There is a paradox at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s rule. For many Russians he is the ‘law and order’ candidate; a leader who promotes family values, a stable economy, Orthodox Christianity and resolve in the face of terrorism. For many outside Russia, however, he is seen as promoting chaos whether that be in Eastern Ukraine, Syria or in Western elections. What caused these characterisations and are they fair?
Putin has strategically portrayed himself as a source of order in Russia ever since he became Prime Minister in 1999. For instance, his resolute response to the Moscow Apartment Bombings and his dogged prosecution of the Second Chechen War earned him a reputation as a strong leader focused on upholding order in Russia. He has backed up this perception with legislation like the strict ‘Yarovaya Laws’. This legislation, in theory, is aimed at countering terrorism by giving law enforcement more powers such as the ability to view private data and messages without a court order. This promotion of order and stability has extended to the economy too. Putin has prioritised the maintenance of low inflation and budget deficits whenever possible. This has not come at the expense of unemployment. The unemployment rate, which hovered at 12% in 2000 (when he became President) was at 5.1% in December 2017. Even the name of his party from 2008-12, United Russia, conjured images of order and unity. This is unsurprisingly effective with many Russians who welcome this change from the economic and political chaos of the 1990s, which many perceive as synonymous with liberal democracy. The taming of the oligarchs, the stabilisation of the economy (recently undermined by sanctions and falling oil and gas prices) and an unremitting campaign against terrorists and separatists have, with some justification, earned Putin a reputation as a politician who promotes order within Russia.
Perceptions of Putin and Russia by many in the international community, particularly most Western countries, could not be more different. Russia has done little to alter these perceptions. In fact, a former adviser of Putin, Gleb Pavlovsky, openly boasted that ‘we (Russia) are traders of chaos. We sell it, and the more chaos there is in the world, the better it is for the Kremlin’. This is perhaps surprising given that much of the rhetoric emanating from Russia about international relations relates to stability. While many in the West promote liberal interventionism and discuss abstract values such as democracy and human rights, the Putin government has made clear that its priorities remain realpolitik notions of strategic stability, sovereignty and the balance of power. This was most famously articulated in Putin’s Munich Speech in 2007. In this instance, the rhetoric does not match reality as Russia under Putin has repeatedly intervened in the affairs of other countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and the United States. When condemning Russia, critics usually point to three apparent sources of disorder which have been caused or influenced by Russia: Syria, Crimea and interference in Western democracies.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has, if anything, helped to establish order in parts of the country rather than create chaos. This order has come in the form of stabilising the regime of Bashar al-Assad against both secular rebels and jihadi groups, including Da’esh. It is, therefore, an unpleasant form of order which has come at the expense of thousands of civilian lives yet order nonetheless. Much of the justification for the intervention has also been framed in terms of this order. For instance, it is argued by the Putin regime that the intervention will counter terrorism. It is also likely, however, that the intervention is strategic. It will ensure the survival of the Assad regime (a close ally of Russia) and means Russia will retain control her naval facility at Tartus in Western Syria. The Russian intervention in Syria, therefore, has been bloody and has helped to maintain a tyrant in power, but is not an act of disorder.
It is, of course, true that the mass displacement of people fleeing from Russian and Syrian bombs is hardly a stabilising phenomenon. Nonetheless, this still suits Putin’s purposes. Few of these refugees go to Russia (where they are largely unwelcome). The majority go to Europe or neighbouring countries in the Middle East, often destabilising these countries (the rise of the far-right in much of Europe displays this). For Putin, this is a fortunate by-product of his intervention in Syria.
The area where Russia is genuinely promoting disorder is in the Russian employment of ‘hybrid war’. This is a strategy which employs tactics like disinformation (‘fake news’), cyber-attacks and funding armed groups which are not technically aligned to the Russian state. This is done to disorientate the enemy and to produce credible deniability for Russia. It was via these means that Crimea was successfully annexed in 2014; a blatant act of disorder as it undermined international norms and laws. Similar tactics have been employed in the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine – a conflict which has further undermined international stability. Such a conflict suits Russia as it means that Ukraine, her immediate neighbour to the West, is too divided to threaten Russia or to co-operate further with the EU and NATO (as Ukraine was doing before 2014). Therefore, stoking conflict in Eastern Europe and the annexation of Crimea are areas where Russia can legitimately be labelled a source of disorder.
The area which has concerned Western politicians most recently, however, has been alleged Russian interference in elections. This is one part of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ strategy. Both the United States and France appear to have been subjects of ‘fake news’ campaigns and cyberattacks during their elections. In these instances, the promotion of disorder is the explicit aim of the Russian government rather than a by-product. These are attempts to divide the West and to undermine faith in its institutions and elections. In the United States, this appears to have been relatively successful as the Kremlin’s favoured candidate won power and many Americans now appear to see the Russian government as a more reliable source of information than the FBI or the American press. Russian interference in the democratic process, therefore, has proven to be a relatively successful strategy to promote disorder in the West.
Russia pursues such policies from a position of weakness rather than strength. The population is ageing, the economy is weak, and the defence budget is being cut. Russia could not hope to win a diplomatic, economic or military confrontation with NATO. Some nationalist hardliners in Russia may not accept this but it seems that Putin understands that the balance of power is tilted against him. This is why Russia is careful to maintain plausible deniability and to not cross into territory where Western powers may consider military action. Putin’s foreign policy largely aligns with traditional Russian foreign policy. The desire to be respected and regarded as a great power and ‘influence’ in her near abroad (particularly Eastern Europe and Central Asia) are two key pillars of Russia’s aims abroad. In this respect, Putin is no different and his removal as President would be unlikely to shift these key aims. The thing that differentiates Putin is that he has placed hybrid war and the promotion of disorder at the heart of Russian strategy, to an even greater extent than during the Cold War. The fact that many Western politicians now regard Russia as a great power for the first time since the Soviet Union, coupled with the apparent halt in NATO expansion, demonstrates that Putin’s policies have been largely successful. The promotion of disorder abroad, therefore, is a rational way for Russia to deal with her own slow decline.
 ‘Russia passes ‘Big Brother’ anti-terror laws’, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/26/russia-passes-big-brother-anti-terror-laws
 ‘Russian Jobless Rate Below Expectations in December’, Available at: https://tradingeconomics.com/russia/unemployment-rate
 David Filipov, 14 December 2016, ‘Moscow has the world’s attention. For Putin, that’s a win.’ Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-kremlin-likes-the-hacking-attention-but-not-the-blame/2016/12/14/65279738-c177-11e6-92e8-c07f4f671da4_story.html?utm_term=.8247e70e18f0
 A full transcript of the speech is available at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Speech_and_the_Following_Discussion_at_the_Munich_Conference_on_Security_Policy
 Russian airstrikes in Syria killed 2,000 civilians in six months. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/russian-airstrikes-in-syria-killed-2000-civilians-in-six-months.