Vladimir Putin finally commented today on the largest anti-government rallies of his 12 years as Russia’s supreme leader. Putin did his best to show how “normal” he thought things were in the country, saying he was taking ice hockey lessons on Saturday afternoon when tens of thousands of Russians rallied to protest vote-rigging at the December 4 parliamentary election.
Putin said he later saw “young, active people” at the rally on the TV news. “If that’s the result of ‘the Putin regime,’ that’s good,” he said. His sarcasm went even farther. Speaking live on national TV, he confessed that at first he had mistaken the white ribbons worn by protesters for rolled-out condoms, perhaps as part of an AIDS awareness campaign.
Considering Putin had four days to plan his reaction to the protests, it was remarkably weak.
While he hinted at a few liberalizing adjustments to his centralized power structure, the basic message was “stay the course.” Rather than steal back the political initiative from his opponents, Putin offered no new arguments why voters should return him to the presidency in March – or think twice about demonstrating on December 24. It’s not enough anymore for Putin to count on his legendary popularity. His latest approval rating stands at 35 percent, its lowest point ever, according to the Levada Center.
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Putin is one of the most misunderstood world leaders, despite the vast public record of his speeches, meetings and interviews. Today he spoke with citizens for four-and-a-half hours during his tenth annual televised call-in show, breaking last year’s record by several minutes. Just from his remarks made today, it’s possible to piece together Putin’s world view. In the West, Putin is often characterized as “enigmatic” or “icy,” maybe because that fits the stereotype of the KGB spy he used to be. In fact, Putin is surprisingly open and very emotional.
Putin’s greatest fear is a people’s revolt that will depose his government. This phobia has its origin 22 years ago, when Putin was working for the KGB in communist East Germany. He witnessed how mass demonstrations helped bring down the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and personally warded off a crowd of East German activists from storming the KGB building in Dresden. The impotence of the once mighty Soviet Union, which had more than 300,000 soldiers stationed in East Germany, left its mark on Putin.
Fifteen years later, the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine gave Putin a fright like a recurring nightmare. He never believed that thousands of ordinary Ukrainians, so similar to Russians in temperament, would suddenly take to the streets to make political demands. He was convinced that the U.S. was behind the pro-western revolution as part of its plan to encircle, destabilize and colonize Russia.
“We want to be an ally of the U.S. It just
sometimes seems to me that America doesn’t
need allies but vassals.”
Today Putin explained yet again that only Russia’s nuclear deterrent guarantees the country’s independence in the face of U.S. designs to dominate the world. “We want to be an ally of the U.S.,” he said. “It just sometimes seems to me that America doesn’t need allies but vassals.”
Scenes of people power in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Libya have likewise met with Putin’s disapproval. U.S. Senator John McCain is helping him connect the dots.
Last week, after the first spontaneous protest following the parliamentary election, McCain tweeted: “Dear Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you.”
Today Putin responded by saying Vietnam War veteran McCain had the blood of innocent civilians on his hands and must have gone crazy during the years he spent as a POW.
Whatever one may think about Putin’s view of the U.S., it is key to understanding how he might react if events take yet another unexpected turn.