Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to possess an uncanny ability of juggling and swaying incompatible groups to his own advantage. He specifically seems to excel when the concerned groups are disenchanted with Western politics.
At home, Putin keeps the eccentric and devout Muslim Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on a short leash, while in Europe he supports far-right groups, which defy Europe’s multicultural ideals and raise hackles about “the Islamization” of Europe. One of those far-right groups, the Front National, has just won the first round of French regional elections. Russia’s crackdown on LGBT groups is another example of its support for conservative, traditional, and (presumably) Christian values.
While a staunch supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin at the same time invokes the wrath of Allah in his annual speech when referring to Russia’s recent brawl with Turkey over the downing of Russian fighter jet on the Turkish-Syrian border. Prominent Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexey Navalny has even recently lamented Russia’s “Muslim-welcoming” actions and the opening of the largest mosque in Moscow against the background of the UK blocking the building of a major mosque in London and Switzerland’s ban on minarets.
Yet how can Putin reconcile the differences between these two groups and get away with dealing with both? Could he truly be the cosmopolitan believing in a multipolar and multicultural world of equal opportunities? While any suggestions on what he really thinks would be highly speculative, the evidence of Russia’s recent actions points to Putin’s shrewd capitalization on the challenges and divisions among those he considers rivals (the United States, less so the European Union) or in Russia’s domain of control (post-Soviet countries).
The problem here is that Western political fumbles, among others in misreading Russia, sensationalized media coverage, and even international events seem to aid Putin’s own game. Of course we can dismiss Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE as a clown, yet his proposals of creating a database of Muslims and banning them from entering the United States seem to hit home with his supporters. Similarly anti-Muslim calls have been heard in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval ranking drops over her refugee-friendly approach. Whether supported by media frenzy or statements by far-right political figures, anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks have been on a gradual rise on the both sides of the Atlantic.
And this is when Putin’s rhetorical appeal to Western Muslims may come in (even if it is unclear to what end). Just as after falling out with the West he tried to embrace those in Russia’s eastern territories, while making no pledge whatsoever on accepting Syrian refugees. Playing to the sentiments of populations in Muslim-majority countries that mostly consider Westerners as selfish (68 percent), immoral (61 percent), or arrogant (57 percent) Putin has repeatedly drawn attention to the “degrading” values of Euro-Atlantic countries. All this while appealing to far-right groups by providing them with sizeable funding, meeting venues, or even such gimmicks as “a straight flag", and supporting its own anti-immigration politicians. It is as if taking a misguided hint from Dostoyevsky, Putin identifies those who he may consider “humiliated and insulted” and cultivates that sentiment further.
Thus, it is time to move beyond the Western ideas and standards when dealing with Russia, which does not respond to either. This does not mean that the West should abandon its ideals of liberal democracy and human rights, but the West should refrain from expecting Russia to act according to the ideals that it does not ascribe to. Even opinion polls show that while Russians want European quality of life, they do not want to live by European norms.
Moreover, Putin’s often-opportunistic actions stem from his goals, rather than the much-celebrated notion of “shared (even if conservative) values”. While some Western analysts may see Russia’s involvement in Syria as supporting a fellow-autocrat (in a way democracies may support each other if we follow democratic peace argument), they fall short of realizing that the Kremlin is deeply worried about the spillover of terrorism into its own territory. Given that, bombing whoever it bombs in Syria for now seems a fitting strategy in Russia, even if it may alienate other Muslim-majority countries, who may not see eye-to-eye with the Assad regime.
In addition, European and American efforts at democracy promotion or advancement of human rights have been often called arrogant, especially by those countries that may consider the principles of liberal democracy inapplicable. However, it is wishful thinking rather than arrogance that leads the West to repeatedly fumble with Russia and other less democratic or illiberal partners, while Putin seems to be right there to scoop up. More worryingly, because of these fumbles, he has often managed to score.
Babayan is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and associate fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. @nellibabayan