(The New York Times) Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 analysis of Russia both inside and outside the country has largely focused on two interpretations of his regime. The first argues that Russia is a mafia state in which the main aim of the ruling elite is to steal money at home to conceal and spend abroad. The second states that Mr. Putin is a hostage of his own popularity and that whatever is done in or by Russia is done for the sake of his approval rating. These theories provide a convenient framework for making sense of Russia; they are also tinged with moralism. For these reasons many politicians analysts and scholars both in Russia and in the West have embraced them. But these explanations fundamentally clash with reality. To truly understand what motivates the Kremlin we must see how the Kremlin itself undermines those myths. There is indeed much corruption among the Kremlins associates. They profit from running the country deposit the proceeds in offshore banking centers and the London property market and send their children to be educated in Western schools. But if the Russian elite were really just a mafia state concerned about its own well-being it would never do anything that got in the way of its overseas investments and spending. Yet Mr. Putins bold foreign policy adventures of the past few years in particular in Crimea have received the support of most of the Russian elite despite leading to stinging sanctions. And certainly Mr. Putin like most politicians especially authoritarian populists cares about his popularity. One of the primary goals of annexing Crimea was to boost his falling approval ratings.
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