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Goldberg: If democracy is a corrupt ‘Western’ concept, why does Putin pretend his actions in Ukraine are democratic?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks as he arrives at the plenary session of the 19th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club outside Moscow on Oct. 27. 

Vladimir Putin is a murderer and tyrant. He’s also a hypocrite.

“It is no coincidence that the West claims that it is its culture and worldview that should be universal,” Putin explained last week at a pro-Putin Moscow think tank, the Valdai Discussion Club. His remarks echoed previous statements of his worldview, which many of his apologists — at home and abroad — take to be a very serious thing.

In July, he declared that “a new stage in world history” is coming, spelling the end of “the model of total domination” by the West. In 2019, he told the Financial Times that the “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose.”

Putin has long propped up his rule by claiming that the West was at war with Russia. So that’s not new. His more recent rhetoric, however, is pitched at explaining the catastrophic failure of his Ukrainian invasion.

Putin told the Russian people that the Ukrainians are really ethnic Russians, either duped into believing in the myth of the Ukrainian nation or held hostage by a weak and criminal government run by a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” How could Russia possibly lose to such misfits in a fair fight? His claim, of course, is that Russia’s failure to defeat Ukraine must be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the West pushing back Russian “liberators.”

Putin knows that these talking points will get picked up by apologists and assets in the West, which the Russian state feeds back to its own populace.

On this point, Putin isn’t merely the world’s leading producer of propaganda; he’s also its chief consumer. He still trots out the golden oldies of Soviet talking points about the West’s “racist and neocolonial” imperialism. He claims that Russia and China provide an alternative to this approach to the world order.

And that’s where the hypocrisy comes in.

It’s certainly true that Western history has a lot of racism and colonialism, and we can debate how much of that is left. But it is a strange critique coming from Putin, given that both the Soviet Union he loved, not to mention the Russian Empire he lionizes, were nothing if not imperialist and racist.

The Soviet Union colonized vast swaths of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the fabricated antisemitic tract, was a tool of czarist state propaganda. The Soviet Union committed cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing on a gargantuan scale. And what, if anything, is the attempted annexation of Ukraine other than an imperial project?

What’s interesting about Putin’s attacks on the West is that he’s implicitly claiming them as his own values. Racism is a universal problem and dominant in many societies, but rejection of racism is central to the contemporary West’s liberal ideals.

Or consider democracy. There’s a reason nearly every authoritarian regime tries to legitimize itself by using false claims of democratic accountability and fraudulent elections. North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It’s neither democratic nor a republic. The People’s Republic of China is no republic. Russia calls itself a “federation” of “republics,” but just ask the Chechens how voluntary that federation is (or how republican). When Russia annexed four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine in September, it held rigged referendums to give the seizures legitimacy.

Why? If democracy is a corrupt “Western” concept, why pretend what you’re doing is democratic?

The same goes for the rule of law and human rights. There’s a lot of diversity in legal systems, but due process and the right to self-defense are Western liberal ideals. Even in Russia, where the courts are mostly corrupt, the regime still wants to pay lip service to impartiality and fairness.

Putin’s political philosophy, like his understanding of history, is entirely self-serving and nothing more. He grabs random facts, half-truths and whole lies off the shelf to serve his desire for power and glory. Indeed, he now says Russia is at war with Western “satanism” because the cupboard is bare of more plausible lies. What he doesn’t do is offer an actual alternative to Western values. He uses liberal labels to justify his brutal will to power. Maybe that’s because those values really are universal now.

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