When you run a heavy-handed government that has systematically beaten down most of the independent domestic press and replaced it with servile government-run news outlets, you expect to see positive headlines after you deliver a major speech. But when Vladimir Putin woke up on Tuesday morning, a day after delivering his first address to the United National General Assembly in 10 years, even he must have been pleasantly surprised by what he read.
“Vladimir Putin Steals Barack Obama’s Thunder on the World Stage,” read one headline.
“Obama Has Turned Putin into the World’s Most Powerful Leader,” read another.
“At the U.N., Putin Checkmates Obama on Ukraine, Syria, ISIS,” went one more.
Now, Putin can presumably order up whatever headline he wants from TASS, Sputnik or Russia Today – all of which are government-controlled and have English-language versions meant to spread the Kremlin’s message abroad. What likely surprised him was that the headlines above, and others like them, were from U.S. news outlets. In order, they were published by CNN, the New York Post, and the Washington Examiner.
The Russian media outlets, in fact, were relatively restrained compared to some of the U.S. coverage of the clash between Obama and Putin on Monday. The U.S. president spoke harshly about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its support of Bashar al-Assad, the beleaguered Syrian dictator whom Obama characterized as a murderous despot who must be removed.
Putin blamed the U.S. policy of fomenting regime change for the unrest in the Mideast in general and Syria in particular, and said it would be an “enormous mistake” to fail to support Assad who, he said, leads one of the only armies “truly” battling the terror group ISIS.
He also announced that in its capacity as current chair of the UN Security Council, Russia would convene a ministerial meeting aimed at creating a new coalition to fight ISIS – this in addition to the announcement that Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria had all recently announced an intelligence-sharing agreement to coordinate the fight against ISIS.
When the dust cleared, many U.S. outlets – particularly those of a conservative bent – adjudged Putin the winner.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page declared that Obama had been “cornered” by Putin and Iran on the Syria question and noted that “Mr. Putin publicly laughs at the feeble U.S. efforts to build a pro-Western anti-Islamic State coalition.”
Putin’s apparent public relations victory on Monday was even more of a success than most in the West realize, because of the way it will play to a Russian audience.
When Putin first came to power more than 15 years ago, he set about winning over the Russian people by extracting the Russian Federation from the economic morass left behind by decades of failed Communist rule. He was largely successful, and the Russian people loved him for it.
Putin’s trouble now is that the Russian economy is under pressure on various fronts. Overly dependent on the sale of oil and natural gas, the Russian economy is faltering because of plummeting energy prices. International sanctions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and continued support of armed insurgents in other parts of the country have also taken a toll. The ruble is worth about half of what it was a year and a half ago.
Faced with a population experiencing greater and greater economic pain, Putin has made his new mission not to restore Russia’s economy but to restore its image in the world. He has, almost explicitly, promised to turn Russia back into a superpower again.
The Kremlin’s increased military assertiveness, the Crimean invasion and now the presence of Russian troops in Syria combined with Putin’s very public effort to take on a leadership role in the Middle East are all part of that effort.
In the end, it’s not at all clear that Russia has the capacity to project the kind of global power that the former Soviet Union did during the years of the Cold War. The Russian Federation is smaller, poorer and weaker than the Communist empire that eventually crumbled under its own weight at the end of the last century.
For Putin though, the issue may not be so much the long-term success of an effort to rebuild Russian global influence but the short-term gain that looking like a major world power again provides him in the domestic political arena. If nothing else, it might buy time to engineer a much-needed economic recovery.
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