If Vladimir Putin’s propaganda is to be believed, one of his major achievements has been “restoring Russia’s prestige” and making the country “respected again” on the international stage. As with most claims by the Kremlin spin machine, this does not pass the muster.
The 1990s—vilified by Putin’s propaganda—were a period of economic difficulty and political uncertainty for Russia, the former caused to a large extent by the record-low oil prices, and both of them inevitable after the collapse of decades-long totalitarianism. It would not have been surprising to see Russia consequently weakened in its international standing and isolated from global decisionmaking.
In fact, the opposite was true. In 1996, Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe, the oldest pan-European intergovernmental organization; members of the Russian Parliament took their place alongside other elected lawmakers from across the Old Continent. The following year, at a summit in the US city of Denver, Colorado, the G7 group of leading industrialized democracies—the most prestigious global club—officially became the G8, with Russia joining as a full member. In 1998, the first official G8 summit was held in Birmingham, England, with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia no longer a guest, but a full-fledged participant.
Russia’s economy in the 1990s may have been weak, but its Parliament and president were freely elected; its national media were independent of the government; and its human rights record, though by no means unblemished (suffice to recall the 1994–1996 war in Chechnya), was generally moving in the right direction. In short, Russia was on its way to becoming a normal European democracy. And that simple fact was enough to outweigh economic weakness and ensure the country’s acceptance as a full and respected partner by the civilized world.
The effect of Putin’s behavior on Russia’s international reputation has been astounding. Earlier this month, 17 years after President Yeltsin secured membership, Russia was officially suspended from the Group of Eight. The G8 summit in Sochi, scheduled for June, has consequently been cancelled. The world’s leading democracies are suspending bilateral agreements with Moscow, pushing it into further international isolation. This isolation was most vividly on display during this week’s vote in the UN General Assembly, when only ten countries—among them such pillars of international security and the rule of law as North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe—sided with the Kremlin in its vote against a resolution reaffirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s regime and its actions have done untold damage to Russia’s standing in the world. And no one feels this more acutely than true Russian patriots, who want their country to be respected—not feared and loathed.