WORLD AFFAIRS.  This time, Vladimir Putin has out-Putined himself.

On April 18, Russia’s erratic, though consistently anti-democratic, leader awarded the Russian Federation’s prestigious “For Service to the Fatherland Order, Class II,” to none other than Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky, who is the head of the bizarrely named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has been an unabashed promoter of Russian illiberalism, fascism, and imperialism since he first made a splash in the Duma elections of 1993, when his party garnered 23 percent of the vote.

Zhirinovsky has never minced his words. To his credit, he’s never pretended to be anything but an imperialist and a fascist. Indeed, he’s been so brazen, so outrageous, and so unapologetic that not even Putin Russia’s most ardent Western apologists apologize for him.  

Here’s a classic Zhirinovsky statement threatening Eastern Europe with war, from August 2014:

Poland—the Baltics—they are on the whole doomed. They’ll be wiped out. There will be nothing left. Let them re-think this, these leaders of these little dwarf states. How they are leaving themselves vulnerable. Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern Europe countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation. Only they themselves will be to blame. Because we cannot allow missiles and planes to be aimed at Russia from their territories. We have to destroy them half an hour before they launch. And then we have to do carpet bombing so that not a single launch pad remains or even one plane. So—no Baltics, no Poland.

Not enough? Here’s one more, from June 4, 2015, aimed at Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili and Putin’s Ukrainian political prisoner, Nadia Savchenko:

We will shoot all your governors starting with Saakashvili, then they’ll be afraid, and there will be a different situation in Europe and Ukraine.... Let’s aim at Berlin, Brussels, London, and Washington, then they’ll agree and will promise to leave us alone… Shoot this Savchenko tomorrow and hang her in Belgrade.

By awarding the honor to Zhirinovsky, Putin not only legitimizes his ISIS-like barbarism, he endorses it. And by awarding the honor for Zhirinovsky’s “great contribution to the development of Russian parliamentarism and his active law-making work” (sic!), Putin repudiates liberalism, rule of law, democracy, and every international norm known to the civilized world—openly and unconditionally.

For Putin’s critics, this is no surprise. They’ve never had any illusions about his politics. For Putin’s Western apologists, the award is a moment of truth. If they fail to repudiate Putin’s celebration of barbarism, they will have effectively endorsed Zhirinovsky and his declaration of war on the West and its values. Both Donald Trump and Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, should remember that their knee-jerk Putinophilia is a rejection of everything the West represents. Russian recipients of the award—many of whom are respectable scholars, artists, and policymakers—face a similar choice.

The award to Zhirinovsky is important for another reason. His inclusion in his “Fatherland’s” political pantheon suggests that Russian political culture and geopolitical thinking are perfectly compatible with, and perhaps even supportive of, his extremist views. Zhirinovsky’s exaltation may mean that imperialism, illiberalism, and authoritarianism, if not downright fascism, are central to Russia’s perceptions of itself and its place in the world.

That’s exactly what realists such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer believe. Similarly, Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin argues that Putin’s foreign policy is a continuation of the traditional Muscovite imperial behavior of Peter the Great and Alexander I. Since their Russia will always be imperialist, aggressive, and authoritarian, Western policy can either appease it or go to war.


My own view is that the neo-fascist Putin regime’s policies of oppression at home and aggression abroad are the result of his determination to rebuild a Russian empire. The goal of US and Western policy should therefore be to contain Putin the dictator and wait for his regime’s inevitable demise. As negative as it sounds, my view is actually optimistic, resting on the hopeful assumption that Russians can be democratic and that Russia can and eventually will change.

Alexander J Motyl

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