Vladimir Putin, Swing Voter

vladimir putin
Russia is presented with a wholly different choice: two men who have each served one term in the White House, during which they took diametrically opposed rhetorical lines toward Moscow while both arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia. Photo: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
June 11, 2024

Last week, Vladimir Putin hosted a noticeably smaller, more isolated St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Once upon a time, when Russia was still open to the West, the annual event was Putin’s chance to show off not just his hometown, a restored imperial jewel box, but all of the ways his country’s modern economy had become an integral part of the First World. It was the elite event of the year, where representatives from the biggest global companies would rub elbows with top Kremlin brass and foreign diplomats and officials. Now, for the third time since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin hosted a conference much changed. Gone were the Western oilmen and bankers, the European diplomats and American television cameras. Gone, too, were many of the local journalists who used to cover the event as a Russian Davos. Most of them are in exile, many having been charged with crimes against the state.

Putin, of course, tried to put a positive spin on the diminished caliber of this year’s forum. He spoke at length about the booming Russian economy—Russians were now eating more meat than ever, he bragged, weirdly—and how it was now leading the Global South, which, Putin claimed, was leaving the First World in the dust. It’s true that the Russian economy is growing, fueled by the Kremlin’s manic focus on the war in Ukraine, and the cameras panning across those listening to Putin’s interminable, statistic-laden speech showed a very diverse audience. There were attendees from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, Putin shared the stage with Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa and Bolivian leader Luis Arce. It was a clear return to Moscow’s old Soviet allegiances, when Russian allies were scattered across the Third World. And though it’s not what Putin prefers—he was, for the first two decades of his reign, absolutely adamant that Russia was a First World, European power and that its place was among the nations of Europe—it is what the moment requires. Necessity, and sanctions, make for vintage bedfellows.