people at its head. Democratic reformers hope that Putin’s powerbase, with its reliance on economics and the menace of external enemies, eventually crumbles and collapses under its own weight. Putin’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, spinning from crisis to crisis as he tries to maintain momentum and keep his people’s attention away from the country’s economic downturn and the population’s lack of basic rights and democratic freedoms, does not seem sustainable in the long term. Democratic hopefuls may get their wish.
An implosion may not bring about a positive outcome, however, as Russia’s own experience with the dismantling of the Soviet Union shows. The chaotic end of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rollercoaster of what the West called reform, but many Russians called ruin, had frightening consequences. It largely discredited democracy in the eyes of Russians. They do not want to go through anything similar again.
The sad truth is that only time and more failure can push Putin from his throne. Direct external pressure will only serve to ignite the volatile mix of nationalism and fear—of the past and the future—that reigns in Russia. The West must do its best to make Putin an anachronism, to show Russians that there is a better world. If the United States wants to see Putin out of power, it must be ready for a Russia without Putin and a period of turmoil that could make the end of the Soviet Union look downright peaceful in comparison. The media can help by focusing less on Putin as an epic villain and more on the system that he’s created, how that system blights Russia’s present, and the problems it is likely to bequeath to our common future.
Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers. Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.