Few modern authoritarians are more image-conscious than Vladimir Putin. For 12 years, we have been treated to the macho displays of the Russian leader as action hero/adventurer: the judo black belt; the shirtless outdoorsman; the deep-sea diver; the motorcycle enthusiast; and most recently, the (slightly softer) supposed savior to a flock of endangered cranes. Less well-known is how carefully scripted Putin’s appearance on Russian television can be, with regime spin doctors dictating media coverage down to the minute. The Kremlin is probably a more poll-driven institution than anything you’ll find in Washington.
That’s why the Russian president’s decision on Friday to sign a piece of legislation forbidding the adoption of Russian children by American citizens appears at first blush to be so oddly tone deaf. The Russian bill will immediately block the adoption of 46 Russian orphans whose applications were nearly complete. It is in retaliation for a U.S. law that targeted corrupt Russian officials who had a connection to the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and whistle-blower who had uncovered a massive tax fraud implicating senior Russian officials and police officers. So, with the stroke of a pen, Putin appeared to be rushing to defend venal and most likely criminal Russian officials at the expense of dozens of orphans, not to mention the thousands of other Russian children who would eventually be taken in by American families. The ghastly conditions in Russia’s overburdened orphanages are no secret to Russians. (There are an estimated 120,000 children eligible for adoption. In 2011, Americans adopted 1,000 of the roughly 10,000 children who found homes.) No one has ever accused Putin of being a warm, fatherlike figure. Now he just seems mean.
The idea that Putin ending adoptions to American parents is a significant blow to U.S.-Russian relations is ridiculous. It is a heartbreaking and cruel decision for those children and the families that were only weeks away from welcoming them, but the reality is that this political tit-for-tat won’t spill over to strategic considerations regarding Iran, Syria and maintaining supply lines in Afghanistan. What it does tell you is how puny Vladimir Putin has become.
For Putin, the world changed on Sept. 24, 2011. That was the day Russia’s then-President Dimitry Medvedev announced that Putin would be returning for a third presidential term — and millions of Russians felt as if they had been duped. Although people had openly speculated about Putin’s position during all four years of Medvedev’s presidency, it was now clear that Putin had always been in charge and that the Medvedev years were merely a ruse for Putin to remain in power without rewriting the country’s constitution. (The document allows for no more than two consecutive terms, but it doesn’t bar a president from serving additional terms. One change that was made early in Medvedev’s tenure, however, was that presidential terms in office were expanded to six years.)
The Russian leader’s popularity plummeted as people came to terms with the prospect of 12 more years of his rule. That popularity has never bounced back. Russians began to describe Putin as the modern incarnation of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. A Photoshopped image of an aged-looking Putin dressed in one of Brezhnev’s old uniforms went viral. When two months later Russia’s Duma elections were clumsily rigged — again, videos of ballot stuffing and other violations quickly spread online — disgust with Putin and the regime reached a tipping point. That’s when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, chanting, “Russia without Putin!”
What we have seen of Putin in 2012 is nothing like the strong, unassailable leader of his earlier years. He had come to power promising to be a powerful defender of Russian sovereignty; now he hoards orphans to score a political point that inadvertently demonstrates how little leverage he actually has. Putin is the leader of a regime that appears insecure, nervous and thin-skinned.
His first response to the sight of tens of thousands of his fellow citizens denouncing his government’s corruption was to lay blame for the protests on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the sort of oddball conspiracy theory you expect more from a Moammar Gadhafi or Bashar Assad. Since returning to office, Putin has implemented a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, including blocking websites, broadening the definition of treason and reinstating libel as a criminal offense. A crucial part of this new wave of repressions has had one common denominator: anti-Americanism. That is why the Kremlin now requires local nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” That’s why the U.S. Agency for International Development was forced to suspend its operations. Faced with mounting dissatisfaction, Putin’s regime has increasingly turned to the old canard of the most paranoid dictatorships by attempting to drum up fears of an external (typically American) threat.
Putin’s decision on Friday to deny his country’s most helpless citizens a better future is the most craven example of his desperate search for a cure to his own sagging popularity. Russians see the Kremlin’s new anti-corruption crusade — a number of senior officials, including the defense minister, have been caught in the dragnet — as the empty populist gambit that it is. Corruption is Russia’s most durable currency; a campaign to end graft can only go so far before it becomes a threat to the entire political system.
The bad news for Putin is that his xenophobic, anti-American displays no longer work on a population that increasingly views him as illegitimate. Indeed, nothing he has tried yet has succeeded in reversing public opinion. His approval ratings in the past several months are his lowest yet. And this newest gambit will surely fail to sway public opinion. His own foreign minister, education minister and a deputy prime minister spoke out against the legislation before he signed it. An online petition in an opposition newspaper garnered more than 100,000 signatures against the measure.
No doubt most of these people are moved simply by their compassion for these children and the fact that they will be denied an opportunity for a better life abroad. Some may more than empathize. In a poll taken shortly before Putin announced his intention to return for a third term, 22 percent of Russians said they wanted to move overseas, the largest percentage since the collapse of the Soviet Union. On some level, they may feel like orphans, too.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.