Understanding Russia, Un-Demonizing Putin
Since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in 2000, there has been a steady barrage of negative press and hostility from the West. With Putin up for reelection this year, Sharon Tennison tries to separate fact from fiction.
By Sharon Tennison
Russian President Vladimir Putin obviously has his faults and has made his share of mistakes. Yet, my experiences with him, as well as what I have heard over the years from people I trust –– including U.S. officials who have with him worked closely –– indicate that Putin is essentially a straightforward, reliable and exceptionally inventive man.
The Russian president is clearly a long-term thinker and planner and has proven to be an excellent analyst and strategist. He is a leader who can quietly work toward his goals under mounds of accusations and myths that have been steadily leveled at him since he became the Russian Federation’s second president.
I’ve stood by silently watching the demonization of Putin grow since it began in the early 2000s –– I pondered my thoughts and concerns, and included them in a book published in 2011.
Like others who have had direct experience with this little-understood figure, I’ve tried to no avail to avoid being labeled a “Putin apologist.” If one is even neutral about him, they are called “soft on Putin” by pundits and average citizens who get their news from CNN, Fox and MSNBC.
I don’t pretend to be an expert, just an NGO program developer who has lived in Russia and the Soviet Union for the past 30 years. But during this time, I have had far more direct, on-the-ground contact with Russians of all stripes across 11 time zones than any of the Western reporters or for that matter any of Washington’s officials.
I’ve been in country long enough to reflect deeply on Russian history and culture, to study their psychology and conditioning, and to understand the marked differences between American and Russian mentalities which so complicate our political relations with their leaders.
As with personalities in a family or a civic club or in a city hall, it takes understanding and compromise to be able to create workable relationships when basic conditionings are different. Washington has been notoriously disinterested in understanding these differences and attempting to meet Russia halfway.
In addition to my personal experience with Putin, I’ve had discussions with numerous U.S. officials and American businessmen who have had years of experience working with him –– I believe it is safe to say that none would describe him as “brutal” or “thuggish,” or the other slanderous terms used to describe him in Western media.
I met Putin years before he ever dreamed of being president of Russia, as did many of us working in St. Petersburg during the