Why Vladimir Putin May Not Be As Powerful As You Think

Last week Russia expert Julia Ioffe of The New Republic went on MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss Russia granting Edward Snowden asylum. O'Donnell suggested to Ioffe that President Putin was “in complete control of every second” of Snowden’s time in Russia. Ioffe disagreed, stating, “I don’t think Putin controlled personally. We really overestimate Putin’s abilities.” What ensued was a spirited disagreement over how much domestic power Putin has been able to accumulate recently.

Russia’s decision has increased souring in the already toxic U.S.-Russia relationship. As a result, President Obama cancelled a planned bilateral meeting next month with Putin. Despite the Obama administration’s strong attempts at a strategic reset in relations, Putin’s return to the presidency has been a set back to the progress Obama made with former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Since Russia has opposed the U.S. at almost every turn, many accuse Putin of having a personal vendetta against the U.S. rooted in his past as a Cold War KGB operative.

A few weeks ago, when Russian anti-Putin activist and Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny was arrested on a trumped-up embezzlement charge, pundits opined about Putin’s ability to shape court rulings. It made perfect sense. Navalny is an anti-Putin activist and rising political star. Putin had every incentive to strong-arm the courts and throw Navalny in jail. He could marginalize a powerful opponent in a way that weakened growing opposition while reaffirming his leadership, even at the expense of smooth and fair elections.

However, it turns out Navalny’s conviction was overturned within 24 hours as jailing him would have hindered his ability to continue his campaign. This change of events begs the question: Is Putin really the omnipotent puppet-master he appears to be? Or did he back down under the threat of fresh protests?

Major news networks agree that Putin is a foreign despot bent on the reviving Russia in the model of the former Soviet Union. Putin has presided over a time of intense anti-American rhetoric, significant military modernization, and oppressive social policies. He likely perceives what some would argue is a vacuum of legitimate global leadership after the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the global financial crisis. Does attempting to fill that gap in places like Syria and East Asia really make Putin a Cold War hardliner?

We could be misinformed about Russia’s intentions, and resultantly be mischaracterizing Putin. This indicates a significant connection between the current U.S.-Russian relationship and Cold War tensions Obama has channeled.

If Putin doesn’t have the domestic power Americans afford him, we are unnecessarily disengaging from Russia. Specifically, if Ioffe is correct that the decision to grant Snowden asylum was never in the hands of Putin, but was rather a matter of state bureaucratic policy, then stronger diplomatic ties are what we need right now.