Tell Me Who You Hang Out With, Vladimir Putin

Tell me who you hang out with and I will tell you who you are. Until February 24, 2022, the date when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Vladimir Putin hung out with Western presidents and PMs and used to be a guest of honor at the White House, the Elysee Palace, and participated in G20 meetings. Since he launched his war of destruction against a neighboring country, he is considered a pariah on the world stage and a wanted man by the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for him. Has he still got “friends”, in spite of everything?

I write these lines as I recall the recent first visit to Russia of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, who brought with him several treaties of cooperation and mutual assistance, especially in the field of weaponry. “Everything for the sacred war against Ukraine,” was what the Korean dictator said to account for his rapprochement with Putin who is trying to revive relations with North Korea to save his war. North Korea, with its nuclear armament, its opacity and its unpredictable actions is especially feared by its neighbors South Korea and Japan, and has aroused mistrust and suspicion around the world.

As do all Putin’s other allies, some recent, others longstanding. One of the latter is Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic ruler of Belarus whose prisons are full of dissidents. Another is Ilkam Aliev, president of Azerbaijan for 20 years, accused by Amnesty International of a long list of crimes against human rights. And, as we have seen these days, Russia is supporting him in his war over Nagorno Karabakh, despite having previously signed treaties with a weak and frightened Armenia.

On top of which, Putin is an ally of Bashar Al Assad, under whose leadership Syria was plunged into a particularly virulent civil war in which he didn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons. Less than a month ago, the Nicaraguan autocrat Daniel Ortega advised Putin to continue his war against Ukraine because “Europe and the United States want to destroy and occupy Russia.” During his recent meeting with Putin, Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki, who has held power for over 30 years, provocatively stated, “People talk about Russia and Ukraine. I say there is no war between Russia and Ukraine. There is no conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who had helped organize the Khmer Rouge, received a friendship medal from Putin. General Ming Aung Hlaing, who almost three years ago launched a coup d’état in Burma to become the country’s leader, is accused by the United Nations, among other crimes, of the genocide of the Rohingya minority. Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, accused of crimes against humanity by several international organizations, is Putin’s strategic ally: Russia and Iran form an axis in the Caucasus and are military allies in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and partners in Afghanistan and post-Soviet Central Asia. The Russian Federation is Iran’s main arms supplier and Iran sends drones to Russia. I have not added the elusive Xi Jinping – the Chinese leader, on whom Putin is clearly dependent – to the list.

Some observers are of the opinion that Putin must surely regret the loss of his Western friends. Personally, I do not think so. Putin is a product of Soviet communism and the Cold War, a former KGB official who was brought up in a spirit of confrontation. Either you survive or I survive. His world is one of confrontation, with lies and manipulation as the trademark of his Russia. And the demonic image of the West is the one he has had engraved in his mind since he was a child because it is what was repeated at school, on radio and television. That is why he is weaving a network of countries allied to Russia with anti-Westernism as a banner, also in Africa, as he demonstrated at the Russia-Africa summit held in St. Petersburg at the end of last July.

Putin has never been pro-Western, although in the first decade of his tenure as Russia’s president, he was open to pacts with Germany and other Western countries, and boasted of embracing democratic values. But his actions belied this: in the second Chechen war, in the hostage crisis in Moscow’s Dubrovka theater, in the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, Putin always provoked bloodshed, also when he had Anna Politkovskaya and other critical journalists murdered in 2006. Although weakened both politically and economically by the war, the autocrat in the Kremlin is standing firm in the knowledge that the United States, China and Europe need him, because it is reasonable to think that what could come after him in Russia could be even worse. It is frightening to think of Russian nuclear weapons in the hands of a new Prigozhin.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)