The fear of displaying weakness has become a shrewd pillar of Mr. Putin’s political identity. And to the dismay of the country’s democrats and world leaders with whom he interacts, it has made him extraordinarily popular and powerful, even though in moments of candor and, of course, in private, officials in Russia acknowledge the overwhelming problems the country faces.
On Monday, Mr. Putin will swagger through New York, delivering a speech at the United Nations for the first time in a decade, meeting with an evidently reluctant President Obama and seeking to regain the spot on the world stage he believes he has been unjustly denied by his rivals in the West. In Russia’s sycophantic official media, this is another triumph, of course, but even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers could not resist the schoolyard bravado, saying the Russian leader was “stealing Mr. Obama’s lunch money.”
Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center recently noted that “rising from one’s knees” was a “distinctively Russian metaphor” for restoring dignity and national pride. And on their knees is where many Russians believe they spent the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union — until Mr. Putin single-handedly wrenched them back to their feet.
What Mr. Putin has succeeded in doing is persuading Russians that the hardships they now face — many of them a result of his own decisions — are evidence of efforts by Russia’s enemies to keep the nation weak.