Despite this dismal record, Putin enjoys the sympathy of a small legion of apologists in the West. The majority come from the extreme left and the extreme right, which share Putin's anti-Americanism, his penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories, and his visceral contempt for liberal democracy. But Putin's most influential defenders are the "realists", a group of academics, former diplomats and opinion-makers whose ideas are treated seriously in the corridors of power.
Far from protecting Russia's security, Putin has immeasurably weakened it.
The standard-bearer of the pro-Putin realists is John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, who has made a career out of reducing the complexity of global politics to the aggression of self-interested powers. In the process, he studiously ignores their internal politics. One obvious advantage of this approach is that it considerably reduces the amount of research and knowledge that is required to dispense authoritative judgments about the conduct of any particular country.
In the September 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, the influential journal of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Mearsheimer applied his template to explain "why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's fault". He contends that the West's fatal error was to reject his own realist dogmas about great power competition in favour of liberal notions of international order. The result was an inability to understand "Putin and his compatriots [who] have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates". By encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence, NATO and the EU strained Putin's patience to breaking point. By supporting the Euromaidan (the period of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine that began in 2013, centred on Maidan Square in Kiev, which culminated in the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014), the West provoked the Kremlin's onslaught against Ukraine. Putin's conduct, explains Mearsheimer, was "Geopolitics-101" – an entirely predictable reaction to the folly of Western leaders.
The leading proponent of this line in Australia is Tom Switzer, a journalist and lecturer at Sydney University, who describes Mearsheimer as his "friend and mentor". Indefatigably prolific, Switzer has appeared in almost every conceivable forum and media outlet to make the case that Putin is a rational defender of Russia's national interest.
The problem with this interpretation is that Putin's recent conduct was anything but rational. Far from protecting Russia's security, Putin has immeasurably weakened it. By attacking Ukraine, he has made an enemy of a kindred people, guaranteeing its Western destiny. He has created a zone of violent instability on Russia's western border at a time when it is grappling with an Islamist insurgency in the northern Caucasus. He has mobilised Russian ultranationalists as proxies, creating a horde of uncontrollable paramilitaries who will threaten domestic stability when they return home. He has shaken the confidence of close allies such as Kazakhstan, which now justifiably fear they might be the next target. He has ensured that NATO forces become a real presence in the Baltic states and Poland. He has provoked sanctions that are ravaging the Russian economy. He has left Russia vulnerable to pressure from China, whose leaders have designs on Russian resources, and now know that he has nowhere else to turn.
The real sources of Putin's recklessness are to be found not in Western diplomacy but in his terror of democratic revolution, a terror that has shaped the contours of his regime since 2005. As an uprising against a corrupt dictatorship, the Euromaidan represented an existential challenge to Putin's rule. Like the ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich, Putin nurtured a kleptocracy that brought incredible riches to a circle of cronies. Putin had good reason to dread the effects on his own people of an uprising against a similar regime with a large Russian minority. His anxieties were compounded by the trauma of the "Bolotnaya" protests of 2011-12, when hundreds of thousands of Russians protested under anti-corruption banners against election fraud and Putin's return to the presidency.
For Russian democrats like Aleksei Navalnyi, it is self-evident that the purpose of Putin's onslaught against Ukraine was to show to his own people that democratic revolution is a path to national catastrophe. If you overthrow me, you can expect civil war, state collapse, and mass impoverishment.
The anti-Western hysteria raging in Russia's state-controlled media is an integral part of the Putin regime's anti-revolutionary strategy. For more than a decade, Kremlin propagandists have justified the suppression of democracy as the defence of the Russian nation against Western aggression. They have fabricated thousands of conspiracy theories about Western plans to provoke an anti-Putin uprising, dismember the Russian state, pillage its natural resources and enslave its population. They have created an entire literature devoted to exposing the West's democratic ideals as a screen for global domination, the promotion of sexual perversion, and the crushing of disobedient peoples.This hurricane of hatred gives us reason to be sceptical about Switzer's claim that appeasing Putin will prevent a new Cold War and even bring to account the separatists who downed MH17. The idea that the West is Russia's mortal enemy is now the central rationale of Putin's dictatorship. As long as oppositionists like Navalnyi expose high-level corruption, as long as protesting crowds challenge the regime's control over public space, as long as ordinary Russians are denied basic democratic rights, Putin will try to deflect popular anger towards imagined enemies in the West.By their insistence on blaming the West and by their appearances in the Kremlin's media, the pro-Putin realists have lent support to this information war. By their faith in Putin's rationality, they have also dulled our awareness of the threat posed by his dictatorship. For years, his propaganda apparatus has been inflaming hatred of the West in terms that validate and amplify jihadi discourse. For years, he has responded to domestic challenges by aggression on the international stage. It is time for the West to recognise that the Putin regime is paranoid, irrational and dangerous. It cannot be appeased.
This article was originally published in The Age.
Dr Robert Horvath is an ARC research fellow at La Trobe. He is the author of Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution (Routledge, 2013).