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Vladimir Putin with female Russian child in Red Square.

Putin’s Crooked Road to Damascus

When Vladimir Putin addressed the UN General Assembly on September 28, he sought to grab the world’s attention by upstaging US President Barack Obama with his call for a united front against the Islamic State. But he was also addressing Russians, whom he needs to distract from their country’s increasingly obvious economic woes.

MOSCOW – When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, he knew he would grab the world’s attention and upstage US President Barack Obama with his call for a united front in the battle against the Islamic State. But Putin was addressing Russians, too, knowing full well the need to distract them from their country’s increasingly obvious economic woes.

Last year, the distraction was the annexation of Crimea, followed by the encouragement of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. The recent dispatch of Russian aircraft, missiles, and a few thousand troops to Syria is a flag-waving substitute for that failed “Novorossiya” project. Putin’s critics rightly see his Syrian adventure as yet another appeal to Russian nostalgia for the Soviet past: the USSR was mighty – and Putin claims that Russia can and does have the same power.

But to what end? Wrong-footing the United States and the West may be good tactics in the short term, but there seems to be no long-term vision of the purposes that Russian power is supposed to serve, other than to preserve the power of Russia’s elites. As a result, the regime mimics the forms of democracy while using its propaganda to foment an aggressive form of nationalism.

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