Mike Nudelman / Business Insider
R ussian President Vladimir Putin earned a new distinction last month, when conservative U.S. blogger Matt Drudge branded him the "leader of the free world. "
Drudge's support of Putin may seem odd (just last year he was angry with Obama for calling Putin after the Russian was re-elected president), but Drudge doesn't seem to be alone in his newfound high opinion of the Russian leader. When Business Insider posted a photograph of Obama's G20 "death glare" to Putin on Facebook, the comments were overwhelmingly pro-Putin.
"The back of Putin's head is more intimidating than Obama's 'death stare,'" one user wrote. Other less visceral, yet still positive, opinions about Putin can be found at places like Foreign Affairs journal and The New York Times' op-ed page.
The simple explanation for Putin's popularity is his opposition to military intervention in Syria, which puts him in the same camp as most Americans. But Putin himself appears to be gaining an international following, as people buy into his persona as a tough and clever underdog hero.
In respect to a recent meme, you might even call him the Chuck Norris of international politics.
We're not the first to notice the similar reputations. Norris has long been the Internet's standard bearer for masculinity with random facts about his strength and skill ("When Alexander Bell invented the telephone, he had three missed calls from Chuck Norris"), and that meme extended to Putin a few years ago ("Putin can solve any diplomatical crisis. With his fists"). Cracked.com calls him the "world's craziest badass ," and multiple websites ponder who would win in a fight between Putin and Norris .
Putin's action-hero reputation comes from years of cultivation. Brookings researcher Hannah Thoburn points out that just a few months after taking office in 2000 he flew to the Chechen war zone in the back of a Sukhoi-27 advanced fighter jet. Before he even became president, Prime Minister Putin was saying that Russia would wipe out Chechen rebels even in the "outhouse." The image of action-man Putin has been carefully nurtured too, through publicity stunts, like his famous, topless horse-riding, fishing, and hunting trip back in 2007.
The tough guy image is relied upon for two reasons, says Pavel Khodorkovsky, President of the Institute of Modern Russia and son of jailed oligarch Mikhail. First, it appeals to Putin's base "as a personalization of a strong, supportive state." Secondly, in a country with a severe internal information deficiency, the government knows that Putin's unsubtle macho image is effective. "There is a huge effort to stick with what works," Khodorkovsky says.
There may also be some truth to his reputation. Before getting into politics, Putin had a long career doing unspecified work in the Soviet-era KGB. Today, he continues to practice judo to a high standard.
If Putin is an action hero, he seems to be the same type as Norris. Both are relatively small (Putin is 5'7" and Norris is 5'10") but fierce and clever. Norris' trademark style is playing "good guys to the bone, and despite having punishing martial arts skills, would always rather find a better solution than fighting" and having a "calm, reasonable" voice, according to the IMDB.
Putin cultivates the same image, especially when it comes to discouraging Western military intervention in countries like Libya and Syria. Additionally, his hard stance during Russia's war with Chechnya in the early 2000s garnered him newfound sympathy among some Americans after it was revealed that the perpetrators of the Boston marathon attack were ethnically Chechen. Putin didn't miss this — speaking shortly after the attacks, he effectively scolded U.S. politicians with an "I told you so." His hospitality for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, despite U.S. pressure, has also brought him attention and respect.
"I’d say the prime reason for this increase in positive coverage is that Russia watchers see how consistent, shrewd and effective Putin has been in handling such challenges, as Syria and Snowden, compared to his Western counterparts," Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and former editor at the Moscow Times says. "No matter how much pressure the U.S. has put him under, he has not budged and opinion polls show that substantial parts of the American public are closer to his and then Obama’s position on such issues, as Syria, opposing entanglement in a foreign country’s civil war."
Economist Clifford Gaddy, co-author of "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," says the past few weeks have actually revealed just how complex Putin really is. "He's probably the most formidable adversary America has seen in quite a while," Gaddy says. "He's clever and duplicitous, very skilled at playing people's own weaknesses and blunders against them — skills he honed as a KGB case officer."
The other interesting thing to remember is that if Putin's international support is gaining, it's largely among the most right-wing of bases. ( Russia analyst Mark Adomanis points out that "traditional conservative outlets, WSJ editorial page, National Review, The Weekly Standard, still despise [Putin].")
Here too, there are some parallels with the worship of right-wing hero Chuck Norris — a man who not only donates money to Republican causes and visits U.S. troops, but also supports gun ownership and believes in biblical creationism. He's a vocal critic of Obama — last year he said that the re-election of the Democrat would bring "1,000 years of darkness."
Putin is very much a conservative — both socially (note his support for the Orthodox Church and lack of support for Russia's LGBT community) and fiscally (seeks a balanced budget, low taxes, etc). To some conservative Americans, that makes him more attractive than their own president.
"What [the American right] are saying about Putin is driven ... by their opposition to Obama," Gaddy says. "They hate Obama; they can't stand Obama's foreign policy/security team — Susan Rice, Samantha Powers, et al. As Putin has taken on the role as undisputed leader of opposing Obama's planned intervention in Syria, he suddenly becomes more sympathetic."
Putin's apparent support for restrictive laws on LGBT rights may well be another factor. "The Right sees Obama having hijacked American foreign policy to promote values which they, the Right, absolutely detest, such as LGBT rights," Gabby adds. "So to be very provocative, they bring up this image of Putin as a good guy."
Whatever the reasoning behind it, Putin's image as a "badass" leader is pretty unique in the world right now, and a marked contrast with the softer leadership styles of Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande, or Angela Merkel. Those leaders who might have earned a similar respect for their brash manners — such as George W. Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy, or even Hugo Chavez — are pretty much universally consigned to history books now. It gives Putin a space to fill.
"Everyone is looking for leadership right now," Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institute, co-author of "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," tells Business Insider. "[Putin] presides over it."
This is despite the fact that Putin has experienced the toughest period of his leadership in the past few years, in particular the large scale protests that took place after the disputed 2011 Duma elections. Many observers have felt that he was probably on his way out, but Hill notes that the Russian president has a way of "snatching victory from the jaws of defeat."
In this, too, there's a hint of an action hero. Given his long time at the top of Russian politics, Hill also offers another possible analogy for Putin; as the Bruce Willis of the "Die Hard" franchise, "an aging, balding hero returning to save the world again and again."
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