The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin

September 21, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: Vladimir PutinRussiaPoliticsHistoryCrimea

The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin

It is common to ascribe America’s growing difficulties with Russia to President Vladimir Putin personally, but the sources of Russian discontent predate Putin’s presidency.

As the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel in the late 1980s, Putin must have been dismayed at first, at his post of assignment in Dresden, but he returned to St. Petersburg, then still Leningrad, and began work at the University. Recruited to the city government by Professor Sobchak, Putin retained connections with the KGB, which has a training academy in the city, but he appears to have cut those ties at the time of the August 1991 attempted putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev. Mayor Sobchak was a true democrat of the new Russia, and he opposed the coup vocally and publicly, holding a huge rally in Palace Square.  Because the central television-based at Ostankino in Moscow had been seized by the coup-plotters, Leningrad’s TV station was the only one that gave voice to those opposing the coup, and it reached audiences throughout European Russia.  Putin stood side-by-side with Sobchak. Both were taking a major risk, had the tide gone the other way. This moment certainly marked Putin’s becoming a politician, although, let it be said (using the popular term for a member of the security services) “once a Chekist, always a Chekist.” 

Putin certainly had come to believe that the old Soviet system had failed and needed to be replaced by a new Russia based on different principles. His commitment to this goal was not incompatible with either his previous service with the KGB or his legal education and self-identification as a “gosudarstvennik.” In fact, as the years would show, he was fully capable of taking on larger roles. It must be said that, faced with the low-trust environment that is Moscow, Putin has chosen to rely on fellow Petersburgers and, increasingly, former members of the KGB, many identifying simultaneously as both.

Nothing in Vladimir Putin’s personality or behavior in St. Petersburg marked him in the minds of those who knew him as destined to rise to the pinnacle of power in the Russian Federation. He was respected by many, no doubt feared by some, but his fortunes took a serious spill in 1996 when he ran the campaign for Mayor Sobchak’s reelection. The mayor was challenged by another one of his deputies, Vladimir Yakovlev, and made some fatal mistakes during the campaign, culminating in a disastrous televised debate. When Sobchak went down to defeat, Putin was left without a position. He managed very narrowly to gain a billet with the Kremlin’s office that dealt with state property, which was mostly being sold off at that point to raise revenue. The rest, one might say, is history, but is certainly beyond my time in St. Petersburg, which ended in 1997.

Putin did not seek the presidency of Russia. He was visibly surprised to be appointed prime minister in the summer of 1999, and reportedly told Yeltsin he did not feel ready to shoulder the responsibility. His immediate challenge was to wage what came to be known as the Second Chechen War, the first having led to an uneasy standoff. Putin waged the war with ferocity and the effort was a success, but it was preceded by one of the many episodes that have been interpreted in the West as indicating that Putin was little more than a criminal. That was the bombing of two residential apartment buildings in Moscow, which was blamed on the Chechens and inflamed Russian public opinion against them. Western observers in the main seized on the idea that Putin had sacrificed the lives of the apartment dwellers to radicalize public opinion. I came to a different conclusion, which I put into a memorandum to Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott.

The Chechens, Sunni Muslims with a history of fiercely resisting the Russians in the 19th century, under their leader, the Imam Shamil (actually a Dagestani), as the Russian Empire subjugated the Caucasus, were a disturbing presence in European Russia in the 1990s. Chechens ran the Mercedes dealership in Petersburg, where lots of stolen vehicles changed hands, but very few if any new ones. During the first war, they targeted me personally, on account of the position taken by the U.S. Government in support of Russia’s territorial integrity. Right after the bombings of the two apartment buildings, our Defense Attache in Moscow reported that the inhabitants of at least one of the buildings were dependents of military personnel. It seemed to me then, as now, that Vladimir Putin would never had sanctioned the sacrifice of those innocent people in pursuit of political goals. But, in my view, there was one person who just might have, and happened to have a connection to the North Caucasus: Boris Berezovsky, who was then serving as National Security Advisor to Yeltsin, or “the Family,” as Yeltsin’s wife and daughter and son-in-law were then known.  

The Family was concerned by the prospect of parliamentary elections scheduled for December of 1999, and by the potent alliance recently forged between Yevgeniy Primakov and the mayor of Moscow, Yuriy Luzhkov. They were searching for a way of postponing the elections, and it had occurred to them that the Chechen war and attendant terrorism could provide justification for such a move. In the end, Putin’s campaign proved successful; the Chechens were brought to heel, and Yeltsin abdicated in favor of Putin on New Year’s Eve. We may never know for certain how the apartment bombings (and some strange as yet unexplained KGB activities in another building in Ryazan) came to pass, but I am convinced Putin was not the prime mover.   

In his first term, Putin made a number of gestures to the United States that were friendly: he closed the Soviet-era intelligence-collecting station in Lourdes, Cuba; he shut down the naval facility at Cam Ranh Bay; he permitted the U.S. to operate a Northern supply route through Russian territory to resupply our forces in Afghanistan; and, although he frankly opposed the U.S. “war of choice” in Iraq, he assured President Bush that Russia would not seek to undermine the U.S. effort there. French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder also opposed the U.S. action, but were less frank about it, angering Bush and prompting Condoleezza Rice to say, “punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia.” As the disaster in Iraq deepened, Russian dissatisfaction with the American actions grew; in particular, there was an incident in which a convoy of Russian diplomats exiting Baghdad was inexplicably fired upon by Allied forces, causing several injuries. 

It is common to ascribe America’s growing difficulties with Russia to President Putin personally, but the sources of Russian discontent predate Putin’s presidency. In particular, the bombing of Belgrade on Orthodox Easter Sunday of 1999, which caused then-Foreign Minister Primakov to do a U-turn while over the Atlantic on his way to Washington was taken as a hostile act, in addition to which it was an out-of-area action by the NATO alliance unsanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. The course of events in the former Yugoslavia had some very dangerous moments that could have led to war, and some more encouraging ones, but the end game, in which Serbia was bereft of its ancient Kosovo province, was anathema to Moscow, which has never recognized its legality.

Perhaps the biggest source of Russian disappointment, even anger, has been NATO’s relentless expansion right up to Russia’s borders. Russians are convinced that President Bush, Secretary Baker and other Western leaders, Chancellor Kohl in particular, in their bid to persuade Gorbachev not to stand in the way of German Reunification, had promised that NATO would not extend its activities “one inch to the East” if Moscow agreed to allow a united Germany to remain in the Alliance. Now there has been a lively debate about this alleged promise, with partisans of NATO saying that there was no such promise, and if there was, it was never written down and anyway it was never officially a consensus of all NATO members. Former President Gorbachev has confirmed that it was never written down, but the historical record is clear: the West made what amounts to a gentlemen’s agreement not to expand, and then went ahead and did so, in two rounds (1999 and 2004). 

Giving membership to the Baltic States, which potentially put NATO forces only eighty miles from St Petersburg, with its memories of the Siege, was risky enough (although understandable; we had never recognized them as part of the USSR), but at the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008, the Americans proposed that Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet republics, be brought in. Putin was in Bucharest for a side meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, and inveighed against the move, which was eventually checked by Germany and France, although it continued to be spoken about as an aspiration: “Georgia and Ukraine will become members.” It is still part of the NATO litany, although nearly everyone realizes that “now is not the time.” I will not go into the details here, but the reckless expansion of NATO to the East was very much a factor, not the only one, of course, in both the four-day war with Georgia and the conflict with Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.

I could go on at some length describing the many things that have driven Russia into its present defensive crouch against the West and especially the United States. Our wars in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya), which have seriously destabilized that region; the “color revolutions” (Rose in Georgia, Orange in Ukraine, Tulip in Kyrgyzstan); and, perhaps most devastating of all, the full-court press to brand Russia as an aggressor nation not included in the new European security architecture – all these things are resented by Russians. And we cannot say we were not warned. George Kennan F. wrote in 1996 that expanding NATO was a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” And Vladimir Putin, in his much-mocked intervention at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, gave voice to Russia’s growing concerns about Washington’s imperious ways.