Vladimir Putin is a man who needs no explanation.
The Russian president is simply understood: a nationalist who found a post-Soviet Russia in shambles: politically dismembered, economically ruined, militarily neutered. He set out to rebuild Russian power and pride, and he succeeded. The Russian people have so far been willing to pay the price of Putin’s success, and there is an answer for every criticism:
He enriches his friends while squashing the competition? Yes, but surveys show that the average Russian is happy about an improved standard of living and economic stability under Putin.
He sends Russian youth to die fighting in Chechnya while massacring the indigenous population? War against terrorism isn’t pretty.
He perpetuates himself in power through rigged elections, and jails and “disappears” the opposition? Well, nobody’s perfect.
He is regarded by the Western nations as an international outlaw, expanding through aggression and conducting a campaign of hacking democracy? What did the Western nations ever do for us?
But Putin does a lot for Russia. The latest example of his beneficence was on Tuesday, when he inaugurated the $4 billion Kerch Strait bridge, now the longest bridge in Europe, directly linking Russia and Crimea.
Nor was this a mere ribbon-cutting photo-op replete with boring speeches. In typical, hands-on style, Putin arranged for state media to broadcast live from a camera mounted inside a truck cab as he threw it into gear and drove the 12-mile-long, four-lane bridge himself.
The event showed off the Russian leader at his best: building, driving, doing for Russia. The kind of scene that helps Russians forget those nagging questions about the dark side of Putinism.
There was also Putin, the man of the people, clad in jeans and a jacket as he made small talk with a construction worker.
But if Vladimir Putin does not wear the crown of the tsars, he certainly does wear the crown of cronyism. For right there alongside him were two of his topmost cronies: the president’s past judo partner, and an old comrade from Putin’s KGB days in East Germany in the 1980s. The former built the bridge, and the latter’s state-owned company built the truck Putin was in.
Both are very rich, largely thanks to their friend in the Kremlin; and both are under U.S. and EU sanctions for their role in “consolidating the illegal annexation” of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, by Russia.
Putin justified his 2014 takeover of Crimea by force with a claim that he was acting to protect ethnic Russians there who were threatened by Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution.
The West refused to swallow that line, but was not prepared to challenge Russian military might on the ground. Instead, they imposed sanctions that have hurt but not held back the Russians.
Indeed, the new bridge is another finger in the eye of their critics in Washington and European capitals. It is concrete proof that Russia is there to stay in Crimea, and neither Ukraine nor its weak-kneed allies can do anything about it.
When Putin was asked earlier this year if there were circumstances that would allow the return of Crimea, he replied: “There are no such circumstances and there will never be.”
“Never” is a word that should never be used in politics.
Ukraine and the EU denounced the bridge as another affront to the international rule of law, saying it “constitutes another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia.”
As for the future: “I am confident that the aggressor will not succeed and will bear responsibility in full,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said. And added: “The invaders will need the bridge when they have to urgently leave our Crimea.”
Furthermore, the gleaming new structure linking Russia to its new acquisition is less than it seems. Russia is plagued by a decaying infrastructure. The country was ranked 93rd globally in quality of overall infrastructure by the World Economic Forum in 2013. The high-profile investment in Crimea masks a multitude of “poor roads, railroads and bridges across the country that don’t benefit from the president’s personal patronage,” as the Washington Post put it this week. The mainland rots away, while Crimea basks in the headlines.
The Kerch Strait bridge will provide a temporary boost to Russian nationalism and a relief for sanctions-burdened Crimeans who are hoping it will bring tourism and lower food prices. Such concerns make Western criticism easy to brush aside.
Bridges are meant to connect peoples and places; they have always served as an inspiring metaphor for overcoming differences and difficulties. It is sadly ironic that this bridge does the opposite, hardening animosities and separating countries.
Opposition to it and to Russian expansionism in Ukraine and Europe will not go away. Just as opposition and dissidence within Russia itself will not go away.