Sunday March 22, 2015

Putin's Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally marking the one year anniversary of annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 18, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally marking the one year anniversary of annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (The Associated Press/Pavel Golovkin)

It's good to be the king … er … Tsar … er … President. President Putin, that is.

Russia's economy is in the tank. It's involved in a very dangerous war with Ukraine. It has earned the opprobrium of Western leaders, who have punished Russia with harsh sanctions.

It is a set of circumstances that would have most political leaders on the ropes. And yet the Russian president seems to be enjoying himself. 

Putin waltzed into Crimea one year ago this week and snatched it back from Ukraine, barely breaking a sweat. He insists with a straight face that Russia is not involved in the Ukrainian war, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

He is vilified as a recklessly aggressive imperialist bent on spreading Russia's tentacles across Europe and Asia; not just reviving the Cold War, but threatening to turn it into a hot one. 

Putin seems to take it all in with a bemused smile - or smirk, if you're less charitably disposed. He jokes about the rampant media speculation over his health when he spent a week and a half out of the public eye.

His approval rating is over 85 percent. More than double Stephen Harper's. As far as most Russians are concerned, the Westerners are at the gates, and President Putin is manfully shoring up the barricades. 

Western leaders are outraged by Putin's cheeky defiance of international norms and confounded by the fact that he gets away with it. 

But isn't Putin really just doing what Russians keep electing him to do? And one might ask, if you had a close ally overthrown in a country with a sizeable Russian-speaking population and you could hear NATO knocking on your front door, what would you do if you were Putin?

Peter Pomerantsev is a television producer based in London who has worked extensively in Russia. He is a frequent contributor to publications like The London Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

His new book is called Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.