Putin: the Modern Machiavelli
In March 2014, Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was annexed at the behest of a Machiavellian leader. A treaty signed by Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, meant that the land would become part of Russia when finalized in January 2015. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been rising since the March treaty. It is widely disputed – neither Ukraine nor the European Union recognizes its legality – but the annexation gives insight into the Russian President’s character. Putin demonstrates several Machiavellian lines of thinking in his presidency and in the actions taken to secure Crimea.
It is important to note the events preceding the annexation. The peninsula has had a history of Russian interference, beginning in 1783 (“Annexation of Crimea 2014”). In 1954, it was given up by the Soviet Union to be part of the country of Ukraine, which at the time was a Soviet republic (Kramer). In 2014, Viktor Yanukovich, President of Ukraine, “fled the capital and was stripped of his presidential powers” (“Annexation of Crimea 2014”) after failing to negotiate with those who opposed him. In the wake of the political disarray, Putin subsequently ordered the mobilization of unmarked Russian soldiers to control the peninsula (Berry). In the days that followed, the Crimean parliament passed a referendum to secede from Ukraine. Ukraine’s government and new president, Petro Poroshenko, believed that the annexation by Russia was illegal and that it went against the Ukrainian constitution – a claim backed by the European Union and the United States.
The annexation of Crimea, controlled and masterminded by Vladimir Putin, was, summarized in a speech given to many applauding Russian statesmen, to “protect Russia’s interests” (Myers and Barry). Putin’s actions were decidedly Machiavellian in nature. Now, one can define the term ‘Machiavellian’ as relating to the ideas found in Italian political writer Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, where he lists the qualities of the consummate ruler. The Prince gives the reader insight into the machinations behind success as a leader. These machinations define the term “Machiavellian” as the use of willful deception, manipulation, cunning and disregard of moral virtue.
In one instance of Machiavelli’s predictions proving correct, Putin was able to easily ‘conquer’ Crimea due to its past relationship with Russia; the majority of Crimea is ethnically and culturally Russian (“Annexation of Crimea 2014”). In The Prince, Machiavelli writes that when “dominions are acquired in a province that is not similar in language, customs, and laws, … difficulties arise” (82). Because most Crimeans shared the same language and customs with Russia, as Machiavelli would explain, “men live peacefully as long as their old way of life is maintained and there is no change in customs” (81). It can be determined that Putin used this to his advantage, stating “Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of [the] people” in the speech given at the Kremlin (Myers and Barry). Machiavelli goes on to discuss in Chapter V how to govern a newly acquired state. If a state is not completely destroyed and used to living in freedom, it is “more easily maintained through the means of its own citizens than any other way” (91). Putin does not heed Machiavelli’s advice in complete destruction of Crimea, as that would interfere with Russian economic interests as well as affect the millions of ethnic Russians. Instead, Putin’s power is intact due to the support of some Crimean citizens. In April 2014, “armed pro-Russian activists demanding a referendum … stormed and occupied a police station in Sloviansk, [vowing to] fight any Ukrainian forces sent” (Patrikarakos). The support from ethnic Russians helped to secure Putin’s interests in Crimea.
Another Machiavellian trait in relation to this is seen in Putin’s popularity with his people. Machiavelli writes, “a principality is brought about either by the common people or by the nobility” (107). He claims “[attaining] the principality with the aid of the nobility maintains it with more difficulty than he who becomes prince with the assistance of the common people” (108). Although the idea of nobility is somewhat archaic in modern times, the latter part still holds true, especially for Putin. When Putin was elected into office, he won with 64.7 percent of the vote (Herszenhorn). The majority of Russian voters elected him into power. Yet, Machiavelli writes “one who becomes a prince with the support of the common people must keep them as his friends; … [what] they ask of him is that they not be oppressed” (109). In his speech at the Kremlin, Putin announced that losing Crimea in 1954 was a “historic injustice” to the Russian people (Myers and Barry). With his use of rhetoric, Putin claimed that the annexation of Crimea would right the wrongs inflicted – a statement which was followed by “thunderous applause, standing ovations and [chanting]” (Myers and Barry). In the eyes of the people, Putin was their deliverer from oppression. This is Machiavellian in nature as Putin strategically used this aspect to maintain his control and power as well as gain momentum in support for Crimea’s annexation and boost Russian morale.
Furthermore, Putin displays Machiavellian aspects in regards to deception. Machiavelli states “[great] princes … are those who have cared little for keeping their promises” (133). In Chapter XVIII of the Prince, he explains how manipulation and shrewdness are qualities that contribute to success. Machiavelli writes that when princes use these characteristics, “in the end they [surpass] those who laid their foundations upon honesty” (133). In November 2014, a London Daily Telegraph article stated that United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was disappointed in Putin for being deceptive, lying and breaking promises. Cameron claims that the Russian president “had failed to fulfill a promise to respect a ceasefire in Ukraine” (Swinford). Putin proves that through lying and deception, generally seen as negative qualities in a ruler, he protects Russia’s interests in the region and continues to mobilize troops. In addition, Putin refused to acknowledge the presence of unmarked Russian soldiers in the Crimean peninsula. He claimed the “heavily armed men were ‘local self-defense forces’” (Chappell and Memmott). Eventually, Putin admitted those heavily armed men were in fact Russian, and told the media “anything Russia has done … has been part of a humanitarian mission to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea” (Chappell and Memmott). Under the guise of helping the oppressed ethnic Russians, something the common people desire in their leader as aforementioned, Putin was able to annex valuable land with relative international impunity and without any interference from other world powers.
Within Chapter XIX of the Prince, Machiavelli explains how a prince’s actions can lead to him being despised or hated, and Putin avoids this through the use of visual propaganda. To celebrate Putin’s sixty-second birthday, an artist was commissioned to create twelve portraits of the president performing twelve difficult tasks a la Hercules (Rosenberg). One painting in particular shows Putin riding an ox that symbolizes Crimea, decorated in the region’s flags. A very muscular Putin sits atop the ox, holding on to Russian-flag colored reins. In subsequent ‘tasks,’ Putin can be seen as a representation of Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders, decorated as the “hero of the 2014 Sochi Olympics” as well as the leader “fighting off the horses of corruption” (Rosenberg). These paintings are a Machiavellian tool. Machiavelli states that qualities that make a leader despised are “being considered changeable, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, [and] irresolute” (136). He states that a prince must “strive to make everyone recognize in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity, and strength” (136). Putin is being portrayed as a strong leader determined to end oppression and save his people from injustice; each quality Machiavelli believes contributes to a leader’s success can be visualized in each painting.
Machiavelli’s the Prince – a book of guidelines instrumental in becoming a successful leader – is still applicable in modern times, and certainly in the case of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.