Russians in huge numbers took to the streets again on Wednesday to protest their government’s treatment of Alexei Navalny, a man they fear may soon die because he dared to criticize President Vladimir Putin. While the mass demonstrations across Russia’s 11 time zones inspire respect, the country itself, under its entrenched regime, has achieved precisely the opposite. Putin has made no secret of his goal of restoring Russia’s former glory. Instead, he’s turning it into a global pariah.
Putin notoriously described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as the greatest “geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He clearly didn’t regret the loss of the Soviet Union’s socialist ideals or its cradle-to-grave welfare state, since he has made no effort to restore either. What he mourned was the loss of superpower status — the prestige that accrued to Moscow’s role as the leader of a well-armed empire that even its enemies regarded with grudging respect.
To some, the Soviet Union embodied a dream of empowerment, equality and a possible end to poverty and exploitation. To the less idealistic, it demonstrated communist ideology’s power to transform a backward agrarian state into a modern industrial society capable of defeating Nazi Germany and conquering space. Even with its obvious flaws, the Soviet Union remained a model to millions.
Today, Putin’s Russia stands for rampant corruption, stark income inequality, aggression toward its neighbors and state-sponsored assassinations of those who dare to criticize the system. Its economy is weak, its infrastructure atrophied. (One-fifth of Russians still don’t have indoor plumbing.)
Xi Jinping’s China is also a harsh autocracy, but it has visibly boosted the wealth of most of its citizens and dazzled onlookers with its rapid development.
By contrast, Russia makes headlines for its kleptocracy, repression and mafia-style tactics. Navalny, now imprisoned on trumped-up charges and gravely ill without adequate medical care, rattled the regime with his exposés on the outrageous corruption of leading officials. Too many other critics have already died under opaque circumstances, from ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned with a radioactive isotope) to opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (shot to death just steps from the Kremlin). Another former intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, survived a nerve agent attack in Britain; Navalny nearly succumbed to another in Siberia last summer. (Incidentally, the doctor who treated Navalny in that case also died recently. He was 55 years old.)
Just last week, Washington expelled Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions over Moscow’s massive cyberattacks and interference in U.S. democracy. Poland also expelled Russian diplomats in support of the United States.
Over the weekend, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis accused Russian military intelligence of orchestrating a series of massive blasts at Czech weapons depots in 2014. The Czech Republic and Russia expelled each other’s diplomats. Some top Czech politicians once counted among Russia’s closest allies in Europe. No longer.
Unit 29155, the same Russian intelligence organization cited by Babis, has been linked to multiple attacks, including the failed effort to assassinate Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. A Western security official told the Financial Times described Unit 29155 as “a nasty group of people used by the Kremlin to further its … strategic aims across the world.” And yet, he added, “they keep getting caught, so you can see their tradecraft is actually fairly poor.”
After a Russian whistleblower revealed a far-reaching doping scandal in the country’s Olympic sports establishment in 2015, the Kremlin unleashed cyberattacks against “foreign politicians, sporting officials and antidoping regulators,” the New York Times reported. More recently, the paper says, Russia has deployed its hackers against the Winter Games in South Korea in 2018, and is apparently trying to do the same to the Tokyo Games this summer.
Small wonder that Moscow is running out of friends — and seems to have even fewer admirers. Last year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that Russia suffers from a dismal image around much of the world.
During Putin’s early years in power, more than three-quarters of Americans had a favorable image of Russia. Over time, that image started crumbling, with Russia’s rating plummeting from 63 percent in 2003 to 22 percent this year, according to Gallup.
Not everyone loved the Soviet Union, but most understood that it was a force to be reckoned with. Today’s Russia just looks pathetic by comparison. Today, when Russian oligarchs dock their mega-yachts at swanky resorts, everyone reading the headlines knows how those men earned their billions. Russian billionaires know — as do Russia-watchers — that their fortunes depend on Putin, and that Putin could strip them of everything they own if they dared to criticize him
After more than 20 years in power, with Navalny balancing between life and death, Putin just signed a law that makes it possible for him to remain in power until 2036. There may still be a few aspiring autocrats around the world who admire his brazen consolidation of power. But most people certainly don’t see his regime as an example of what they want for their own countries or themselves. Modern-day Russia may still inspire fear, but it generates very little in the way of respect.
Frida Ghitis is a former CNN producer and correspondent who writes about world affairs for the Washington Post, CNN.com and World Politics Review.