Why Does Putin Still Desperately Seek Western Validation?

Everyone loves Russia and supports it, at least that's what Putin's regime media reports every day. Why does Putin create a false image and narrative for ordinary Russians?

by Sededin Dedovic
Why Does Putin Still Desperately Seek Western Validation?
© Handout / Getty Images

Everyone loves Russia, or at least echoes its views—if one believes the state media in that country. Why would it be so important for Vladimir Putin, who tries to appear impervious to foreign criticism, to amplify every seemingly affirmative word? He highlights the centuries-old insecurity at the heart of Russia, points out Mark Galeotti, director of the Mayak Intelligence Service and a historian specializing in Russia, in an article for Spectator.co.uk.

At last week's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), which was once Russia’s showcase for investment and trade deals and dubbed the "Russian Davos," there was a noticeable absence of Western guests. The Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto was there, but otherwise, the main dignitaries came from the global south—or the world majority, as Moscow calls it—even the Taliban.

So, perhaps as compensation, the official media are suddenly full of past and present prominent figures who ostensibly confirm Vladimir Putin's views. Karin Kneissl, former Austrian foreign minister, told TASS that she remembers “that long before 2022, there were statements that it would be more reasonable to have some kind of Balkanization of Russia, you know, like a breakup”.

TASS did not find it appropriate to mention that she infamously danced with Putin at her wedding and now lives in Russia, but eagerly noted that this confirms what her former dance partner claimed: that Western leaders “say that Russia should be divided into dozens of small entities to then be subjugated to their will and exploited for their own interests”.

While it is true, as particularly highlighted by Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, that we shouldn’t necessarily fear any potential breakup, the Western consensus is actually that such an outcome could be dangerous and certainly should not be our goal.

But there is no room for such nuance in TASS. Meanwhile, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, still recovering from an assassination attempt, was quoted by Rossiyskaya Gazeta saying that “the great Western democracies do not want peace, but rather an escalation of tensions with Russia”.

The recent decision by some donor countries to allow Kyiv to use their weapons in limited attacks on Russian territory is interpreted—just as Putin said—as evidence that they are using Ukraine as a proxy in a "militaristic adventure" against the homeland.

German Government Press Office (BPA), German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (centre, L) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (cent© Handout / Getty Images

Even an interview with Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary company formerly known as Blackwater (which inspired Moscow to establish its own Wagner forces in 2013-14), was extracted for the right sentiments.

In a conversation with controversial American media figure Tucker Carlson, who had an interview with Putin, Prince criticizes Joe Biden for not clearly stating that Ukraine will not join NATO, claiming it would have prevented the war.

For Russian media, this became an opportunity to trumpet that the war could quickly end—if only the West abandons Kyiv. At a time when Putin is blaring about his disdain for the West, its decadent values, and his usual lies, why is it so important for him to be validated by populists, former and marginal figures? Why, for instance, is the domestic nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin cited to support Prince, rather than the other way around? Of course, it is always useful to be able to reflect Western voices in an attempt to encourage those in Europe and the United States who oppose current policies regarding Ukraine.

As governments strengthen their positions while “Ukraine fatigue” actually grows, the scope to exploit this for disruptive effect only increases. Nevertheless, these are media that mostly address Russians, not foreigners.

Here, it is hard not to conclude that it also reflects deeply rooted insecurity in the country in general, and in Putin and his regime in particular. At SPIEF, when the outspoken academic Sergei Karaganov pressed him to agree that Russia should reorient towards Asia, Putin reiterated that the country is European, even if, in his view, Western Europe is losing the values and identity it once stood for.

Most Russians would wholeheartedly agree with both points. Considering that he (or at least his administration, which continues to obsessively scrutinize popular sentiment) knows that his Ukrainian invasion is not particularly popular—most Russians favor negotiations, if not concessions—claiming that ‘real’ Westerners are either on Russia’s side or at least confirming Putin’s narrative is an attempt to lend him greater legitimacy.

In the process, it also underscores the centuries-old insecurity at the heart of Russia, as it seeks to affirm its place in Europe, from which it often recoils and fears. Thinking that it is now a bastion of true European values, and that this is recognized by Europeans, must be some comfort for being shut out by sanctions and travel bans.