The Perils of Overestimating Putin (Op-ed)

On more than one occasion, Kremlin-funded media have spun Russophobia in the West as further “evidence” of why the United States and Europe cannot — and should not — be trusted. This tactic has also allowed news anchors who parrot the Kremlin line to expertly shift criticism from the Russian authorities back onto the West.

It is possible that Putin’s regime benefits from the resurgence of these Cold War stereotypes. The revival of the “us” vs. “them” paradigm implicitly elevates Russia to a global superpower again.

When the West attributes its problems to the hidden hand of the Russian leader, it fails to take actions to address the root of the problem. For example, following the 2016 U.S. election, in which Russia intervened and very possibly changed the outcome, Americans focused almost exclusively on Moscow’s role and completely ignored all the other ways that the elections are poorly administered, discriminatory and undemocratic.

This led Americans to be unprepared for problems of voter suppression, poor ballot design and inefficient counting procedures that very likely impacted the outcome of key races in the U.S. states of Florida, Georgia and elsewhere in the 2018 midterm elections. It turns out that Russia was not as involved in our elections this time around, leaving the American people to make a mess of them by themselves.

It has been nearly two decades since Western journalists began asking: “Who is Mr. Putin.” Yet, the question remains unanswered. Or, rather, the question has been answered in too many ways. It has morphed into whether the West underestimates or instead overestimates Mr. Putin, as well as Russia more generally.

The answer varies based on the specific actions conducted by his regime in the near abroad and the global arena i.e. There is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all approach to the former FSB chief. The Putin phenomenon may persist simultaneously as one of the most oversimplified, yet overanalyzed and overestimated topics of Western liberal discourse.

Ironically, there is also danger in blatantly underestimating Putin, as Barack Obama sometimes did. The former U.S. president believed that the mere act of Russia flexing its muscle abroad stemmed not from a place of strength but rather an array of deep-seated weaknesses dating back to the Soviet era, and the more recent instability and chaos of the 1990s.