Putin and Russia ‘don’t get no respect’
Russia’s dictator is beginning to sound like Rodney Dangerfield. The late comedian famously kvetched, “I don’t get no respect.” Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, recently began insisting that the West should treat Russia with respect.
Putin is rarely right about anything, but this time he hit the nail on the head. He and Russia really “don’t get no respect.”
Putin attributes the West’s lack of respect to a supposedly ingrained Russophobia. But that’s nonsense. Most people in the West have no opinion about Russia: They have other things to worry about, such as taxes, inflation, unemployment, and the ineffectiveness of their own policymakers. Some people adore Russia; some downright hate it. But the haters are definitely a minority.
Or, at least, they were — until Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine. Putin thereby made Russia and all things Russian toxic. After all, who in his or her right mind could possibly admire a dictator who threatens the world with nuclear war or respect a country that is killing innocent men, women and children just because they happen to be Ukrainian? It’d be like loving Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Putin would do well to ask himself whether he and his country have done anything to deserve respect. Respect isn’t just handed out to everybody, after all. You need to earn it. And you generally earn it by doing things that people consider useful, beneficial, generous or heroic. If you want to be treated as a good guy, you need to act like a good guy.
Seen in this light, neither Putin nor his Russia deserves to command an iota of respect from decent people. Putin has destroyed Russian democracy; killed scores of his political opponents as well as hundreds of ordinary Russians; reportedly has stolen billions of dollars; empowered the secret police; instituted a reign of terror; constructed a fascist regime; and embarked on land-grabbing wars with Georgia and Ukraine. Oh, and he’s also destroying Ukrainian cities, towns and villages, as well as openly and proudly committing genocide, while threatening to take the war to the Baltic states, Moldova and Poland.
Most Russians, meanwhile, have supported, tolerated and even applauded Putin’s policies for much of the past two decades. They have watched him transform Russia into an imperialist, fascist state; they cheered when he invaded the Donbas and Crimea in 2014; and they looked the other way this year when his troops rained missiles on Ukrainian schools, hospitals, shopping centers, theaters, and apartment buildings. The behavior of the Russian people may or may not make them complicit in his crimes, but it surely is no cause for celebration and respect. Pusillanimity never is.
Small wonder that Putin and Russia “don’t get no respect.” Instead, they get what they amply deserve: fear.
The world is terrified of Putin and Russia. And rightly so. He has shown that he could blithely countenance destroying the world, while too many Russians have shown that they’d be happy to keep looking the other way, even as Putin and his chums toy with the nuclear button.
Unsurprisingly, fear generates hatred and lack of respect. Fear also generates the search for ways of taming or, if need be, destroying the object of one’s fear. Ukrainians know this all too well. They understand that their fight against Putin’s Russia is existential. They can survive only if Putin and his Russia do not.
The choice is Putin’s. All he needs to do to regain the respect he claims to want is to end the mass murder of Ukrainians, withdraw from their land, and stop rattling nuclear weapons.
Naturally, he’d never consider something this obvious — precisely because he’s Putin, the career KGB officer, and prefers fear to respect. Putin would have to be “anti-Putin” for him to abandon his extreme Machiavellianism and opt for loving thy neighbor.
But if Putin weren’t Putin, he wouldn’t be Russia’s immensely popular fascist dictator, either.
That puts the burden of change on the Russians. They must stop being Putinites and start being normal human beings who want to live in peace with their neighbors, who disrespect an autocrat with crazy dreams of conquest, and thereby come to respect themselves. A good place to start would be to reject the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s unhinged advice that dying on the battlefield “cleanses” all sins.
Such a transformation is not beyond the realm of the possible. Large parts of Russian political culture are slavish; but other parts are humanistic, liberating and tolerant. There’s no reason why all Russian intellectual and cultural elites couldn’t effect such a change in attitudes, or at least try. As Putin has demonstrated, Russians could do much worse than become lovable schlemiels like Rodney Dangerfield.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”