The making of Vladimir Putin

The making of Vladimir Putin

There are 3 comments on the Politico story from Aug 19, 2014, titled The making of Vladimir Putin. In it, Politico reports that:

In late January 2000, William Safire wrote a column in the New York Times under the headline "Putinism Looms."

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Since: Sep 08

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#1 Aug 20, 2014
In late January 2000, William Safire wrote a column in the New York Times under the headline “Putinism Looms.” Vladimir Putin had been acting president of the Russian Federation for only a month but Safire had already seen that the new Kremlin leader was bent on developing a “cult of personality,”“suppressing the truth” and “the resurgence of Russian power.” For the remaining nine years of his life, Safire often returned to the subject. He expanded the definition of Putinism as its namesake muzzled dissent, cracked down on the media, exiled or imprisoned those who opposed him, courted China as a counterweight to the United States, and did everything he could to lock the countries of “the near abroad”— fellow former Soviet republics – into a Russian sphere of influence.

Ukraine — the cradle of Russian civilization as well as its breadbasket, and a major manufacturing center of the old USSR – has always been the principal object of Russian neuralgia about Western encroachment into the post-Soviet space. Russians often say that they feel the loss of Ukraine as though it were the pain an amputee feels in a phantom limb. Yet it still came as a shock when Putin — outraged by pro-European protesters’ overthrow of a corrupt and repressive pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv — annexed Crimea and fomented a secessionist rebellion in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.

Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. For years that has meant repudiating the transformational policies of his immediate predecessors and reinstating key attributes of the Soviet system within the borders of the Russian Federation. But there were also indications that, if given a chance, Putin might extend his agenda, his rule, and what he hopes will be his legacy beyond those borders. In 2005, he famously lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Three years later, Russia invaded Georgia and granted “independence” to two breakaway ethnic conclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not until this year, however, did Russia expand by military conquest and unilateral decree its own territory by seizing Crimea. In doing so, Putin also proclaimed the right to “protect our compatriots and fellow citizens”– i.e., Russian-speaking minorities – elsewhere in the near abroad, from Estonia on the Baltic to Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

Therein lies the most malignant manifestation of Putinism: it violates international law, nullifies Russia’s past pledges to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, carries with it the danger of spinning out of control and sparking a wider conflict, and establishes a precedent for other major powers to apply their own version of the Putin Doctrine when convenient (think of China, for example, and its running feuds with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan over territorial and maritime claims).

While Putin has earned the ism that Safire attached to his name more than 14 years ago, the phenomenon he personifies — its content, motivation and rationale, as well as the constituencies behind it — predates the appearance of Putin himself on the scene. A number of students of recent Russian history — including some, like myself, who have dealt with Putin — can, in retrospect, trace the roots of his policies today back more than a quarter century to the battle between Soviet reformers and their reactionary and revanchist foes.

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#2 Aug 20, 2014
The backstory begins in the late 1980s, when Putin was a mid-level KGB officer, attached to the Second Chief Directorate, stationed in Dresden. His job was not espionage but counterespionage: that is, identifying, thwarting, defeating and often destroying the enemies of the Soviet state. In Moscow at that time, there were influential individuals who saw the president of that state, Mikhail Gorbachev, as an enemy bent on destroying the system to which they had devoted their lives and from which they had amassed power and prestige.

Gorbachev had ascended to the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union 29 years ago with what he believed was an obligation to save the country. The status quo, he was convinced, was holding the USSR back, preventing it from competing and prospering in a globalizing world. His supporters often expressed this aspiration with a deceptively modest-sounding phrase: Russia’s need to become “a normal, modern country.” Yet normalization and modernization required a radical break with previous Soviet leaders, starting with Vladimir Lenin.

The vocabulary of Gorbachev’s program was, tellingly, made up of two Russian words, glasnost and perestroika, and two borrowed from English: demokratizatsiya and partnyorstvo (partnership) with the West. These were not just descriptors of the Kremlin’s new policies — they were antonyms of the watchwords of the Soviet internal regime and the Soviet worldview. As such, they were anathema to some of Gorbachev’s supposed comrades.

In June of 1991, his own prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, mobilized an effort in the parliament to weaken Gorbachev’s powers as a prelude to removing him. The proximate incitement was a plan, known as “the Grand Bargain,” that Gorbachev’s advisers had proposed as a way of garnering Western economic aid in support of perestroika. Lt. Col. Putin’s ultimate boss in the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was active in this cabal. He and Pavlov saw the Grand Bargain as “a conspiracy to sell out the motherland to foreign interests.”

Senior officers in the Soviet military and security services had their own version of that complaint. They were infuriated by Gorbachev’s willingness to compromise, largely on American terms, in arms-control negotiations on conventional forces in Europe, the “zero option” for intermediate nuclear forces, and, most stunningly, in Reykjavik, on Ronald Reagan’s proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The so-called constitutional coup of June 1991 failed, but its instigators didn’t give up. The fear that Gorbachev was selling out to the West grew stronger, leading Kryuchkov and the KGB to attempt a real coup two months later. The plotters put a defiant Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation retreat in the Crimea, then treated the world to a Keystone Kops performance of ineptitude, including a public rollout of the putative new leadership in which the front man, Gennady Yanayev, was visibly drunk.

The putsch backfired spectacularly. It accelerated not just the terminal decline of the Soviet system, but the terminal weakening of the centripetal forces that had, for all those decades, kept the Soviet Union itself intact.

The No. 1 terminator was Boris Yeltsin, a Gorbachev protégé turned rival, a Soviet functionary and Communist Party member who ultimately converted to an anti-Soviet, anti-Communist revolutionary. Yeltsin was impatient with Gorbachev for proceeding too slowly and too timidly with perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya. In other words, Yeltsin out-Gorbacheved Gorbachev as a reformer, which made him popular with the growing numbers of citizens who were fed up with Soviet rule. That also meant he out-Gorbacheved Gorbachev as a threat to the old guard. Gorbachev, seeing Yeltsin as a political liability as he tried to manage the increasingly fractious leadership, expelled him from the Politburo.

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#3 Aug 20, 2014
Yeltsin’s reply was, in effect:“You can’t fire me — I quit!” He resigned from the Communist Party. But he didn’t stop there. Having quit, he set about liquidating the mega-firm of USSR Inc. and making himself the CEO of its largest spinoff —an independent, democratic Russian Federation.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the last thing Gorbachev wanted, and it became the wedge issue that Yeltsin used to replace Gorbachev, bringing down the hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag over the Kremlin and flying in its place the Russian tricolor.

But on other issues, the transition between them was almost seamless. Those issues included how Russia should govern itself and how it should behave beyond its borders. For Yeltsin, that meant deciding where Russia’s borders were. His decision was crucial to what happened in the years that followed — and what didn’t happen.

Yeltsin made it an imperative of his presidency to maintain the inter-republic borders of the old USSR as the international borders of the new Commonwealth of Independent States. There would be no redrawing the political map to align with the ethnographic one.

Yeltsin’s insistence on that point further riled his already fraught relations with the enemies he had inherited from Gorbachev. For them, the most emotive bloody-flag grievance was not just the loss of territory, but the stranding of some 25 million ethnic Russians in what were now 14 neighboring, independent states. A common phrase — mumbled, growled and sometimes screamed in the debates of the time — was that Yeltsin was guilty of “the mutilation of Mother Russia,” leaving her orphans outside the care of Moscow.

Much as Pavlov had turned against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s own vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, then turned against him. Rutskoi had a large map of the Soviet Union on the wall of his office.“That’s the past,” he liked to tell visitors,“but it’s also the future.” The first step in bringing about that future, he often said, would be the recovery of Crimea, which had been briefly part of Soviet Russia from the end of World War II until 1954, when the Kremlin leader of the time, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred it to Ukraine as a way of celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of Catherine the Great’s conquest of the peninsula. The second would be Transnistria, a long, thin sliver of Moldova with a largely Russian population and a contingent of Russian troops.
This aggressive nostalgia for the past and the territory that came with it rattled Yeltsin’s team, so much so that in December 1992 — about the time of post-Soviet Russia’s first anniversary — Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, shook up an international conference in Stockholm with an alarmist impersonation of what a different Russian foreign policy, as carried out by resurgent nationalists, could look like if Yeltsin were overthrown. Kozyrev played it for real, pretending to announce a new set of policies: first, Russia’s traditional and fated orientation was toward Asia, not Europe; second, Russia would use military force to compel other former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, to join a new federation with its capital in Moscow. Only at the end of Kozyrev’s speech did he say it was a bit of shock treatment designed to bring the world’s attention to a real danger.

Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is president of the Brookings Institution.

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