Few modern authoritarians are more image-conscious than Vladimir Putin. For 12 years, we have been treated to the macho displays of the Russian leader as action hero/adventurer: the judo black belt, the shirtless outdoorsman, the deep-sea diver, the motorcycle enthusiast and, most recently, the (slightly softer) supposed savior to a flock of endangered cranes. Less well-known is how carefully scripted Putin’s appearance on Russian television can be, with regime spin doctors dictating media coverage down to the minute. The Kremlin is probably a more poll-driven institution than anything you’ll find in Washington, D.C.
That’s why the Russian president’s decision to sign a piece of legislation forbidding the adoption of Russian children by American citizens appears at first blush to be so oddly tone-deaf.
The Russian bill immediately blocked the adoption of 46 Russian orphans whose applications were nearly complete. It is in retaliation for a U.S. law that targeted corrupt Russian officials who had a connection to the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and whistle-blower who had uncovered a massive tax fraud implicating senior Russian officials and police officers.
So, with the stroke of a pen, Putin appeared to be rushing to defend venal and most likely criminal Russian officials at the expense of dozens of orphans, not to mention the thousands of other Russian children who eventually would be taken in by American families.
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The ghastly conditions in Russia’s overburdened orphanages are no secret to Russians. (There are an estimated 120,000 children eligible for adoption. Americans adopted 1,000 of the roughly 10,000 children who found homes in 2011.)
The idea that Putin ending adoptions to American parents is a significant blow to U.S.-Russian relations is ridiculous. It is a heartbreaking and cruel decision for those children and the families that were only weeks away from welcoming them, but the reality is that this political tit for tat won’t spill over to strategic considerations regarding Iran, Syria and maintaining supply lines in Afghanistan.
What it does tell you is how puny Vladimir Putin has become.
For Putin, the world changed on Sept. 24, 2011. That was the day Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Putin would be returning for a third presidential term – and millions of Russians felt as if they had been duped. Although people had openly speculated about Putin’s position during all four years of Medvedev’s presidency, it was now clear that Putin had always been in charge and that the Medvedev years were merely a ruse for Putin to remain in power without rewriting the country’s constitution.
The Russian leader’s popularity plummeted as people came to terms with the prospect of 12 more years of his rule. That popularity has never bounced back. Russians began to describe Putin as the modern incarnation of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. A Photoshopped image of an aged-looking Putin dressed in one of Brezhnev’s old uniforms went viral. When two months later Russia’s Duma elections were clumsily rigged, disgust with Putin and the regime reached a tipping point. That’s when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, chanting, “Russia without Putin!”
What we saw of Putin in 2012 was nothing like the strong, unassailable leader of his earlier years. He had come to power promising to be a powerful defender of Russian sovereignty. Now he hoards orphans to score a political point that inadvertently demonstrates how little leverage he actually has. Putin is the leader of a regime that appears insecure, nervous and thin-skinned.