That a week is a long time in politics is confirmed by three significant events of the past seven days which will make life more difficult for the proponents of American “engagement” abroad. One was Bashar al-Assad’s victory in Homs, accompanied by the embarrassing discovery of French military “advisors” with the rebel troops. Assad’s success, while still far from decisive, makes creeping Western escalation in Syria unlikely. Another was Barack Obama’s refusal to accept Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s timetable for action against Iran and his increasingly evident distaste for that particular proposed adventure. But topping them all was Vladimir Putin’s landslide victory at Russia’s presidential election on March 4.
Putin’s win was far more convincing than his Western detractors had expected. Even his domestic foes, who dispute the official figure of 64 percent and accuse the government of various irregularities, do not deny that he has scored a simple majority. “This is a major achievement for the second Putin presidential regime,” The Washington Post’s commentator grudgingly conceded. “It implies that a lot of Russians still believe, at some level, that participation matters, even if the outcome is known well in advance.”
Not at “some” level but at the only one that matters—the street—the protest movement is already fizzling out. Its leaders will be hard-pressed to maintain the momentum of recent weeks and months. That the wind is out of their sails was confirmed a day after the election, when fewer than 20,000 anti-Putin protesters gathered at Moscow’s Lubyanka Square—far lower figure than the organizers had expected. “Where is everyone?” one of the activists complained to a Time correspondent behind the stage on Pushkin Square. “We’re screwed if this is all we got”:
The movement’s unofficial leader, blogger Alexei Navalny, tried hard to ready the crowd for a fresh standoff in the coming days and weeks… But his boasts from December that the protests were big enough “to take the Kremlin now” had disappeared. And when several of the leaders, including Navalny, tried to test their chances of occupying the square, things got ugly fast. For one thing, the crowd went home, leaving only a couple of hundred protesters. The biggest group was from the Left Front movement, which is to say, a group of rowdy Che Guevara wannabes… There was a brief attempt to pitch a tent, but it didn’t get further than a tarp attached to a tree before it was abandoned.
In brief, it was an anticlimax. Nevertheless, many Western media analysts find it hard to come to grips with the outcome which is at such odds with their ideological preferences. Some continue to bewail “Putin’s flawed victory” and lambast Russia’s “managed democracy,” reflecting the same disdain for Russia’s peasant masses that they feel for the Heartland hicks at home. Others still cherish the dream of a “Russian Spring” yet to come. For all of them “Vladimir Putin” has long ceased to be a political figure, having morphed into a dark metaphysical concept. Whatever the president-elect does or says in the days to come will continue to be processed through a dark lens by the media pack whose hounds see him as the embodiment of what they loath: a patriotic leader who believes in—and upholds!—the right of sovereign nations to be in charge of their affairs within their borders.
In the alternative reality of MSM pundits, when Russia vetoes a Security Council resolution that could be manipulated to justify a NATO attack against Syria—just as the one on Libya was manipulated a year ago—it is because Putin is in cohorts with a blood-stained dictator. But when the United States vetoed dozens of resolutions over the decades, it was business as usual. That same hypocrisy is on display when Putin’s “KGB roots” are routinely invoked to “explain” his views and intentions, even though he was but a middle-ranking agency bureaucrat in East Germany. However, two decades ago President George H.W. Bush’s earlier job as the head of the CIA was deemed irrelevant in explaining his motives for invading Panama, launching the First Gulf War, or intervening in Somalia. Anti-Putin protesters continue to be lionized, even though Moscow’s Bohemian Bourgeoisie itself has grown tired of the show. On the other hand, brutal clampdowns on grassroots movements and peaceful protesters are ignored or belittled if they involve pliant clients such as Bahrain, or below-the-radar-screen “backwaters” like Senegal.
It is futile to look for consistency, logic, or mere honesty in the ongoing anti-Putin-fest. The core problem with him, for those who keep attacking him with such monotonous predictability, is that he does not accept that a “democratic” Russia can be only the one subservient domestically and externally to the demands and ideological concepts of the Western elite class. For that reason, the presidential election was deemed “undemocratic” and “fraudulent” by definition, long in advance and regardless of its outcome.
The magnitude of Putin’s victory reflects the Obama Administration’s serious error in sending Michael McFaul as the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia. An enthusiastic supporter of the protest movement, he received its leaders a day after presenting his credentials in January and boasted to The New York Times a week later that he would make his “pro-democracy” mark in Moscow “in a very, very aggressive way.” Some months earlier, he declared that “even while working closely with Putin on matters of mutual interest, Western leaders must recommit to the objective of creating the conditions for a democratic leader to emerge in the long term.” This was a regime-change agenda expressed with breathtaking bluntness. McFaul’s foul now entails eating some humble pie at Foggy Bottom and accepting that his “very, very aggressive” theater is bad diplomacy and even worse politics.
A viable rival to Putin may emerge “in the long term,” but he is more likely to be a hard-core nationalist—perhaps tinged with neo-communist nostalgia—than a Western-style liberal democrat. Now and for years to come, Putin is a safer, more stable and more predictable partner. He feels somewhat irritated by McFaulisms, but at the same time he believes that there are no divergent core interests between Russia and the United States. The stalled “Reset” needs to be reset in the interest of both.