At the annual “Valdai Club” gathering of Russia experts at Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast a month ago, an earnest Western journalist asked Russian President Vladimir Putin whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass could be explained by fear of “democracy moving closer to [Russia’s borders].”
Putin’s reply got to the heart of problem: “What kind of democracy is this [i.e., in Russia]?”
The obvious answer to that question in much of the Western world is that Putin wants Russia to be anything but a democracy. Though the situation is in fact far more complex, mainstream Western reporting depicts Russia as a dictatorship or a police state—or worse.
Writing in The New York Times two weeks ago, for example, Masha Gessen (author of a widely cited biography of Putin), asserting a view taken by many US commentators, alleged that recent events confirmed that Russia was on the road to becoming a “totalitarian” state and, pointedly, one addicted to war. “A totalitarian society seeks to be mobilized,” she writes: “The more Russia reverts to its totalitarian habits, the more comfort it will derive from a constant state of war.”
In one form or another, Putin has ruled Russia for 15 years. Russia fought its first foreign war since the break-up of the Soviet Union seven years ago (while Putin was prime minister rather than president), when in 2008 the Georgian army launched a surprise attack on Russian “peacekeepers” in the break-away Georgian province of South Ossetia.
Not quite six years later, Russia annexed Crimea—bloodlessly—in March 2014. Though the Kremlin denies direct involvement, Russia has at the very least helped sustain an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine against the US-backed Kiev government since May of that year. Russia is now carrying out an air campaign against terrorist forces in Syria—at the invitation of that country’s government.
Gessen explains all this by arguing that Putin and the system he heads cannot survive without war: “The strategic purpose of his wars is war itself.… Both conflicts [Ukraine and Syria] are wars with no end in sight because, in Mr. Putin’s view, only at war can Russia feel at peace.”
Now, Gessen is a Russian living in the United States. That she could title her essay “Putin’s forever wars” and publish it with a straight face in a country that has been constantly at war—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and, yes, also in Syria—for well over a decade and, to the great frustration of many foreign policy commentators in the United States itself, still with no end in sight, says something about her sense of proportion, or perhaps political bias.