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Putinversteher or Putin-Versteher (pronounced [ˈpuːtiːnfɛɐ̯ˌʃteːɐ], ⓘ, female form Putinversteherin) is a German neologism and a political buzzword (Putin + verstehen), which literally translates "Putin understander", i.e. "one who understands Putin". It is a pejorative reference to politicians and pundits who express empathy to Vladimir Putin and may also be translated as "Putin-Empathizer". Similar words are Russlandversteher or Russland-Versteher ("Russia-Empathizer").
Putin-Versteher was first used in March 2014 by the German publications Der Spiegel and Die Welt, occurring right after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Der Spiegel used the term when The Left politician Sahra Wagenknecht and other party members said that the annexation of Crimea was understandable and justified, arguing that Russia's "legitimate interests in the region" must be taken into consideration. That same month, Die Welt labeled some other people that, in their view, went too far in their "understanding" for Putin. Foremost was former Social Democratic of Germany (SPD) leader and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose supporters were also irritated by his closeness to Putin.
After the 2014 annexation, many Putinversteher "backtracked or at least stopped stating their support publicly". After the start of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, many "Putin-caressers" in Germany "came under increasing pressure to publicly distance themselves from Vladimir Putin amid accusations that they were bringing shame on the country and themselves." The Bucha massacre in April 2022 reportedly "made that for most people the arguments typically used by Putinversteher had definitely lost their credibility". By April 2022, the term had a different moral connotation than in March 2014. For many, "Bucha had reduced the invasion to a Manichean conflict between good and evil."
Putin-Versteher was among frequent suggestions for the Un-word of the year 2014; the panel of linguists favoured Lügenpresse ("lying press"). Among the runners-up was a similar term, Russland-Versteher ("Russia-Understander"). Although the word was used in English media as early as 2014, it became an international term in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion.
Scope and usage
A major cornerstone of "Putin-friendly" attitude is the "legitimate interests of Russia" in the post-Soviet states, while another typical trait is anti-Americanism. A similar term is Russlandversteher ("Russia understander"). The circle of people that may be described as Putinversteher is politically heterogeneous and includes figures across the political spectrum. It also includes businesspeople with business interests in Russia. Paul Roderick Gregory wrote that they "serve as Putin's first line of defense against meaningful European sanctions for the Annexation of Crimea".
Academic Taras Kuzio has criticized scholars of Russia that he defines as Putinversteher, in particular their response to the Russo-Ukrainian War. In his definition, he calls these scholars "those who seek to always deflect criticism from Russian President Putin and Russia and lay blame on Ukraine, NATO, the EU, and the US."
The foremost figure described as Putinversteher is Schröder. By March 2014, many others were mentioned. One of these was the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. The feminist journalist Alice Schwarzer said that 96.77% of the inhabitants of Crimea wanted to belong to Russia. Peter Gauweiler of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria had spoken for understanding of and cooperation with Russia on 5 March 2014. The former European Commissioner Günter Verheugen of the SPD called Svoboda members of the Ukrainian government richtige Faschisten ("true fascists"). Alexander Gauland of Alternative for Germany (AfD) had previously said that Russia would never condone the loss of "Holy Kiev, birthplace of Russia". Wagenknecht defended the annexation of Crimea by pointing to the anti-Russian sentiment in Kiev and repeating other Russian propaganda. Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany spoke of Anti-Putin-Populismus ("anti-Putin populism") in Germany. Gernot Erler of the SPD had called for "an end to Russia Bashing".
Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Alliance 90/The Greens accused Wagenknecht and The Left party of being Putinversteher and against all foreign intervention, except when it was done by Russia. Paul Roderick Gregory described Schröder (SPD) as "the most egregious Putinversteher". Gregory wrote that Schröder might be susceptible to Putin's pressure because he chaired the board of Nord Stream 1 with an official one million dollar honorarium. Gregory mentioned that Schröder called to respect Russian "sensitivities" and compared separatism of Crimea with that of Kosovo. The term was applied to the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the SPD by The Economist, Forbes, and in Schmidt's biography book. Schmidt argued that Putin's annexation of Crimea, while illegitimate, was "understandable". In an interview, he said: "If you placed yourself in Putin's shoes, you would likely react in the case of Crimea as he did."
By 2022, the numbers of the Putinversteher had dwindled. In February 2022, Friederike Haupt, a political observer from Frankfurter Allgemeine, wrote that Putinversteher could be found primarily in the far-right AfD and The Left parties, as well as in parts of the SPD. An example of a journalist that continued to be a Putinversteher is Gabriele Krone-Schmalz.
In France, Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Rally were deemed to be Putinversteher. In May 2014, she praised Putin as a patriot and defender of the Christian heritage of European civilization. In September 2014, her party received a loan of 9 million euros from the First Czech Russian Bank based in Moscow. While this was not illegal, it cast doubt on her objectivity towards Putin. In January 2017, she condoned the Russian annexation of Crimea. On 24 March 2017, Putin officially received Le Pen in the Kremlin. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Le Pen's party hastily removed a picture of the 2017 visit to Putin from its communication material, with Le Pen now denying being a friend of Putin. In April 2022, party members of the European Parliament broke their tradition of opposing resolutions against Russia by being absent.
On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon leader of La France Insoumise (LFI) was described by some to fit the traditional profile of a Putinversteher for some of his stances on the Ukraine conflict. In March 2014, he legitimized the invasion of Crimea as "a security measure against an adventurous Putschist regime in which neo-Nazis have a despicable influence". By October 2022, LFI had changed its tune and spoke of a Russian war of aggression. In November 2022, LFI members of the European Parliament abstained from declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
In the Netherlands
After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the number of Putinversteher in the Netherlands quickly diminished. As of October 2022, the Forum for Democracy (FVD) was the only Dutch party that was still enthusiastic about Putin. The Labour Party and GroenLinks wanted to bar FVD from confidential meetings about military aid for Ukraine. This move was publicly supported by Rob Bertholee, the former head of the General Intelligence and Security Service.
On 19 December 2022, members of the Golfgroep petitioned the Dutch government to promote negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The petition was signed by about two dozen university staff and some elderly ex-politicians. Critics argued that the wording of the petition suggested that both sides had an equal share in causing the war, and that war crimes were not mentioned. A critic remarked about the petition that it "at least admitted that Russia had invaded Ukraine."
The term was embraced in Russia, where a company named Putinversteher sells memorabilia (rings, clothes, and the like) with Putin imagery.
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- Sarah Hucal: German term 'Putinversteher' goes international, Deutsche Welle, April 6, 2022.
- Gregor Peter Schmitz: "Putin-Versteher" im Westen, comment on Radio Deutschlandfunk, February 26, 2022. (German)
- Alice Schwarzer: Warum ich trotz allem Putin verstehe! ("Why I understand Putin despite everything!"), March 18, 2014. (German)