Whatever else I could ever say about Vladimir Putin, I do have to admit he is a political genius. What’s really remarkable about this is that he has effectively ruled a country for almost the entirety of the 21st century to date in which this has not been an essential skill. For in what is effectively a dictatorship, an ability to work the electorate is not actually vital. However, Vladimir has been from the start a man with much more global aspirations.
He has achieved a widespread acceptance for certain ideas throughout western Europe – starting on its fringes, but moving ever inward – that would have been considered incredibly outre and even in some instances impossibly offensive ten years ago. Even more startling (and key to the initiative’s success) has been the pincer movement he has enacted – inspiring the far-left just as much as the far-right within western Europe, realising before most did the rather large threads that unite each of them.
Putin has achieved this mostly via two methods: one, the incredibly effective and successful TV channel, Russia Today; two, the funding of extremist parties in western Europe to enable them to prop themselves up to previously unforeseen levels of attention. Both prongs of the plan have been successful beyond even what those at the top of the Russian state could have ever envisioned as possible when they were initiated. The latter point there obviously is remarkable in the abstract, but actually is really just down to concentrating resource – seeing an opening and following it. Putin’s greatest success in this regard is undoubtably the rise of Front National in France; the millions he has put into Marine Le Pen’s party has brought the end of the European project closer than almost anything else could have (the only competition being the UK referendum on EU membership which is set to happen within the next calendar year).
But really, it’s the first point that is genuinely unique. Starting a new channel with the idea of fomenting extreme points of view had been successfully done already (Fox News in America), but no one would have guessed when Putin launched the thing ten years ago yesterday that it would have ever had anywhere near the same reach into supposedly liberal, progressive western Europe as it has managed over the past decade. To have seen the rise of the far-right and fed its ideas is one thing; to recognise that many of the same narratives could be used to seduce the western European far-left was the real stroke of genius. These days, I hear more often than I wish were true about how Russia Today is the “only source of real news these days” – from Islington “liberals”, from Greens, from Corbynistas – people you would have thought would be the last on Earth to bite down on the propaganda of an openly homophobic despot. But yet, here we are. In fact, it’s worrying how much of Stop the War and indeed even Labour HQ’s rhetoric these days echoes Putin’s lines – even down to very dodgy alliances, such as supporting the messaging of the Assad regime openly. If any of this sounds like I’m pushing a conspiracy theory, I can only say this in response: a conspiracy theory requires people to actually conspire, whereas what I am laying out is the work of a single man – others may inspire him, give him the ideas in the first place, but none of it would be possible without Putin’s vision. That someone like Putin, who is president of a country in which the richest 1% of citizens own 70% of the wealth (the corresponding number in the UK is 23%, just for reference) could become a far-left hero (almost icon?) tells its own story.
How this all works out in real life, in real time, is even less co-ordinated – the spectre of Le Pen as president of France; the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union, thus seriously endangering the whole European project; Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party – none of these things were directly co-ordinated by Vladimir Putin and his elves, obviously, at least in the way they have developed over time. But make no mistake about it: each one of these things owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Russian president.