There was Vladimir Putin the other day doing what he does best. The Kremlin strongman who has promised to put rebels in the outhouse, threatened an annoying reporter with circumcision and shot darts at rare Siberian tigers, has responded to the pre-election unrest about his planned return to the Russian presidency with his tried-and-true playbook: a noxious brew of ethnic nationalism and macho chauvinism, mixed in with nuclear posturing, America-bashing and old-fashioned scaremongering.
“We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak,” he lectured in an op-ed last week. In fact, he wants a country with a plummeting population, aging infrastructure, corruption-plagued education system and no major enemies to speak of aside from Georgia (a tiny neighbor one-thirtieth its size) to spend billions of dollars modernizing its military, and especially its nuclear missiles, over the next few years.
To Putin, under fire in advance of Russia’s Mar. 4 presidential election as never before in the dozen years he’s ruled, enemies are suddenly everywhere, from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Napoleon Bonaparte to assorted lesser villains at home and abroad. On Monday, that enemies list grew even more ominous when Russian and Ukrainian state TV reported an alleged plot to kill Putin by Chechen militants, a plot that had supposedly been broken up in January but only made public now, on the eve of the election. “We will never allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs,” he said at a campaign rally a couple days ago. In a stadium packed for Defender of the Fatherland Day, Putin put on a full-throated pep rally, as if the country were in the midst of war: Victory, he shouted, was “in our genes, in our genetic code.”
But Putin’s rhetoric — unquestionably over the top (I remember back in 2004, when Putin threatened that reporter using a word so vulgar the interpreters refused to translate it) — is less of an outlier than you might think in this global campaign season. In Greece, the rioting crowds, furious over austerity, call the Germans who insist on massive budget cuts for their overstretched government latter-day Hitlers. In Venezuela, embattled, cancer-stricken autocrat Hugo Chavez has responded to a strong challenge from a united opposition by unleashing a campaign against his opponent that includes tarring him as a gay, Zionist, neo-Nazi sympathizer out to ruin the country.
And then there’s the U.S. presidential election, where Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has been bashing European socialism, Chinese central bankers — and Putin — with as much zeal as he has jumped on Barack Obama. His fellow Republican Newt Gingrich, perhaps feeling his chances finally slipping away, just in the last few days called Obama “outrageously anti-American” in his energy policies and pronounced him “the most dangerous president in modern American history.”