Putinism can be managed, for now

Members of the College of William and Mary community and local residents interested in international affairs will be treated to a singular presentation of the underlying issues behind the current poor relations between Russia and the United States.

Dr. Brian D. Taylor, professor and chair of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and a nationally recognized expert on Russian politics, is the scheduled speaker at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the college’s Tucker Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public.

His lecture, titled “A New Cold War? Putin, Putinism and U. S.-Russian Relations,” will be an extension of Taylor’s acclaimed new book, “The Code of Putinism.” He is known as a leading expert not only on Russian politics, but also on the country’s military and law enforcement apparatus.

I asked Taylor what he considers the essence of “The Code of Putinism.”

“It is the mentality of Putin and his closest and most influential associates,” he said. “It guides the political decisions that shape the political and economic system, domestic and foreign policy.”

Taylor explained that Putinism is not simply the worldview of the leading Russian elites, but also a set of habits and emotions.

“The dominant beliefs of the current regime are basically conservative and stress the need for a strong state to protect Russia against internal and external enemies,” he said. “This core idea is reinforced by habits of control, order and loyalty acquired in the Soviet state, especially its security organs, and emotions related to loss of status, resentment, the desire for respect and vulnerability.”

I asked Taylor whether he considers Putin central to the policies Russia currently pursues at home and abroad, and whether it would remain constant for the foreseeable future.

“Vladimir Putin is absolutely central to the policies Russia pursues,” he said. “Although there are some constraints on his behavior and decision-making, he has constructed what I call a ‘hyper-presidential’ political system in which other institutions — the legislature, the courts, the regions, the media and so on — are only weak constraints on him. Competing ‘clans’ or groupings also have a say, but Putin is the ultimate decider. If a different leader were in charge in Russia, its policies could well change dramatically.”

Like George Kennan, the famed American diplomat who advocated a policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War, Taylor also offers advice how to handle Putin.

“ ‘The Code of Putin,’ with its conviction that Russia must be a great power, its suspicion of U.S. intentions, and its feelings of resentment, lost status and vulnerability, drive a foreign policy that many in the West see as confrontational and aggressive, but that Russia’s rulers view as prudent, defensive and necessary.”

He continued: “Given this sharp divergence in basic outlooks, there is currently no plausible path out of the deep divide in U.S.-Russian relations as long as Putin, and his team are in power. But transactional deals can and should be made. Including in such key realms as arms control and counter-terrorism. A sustained improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, however, is likely to remain out of reach. This relationship will need to be managed, but cannot be remade anytime soon.”

Stephen Hanson, vice provost for international affairs at William and Mary and director of the Reves Center for International Studies, himself a noted expert on Russian history and politics, reflected on Taylor’s book, saying“Putinism may not be a full-fledged ideology like Soviet Marxism-Leninism, it should nevertheless be understood as a coherent regime type that can be emulated by autocrats in other world settings.”

Professor Taylor’s lecture will be followed by a question and answer period.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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