The Dictator's Dictator Foreign Policy Analyst Christian Caryl Explains Why Vladimir Putin Is the Leader Other Autocrats Wish They Could Be

By Caryl, Christian | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Dictator's Dictator Foreign Policy Analyst Christian Caryl Explains Why Vladimir Putin Is the Leader Other Autocrats Wish They Could Be


Caryl, Christian, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


For most of the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a bogeyman. His love affair with the thuggish separatists in eastern Ukraine has blotched his image across the democratic world. In November, he had to slink away prematurely from the G20 Summit in Australia after he was snubbed by just about every leader who counted.

Yet the reception he got during his state visit to Egypt earlier this month couldn't have been more different. The state-run media in Cairo fawned over the Russian president. Mr. Putin's portrait adorned the streets and one newspaper even printed photos of him with his torso bared. (Not exactly good Islamic style, one might think.)

Commentators duly noted the realpolitik behind the visit. Yes, of course, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's budding dictatorship has been getting the cold shoulder from the Americans, so he's out to show that he can find friends in other places if he wants.

But there was just a bit more to it all. An important clue came in a 1,000-word paean to Mr. Putin in the daily paper Al-Ahram, the official mouthpiece of the Sisi regime. The profile traces Mr. Putin's rise from his origins as a low-ranking Soviet intelligence officer to the global strongman who has succeeded in restoring Russia's national power (and, along the way, cocking a snoot at the Americans).

Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham noted that the Egyptian president, who got his start in army intelligence, is only too happy to be seen as someone following in the footsteps of the tiger hunter-cum-judo champion from Moscow. "Putin, like Sisi, is therefore seen as a virile strongman who crushes dissent and stands up to the West," she noted.

Mr. Sisi isn't the only one to display symptoms of a serious man crush when Vlad is around. Most countries, after all, have sound economic reasons to flatter China - yet there is a striking dearth of world leaders aping the personal style of President Xi Jinping. Mr. Putin himself enjoys something of a personality cult even among ordinary Chinese. One recent poll put his approval rating there at 92 percent, and his leading Chinese biographer says that his book on the Russian president has far outsold his works on Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.

Consider Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long sung the Russian president's praises - probably because he sees Mr. Putin's career as a textbook lesson in how to roll back democracy and replace it with a nationalist autocracy rooted in religion and "conservative values." (In Mr. Erdogan's case, the religion in question is Islam.) Just like the former KGB officer turned Orthodox Christian and viral video heartthrob, Mr. Erdogan positions himself as both a sincere believer and an unapologetic macho, the kind of guy who exults in his own contempt for political correctness. …

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