You’ll never hear them admit it, says Matt Taibbi in his Substack newsletter, but Western diplomats and media welcomed Vladimir Putin’s rise to power 23 years ago. Exhausted by the chaos of his “vodka-soaked” predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, they saw him as “a man we can do business with”. The World Bank said Russia would be “substantially better off” with Putin in power. The New York Times portrayed him as a Western-leaning, “humane version of Peter the Great”. One Canadian paper even asked him how it felt to be considered the sexiest man in his country. (“I endure it,” he replied.)
Everything’s easier with hindsight, of course. But those of us who were actually in Russia at the time were sounding the alarm bells. The papers where I worked depicted him as “a leather dominatrix forcing Russia to kneel” on their covers; we warned he was “becoming the Russian Michael Corleone”. The Moscow Times conducted a “painstaking investigation” into voting irregularities in the 2000 election, concluding that Putin’s victory may have been “badly tainted”. But the West barely reported on it, preferring the narrative that his win signalled a new dawn for Russia. It was only when Putin started booting American organisations out of the country that he “magically transformed” from bright new thing to “supervillain”. So bear that in mind the next time you see Western leaders railing against Putin. It was them who “smoothed his rise”.