In his motherland, he is revered but rarely (openly) reviled and has a burgeoning personality cult compared to that of Joseph Stalin. Russia’s obsession with its strongman leader, Vladimir Putin, has inspired a perfume in his honor (Leaders: Number One; yours for only $95), life-sized chocolate in his image, and bizarre accolades – including an artist who paints his portrait using her breasts.
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But his fellow compatriots aren’t the only ones to hold the Russian president in high esteem. Increasing dissatisfaction with governments in the West and Putin’s brusque military intervention in Syria, in contrast to perceived Western passivity, are gaining him surprise support across the globe.
U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump praised Putin for “bombing the hell out of ISIS,” and said their allegedly mutual dislike of President Barack Obama meant the two would “get along very well.”
Despite relations between the West and Russia being at their worst since the Cold War, Putin’s fervent nationalism and conservative posture have led Europe’s far-right parties to endorse him and his policies. Most notable is France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula (which otherwise sparked global condemnation).
Big in Vietnam and China
But while Le Pen’s party has since been accused of accepting a loan worth millions of dollars from a Russian bank as a reward for backing the Crimean invasion, Putin’s populist foothold in other countries is genuine and on the rise.
Last August – a month before Russia began its Syrian air campaign against “terrorists” opposing President Bashar Assad’s regime – the Pew Research Center released a major survey on Putin’s approval ratings around the world. When responding to Putin’s ability as a leader to take on global affairs, Vietnam and China were the most enthusiastic – with some 70 per cent (Vietnam) and 54 per cent (China) viewing him favorably. There are also fan bases in Africa, which has enjoyed greater trade with Russia since the West slapped sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine: Ghana and Nigeria are at the top, with approval ratings of 49 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
“Putin channels an image of an alternative to U.S. dominance, despite the fact that Russian economic or cultural clout is far below [America’s],” says Alex Kokcharov, an analyst who specializes in Europe and Russia at IHS, a U.S.-based global analytical firm. Beijing, in particular, has formed closer ties with its former communist rival as an alternative to the U.S.-led security architecture – an alliance that seeks to solidify into the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape.
Reportedly one of the world’s richest men, Putin’s reputation in the West has worsened in recent years as his rule – now in its 16th year – has overseen sweeping clampdowns, including further restrictions on press freedom and the introduction of the country’s notorious anti-gay law. The two-year war in Ukraine between forces loyal to Kiev and Russia-backed rebels dealt the latest blow to an already tattered relationship.
According to the Pew survey, U.S. confidence in Putin was highest in 2003 (41 per cent). Even today, though, 1 in 5 Americans approve of him (this fell to an all-time low of 15 per cent after the Crimean annexation, but quickly rebounded). In Israel, that approval number jumps to 1 in 4 Israelis, while 1 in 3 Palestinians back him. In Western Europe, Putin’s approval rating hovers between a low of 18 percent and relatively higher figures of 27 percent in Germany and 30 percent in France.
“People are disillusioned by the political elites in their countries, who are seen as indecisive. Putin is black and white in his worldview and his assertiveness,” Russian dissident Vladimir Ashurkov tells Haaretz from London, where he has been living for the last year after claiming political asylum. A sharp critic of Putin, Ashurkov is executive director of the anticorruption fund led by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition activist. In 2014, Navalny was given a suspended sentence in a theft case he says is politically motivated.
Finger on the trigger
Populism – whether to the right, with the rise of Trump and the shift in Europe; or to the left, with the U.K. Labour Party electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader – has soared in recent years as Western democratic societies become increasingly disillusioned, a trend largely attributed to rising income inequality.
“Very few people who support Putin for his international policies have a real understanding of what his domestic policies are, how they limit human rights and personal freedoms of Russian citizens, and how inefficient Putin’s economic policies are,” says Kokcharov, referring to Russia’s protracted economic crisis since 2014, spurred by a consistently low oil price and sanctions.
Ashurkov says Putin’s ability to wield power in his country’s military sector – Russia’s Soviet-era arsenal is undergoing a massive $300-billion revamp under his command – also boosts his popularity abroad.
The Kremlin’s entrance into Syrian skies was a bold move: Its largest military intervention outside of the former Soviet Union in decades drew more attention than months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State group. Putin’s unveiling of his futuristic, triple-decker “war room” last November contrasted sharply with the upper echelons of the Pentagon openly arguing over defense spending, or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking for more U.S. military aid to counter the Iran threat.
If the 63-year-old Russian president’s fan club seems to comprise a motley crew, that should come as no surprise, says Dr. Andrew Foxall, the director of the Russia Studies Centre at the London-based Henry Jackson Society. Putin’s world, he argues, is open to all who wish to belong.
“Putin is willing to claim any number of people for his cause; he is many things to many people,” notes Foxall. While the former KGB spy may seem bent on destroying U.S. dominance for ideology’s sake, one should not be fooled, he adds. “Putin does what he does because, at that particular moment in time, it benefits Putin.”