Only a few leaders in history can claim to have incarnated the soul of their people and have led their nations to global preeminence. France had De Gaulle. Russia has Putin. Far from the idea of writing a hagiography of Putin (or De Gaulle), I simply wish to shed a new light on our perception of Russia’s leader through a comparison with France’s former president.
First, let’s discuss the obvious similarities. De Gaulle led France for roughly 17 years while Putin has ruled Russia for 18 years. Both had previously served their state faithfully: De Gaulle as an army officer, Putin as a KGB agent. Both share the common tendency toward poor relations with the American hegemon.
However, to get a better understanding of Putin, we need to discuss the exceptional circumstances in which both men reached the highest office and how they ruled accordingly. In 1958, before the war hero De Gaulle came back to power, France laid low. Still under the shock of the historic defeat it suffered in 1940, with a crumbling empire, the French furthermore had to suffer the humiliation of an unstable regime fighting a near civil war in Algeria.
Pre-Putin Russians also felt crushing humiliation due to the collapse of the USSR, the dismembering of their empire, and the pathetic weakness and corruption of the Yeltsin regime. And for its own version of the Algerian War, Russia had the vicious Chechen Wars.
In only a few years, both men dealt with these issues—at times ruthlessly—and created strong institutions that suited their ambitions. De Gaulle united his country around the quest for French “grandeur” which led to an ambitious diplomatic agenda. He reopened diplomatic relations with China in 1964 and left NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. This allowed France to be an indispensable nation in world affairs. Putin similarly pushed Russia to the forefront of global affairs, through muscular diplomacy and opportunistic use of military power, making Russians finally proud after a decade of humiliation.
Yet, just like De Gaulle a half century earlier, Putin will not be able to reverse Russia’s structural decline. Russia has the same GDP as Spain. Its economy suffers from an intense brain drain. As for its life expectancy, the average 15-year-old is predicted to reach just 52 years of age—three years less than his or her Haitian peer. While Putin gave the Russian people a sense of importance and pride, he is, albeit skillfully, punching above his weight just as De Gaulle’s France did. When De Gaulle left, France could still act like a great power for a few decades, bolstered by the memory of their former president, but the creeping reality of French decline could not be escaped. Post-Putin Russia will not collapse, but its reestablished global importance may fizzle out.