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Is Vladimir Putin A Strong Leader?

Is Putin a strong leader? Goliath was strong. And yet, he was not a man after God’s own heart. That was King David. As Christians we know it takes more than tough talk to be a real man, a strong man, and a man made in the image of God.

More than three quarters of Americans, 78%, view Vladimir Putin as a “strong” leader, according to a recent poll by The Economist/ YouGov. Of those respondents, 40% said Putin was “very strong,” with 38% calling him “somewhat strong.” Broken down by ideology, 89% of conservatives, 80% of moderates, and 69% of liberals considered the Russian President “somewhat” or “very” strong.

At the same time, when asked whether or not they had a favorable opinion of Putin, only 11% of Americans said they viewed him “very” or “somewhat” favorably. This included 15% of conservatives, 11% of moderates, and 6% of liberals.

What the poll did not ask - what polls are not equipped to ask - is how respondents define strength and whether or not that definition is a desirable quality in a leader. If 78% of Americans believe Putin to be strong and 72% have an unfavorable opinion of him, then is his brand of strength what we should aspire to?

Putin is in his third decade of holding the highest offices in the Russian government since first being sworn in as President in May 2000. In 2020 he pushed through changes to the constitution that will allow him to stay in office until 2036 and creating a path for him to be president for life

This is a stark contrast to our own history, starting with George Washington. Washington, who was incredibly respected and popular when he left office, is widely praised for voluntarily choosing not to run for a third term. In writing to a friend urging him to seek reelection, Washington stated that it would be “criminal” for him to do so, even though, “it should be the wish of my Country men, and I could be elected.” He did not wish to be “charged with concealed ambition.” And every president since then, with the exception of FDR, has followed his example. Even after the passage of the 22nd Amendment, no president has sought to change the Constitution to stay in power.

Through his actions, Washington embodied the spirit of Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

In examining his attempts to stay in power in perpetuity, it is fair to ask whose interests Putin is after, the Russian people or his own?

In the same Economist/YouGov poll, only 7% of Americans said the Russian President is honest and trustworthy. With his invasion of the Ukraine, the French have charged Putin with directly violating promises he made to President Macron to de-escalate tensions as well as a number of international agreements. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded his followers to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.”

It is in that same sermon that we find the beatitudes, including, “blessed are the merciful” and the admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Yet, Putin’s regime has jailed his political opponents and beaten and arrested journalists covering protests of his government.

Tucker Carlson regularly praises the Russian President while attacking our own. Yet he remains on air. Would it be a show of strength for the Justice Department to arrest Carlson?

Now Putin has ordered an invasion of a sovereign nation with no provocation or threat. In Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The Ukrainian people, the United States, NATO, and the European Union have all called for military de-escalation and urged President Putin to not go to war. He alone is creating this crisis.

So is Putin a strong leader? Perhaps. But Goliath was strong. And yet, he was not a man after God’s own heart. That was King David. 

There is another model of strength offered in the Bible. It is speaking truth, even when it is hard or unpopular. It is standing up for the vulnerable and oppressed. It is “not pursuing dishonest gain, but [being] eager to serve” (1 Peter 5) and “not seeking my own good, but the good of many” (1 Corinthians 10:33). 

What would it look like to see more of that strength in the world today?