Vladimir Putin kept Pope Francis waiting nearly 50 minutes when the Russian president came to the Vatican last month to discuss world peace, family values and other issues.
The pope did not seem to mind. Mr. Putin’s tardiness — attributed in this case to traffic problems — is not news. Besides, he has proved dependable in more important ways. In September, the pope wrote to the Kremlin asking Mr. Putin to help find a peaceful solution to the crisis over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. The Russian leader complied.
A threatened American military strike was averted. The United Nations official in charge of coordinating the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile says that the country has lost the ability to make more, and the Assad regime’s entire stockpile is sealed and set to be destroyed by mid-2014.
In the aftermath of Mr. Putin’s triumph, the American blogger Matt Drudge called him “the leader of the free world.” A commentator on the Business Insider website described him as “the Chuck Norris of international politics.” And Forbes magazine ranked him No. 1 in its 2013 list of “the world’s most powerful people,” with President Obama dropping to second place.
Since September, the Russian leader has claimed one coup after another. He played a key role in paving the way for negotiations with Tehran over curbing Iran’s nuclear program and bullied his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovich, into suspending talks on an association agreement and trade pact with the European Union.
Mr. Putin apparently thought that by striking a deal with Mr. Yanukovich he was also striking a deal with the entire nation of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters have been filling the streets of Kiev for nearly three weeks now, but Mr. Putin’s only reaction has been to suggest that these protests are being staged by insurgents trying to tip the balance ahead of the 2015 presidential election.
It is still unclear whether Mr. Yanukovich has signed any binding agreements with Russia, including a possible accord on Ukraine’s accession to the Russian-led Customs Union. But now that the European deal has been undermined, he can only turn to Russia for help, and Mr. Putin won’t permit any loans or gas subsidies unless he signs a binding document.
For the Russian leader, there is no such thing as independence: If a country is not a Moscow vassal, then it’s a vassal of Washington or Brussels. “The folk wisdom is that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune,”’ Mr. Putin says. “That’s a fact.”
He scoffs at idealized visions of globalization and “value-based” international politics. Indeed, the idealism that characterized the turn of the century now seems naive. Who can imagine another George W. Bush trying to ignite an audience with the rhetoric of spreading democracy and freedom? Politicians in the United States now offer pragmatic talk mostly about concentrating on America’s domestic problems.
Developments in Germany, where a new coalition government is forming, may be another case in point. German attitudes toward Russia are torn between those who see it as a land of enormous opportunity and those who are appalled by its corruption and repression. If Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an ally of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, returns as foreign minister, the more pragmatic stance is likely to prevail. Mr. Schröder, who was instrumental in getting Germany to sign on to a pipeline joint venture with Russia and joined the board of directors of that company immediately after leaving office in 2005, is the embodiment of business-driven politics.
Do these examples show that the world is caving in to the Russian leader’s brand of hard-core realism? Yes, to a certain extent. Mr. Putin is succeeding on the world stage as a kind of media anti-hero. This shows that there is at least some appeal for the kind of ruthless leader who brings stability to an unruly land and acts as a counterweight to the West. But though it may appear that the Putin principles are helping him abroad, they are certainly failing him at home.
President Putin has been dominating Russian news for the past 14 years. He is like a media star at the very top of the ratings, while the country he represents is slipping toward the very bottom. He has all Russia’s great resources at his disposal, yet Russia remains in the lower half of most international indices, including quality of government and control of corruption.
To be fair, the World Bank has elevated Russia’s international “Doing Business” ranking. This year the nation jumped 19 places to 92 among 189 countries. It’s important to understand, though, that this index does not consider the rule of law, only things like the speed it takes to complete paperwork, obtain regulatory permission and access to infrastructure.
Mr. Putin’s distrust of autonomous institutions, especially independent courts and political parties, is preventing Russia from developing a truly law-based state. The Russian state is in fact a maze of patron-client relationships in constant flux. The man in the Kremlin may be a business-oriented and pragmatic leader, a media celebrity who struts upon the world stage, but the fact that Russian domestic politics is a one-man show makes his country inherently unstable and dangerous — especially as a place to do business.
So does the conviction that anything foreign-funded is a threat to the Russian national interest. It has led to such absurdities as condemning many NGOs as “foreign agents,” effectively preventing foreign technical assistance and undermining research institutions that badly need international expertise.
Mr. Putin’s unconditional support of his domestic political vassals has caused a lack of accountability, fostered corruption and undermined faith in the future. Discussion of any eventual transfer of power is taboo. The country’s elites — including Mr. Putin’s cronies — consider Russia such an unpredictable place that they send their children abroad to study and to live.
President Putin has never fully focused on national issues. Leaving everyday problems like bad housing and failing infrastructure to his subordinates, he prefers the big issues — the war on terror, church politics, glamorous sporting events, and the geopolitical limelight in the Middle East and Europe. The real question for Russians is whether they will continue to accept an imperial president’s victories abroad as symbolic compensation for his mismanagement at home. How long will Mr. Putin keep us waiting?
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.