He has “disturbing similarities to a real-life Bond villain,” Vox writes. He’s an “international macho man of mystery,” said the Boston Globe, and last year he pulled off the “crime of the century,” the Washington Post reported, destabilizing American democracy in the process.
Others have tried and failed. Terrorists can destroy buildings, President George W. Bush once insisted, but "they cannot touch the foundation of America.” Today Vladimir Putin is widely described as a man who did just that.
But is Putin really an evil mastermind? He’d certainly love for you to believe so, and he’s been working on the brand — if not the underlying product — for a long time.
He’s getting results. When Mitt Romney famously called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe,” the key word for Putin was “number one.” In his eyes, being a real-life Bond villain is a fitting role, and his vision — to make Russia great again, Cold War-style — is only validated through Russia becoming the US's prime enemy, and therefore its equal.
But Russia can’t afford a full-scale war or even a serious worldwide presence comparable to what the USSR had. What it can afford is a media campaign that magnifies Russia’s actions, and Putin with them.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to pay for it. Russia has become a necessary segment of every newscast, a social media trend, and a B-plot in more TV shows than ever before. The American public is getting used to Moscow's new image as an enemy state run by the ultimate global bad guy. That image has been shaped by the media, and while it represents some truths, it completely misrepresents the scale of his menace.
No one is happier about that than Putin himself.
His Bond-villain status also serves a deep American need, because a nation that sees itself as the greatest force of good in the world needs a worthy foe. Who’s more worthy than an international supervillain? After all, the strength of your enemy is a testament to your own might. The authoritarian ruler of the largest country on earth fits the bill nicely, and with anyone else, we’d simply be selling ourselves short.
Compared to lesser foes like ISIS, Iran, and North Korea, Putin has always wanted to be an equal. And in a way he’s accomplished that. He’s not seriously trying to destroy democracy and take over the US — he’s struggling to conquer parts of eastern Ukraine. Instead, he’s in it for the highly publicized rivalry, which puts Russia and the US on level footing.
Even the claim that Putin wants to undermine our democracy requires a serious misunderstanding of his worldview. After all, how can you try to destroy something you don’t believe exists? At the top levels of the Russian government, democracy is seen as nothing but a hoax used to fool people into voting for candidates handpicked by shadowy elites.
Putin, from the depths of cynicism unknown to most Americans, is obviously wrong in his assessment of our political system, and on a larger scale, we’re wrong about just how much damage he can really do. Save for sensationalist headlines, Russian intelligence was never smart enough, or organized enough, to pull off an active measures campaign so effective it would get their candidate elected. And the American public was never smart enough to avoid electing Donald Trump.
In Putin’s ideal world, the US and Russia aren’t wiping each other off the face of the earth. They’re old foes who’ve learned to respect each other, even if they occasionally exchange jabs. When push comes to shove, they’re always ready to come together to fight off the Nazis or ISIS — even if they both know that alliance ends the moment they’re done saving the world.
He may like to think of himself as a Bond villain, but this only makes sense when you remember the very specific rules of the James Bond cinematic universe. The villain never manages to defeat Bond or raze his country to the ground — that’s not what this game’s about. Instead, in every Bond film, there's the scene where the villain comes face-to-face with Bond. In that brief moment, they’re equals, and the villain usually holds the upper hand, at least temporarily. A man can dream. ●
Andrew Ryvkin is a screenwriter and journalist who shuttles between Los Angeles and Moscow, covering international politics with a focus on Russia.
Contact Andrew Ryvkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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