RUSSIAN patriot, 21st century tsar, unscrupulous dictator, imperialist of the old soviet school: just who is Vladimir Putin and what makes him tick?
It is foolish to write him off as some kind of powerful macho-fixated thug or bully, out to get whatever he can even if it means war.
He is now the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Stalin and you do not stay at the top of Russian politics for over two decades by accident. Putin is a very successful leader with popularity ratings of between 70 and 80 per cent for most of his time in power.
Although per capita income by gross domestic product is only 11,787 dollars in mineral-rich Russia compared to the UK’s 41,811 dollars, Russia has seen a significant rise in its standard of living during Putin’s time in power.
This cannot be put down solely to rising oil and gas prices since 2000. As a national leader, Putin has considerable organisational ability and personal discipline. This, along with adroit handling of domestic policy, has played a significant part in dragging Russia out of the economic and political quagmire which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yeltsin era.
His personal political style is characterised by an extreme wariness of others’ motives. Disagreement over policy is never seen as an honest divergence of views, but as a personal attack. His political opponents tend to end up in jail on the most specious of charges as Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Andrey Pivovarov, amongst many, can attest.
Putin’s need to be in complete control was clearly seen in the recent national security council meeting in Moscow at which Kremlin insiders supposedly urged him to recognise the separatist-held republics. The ‘advisers’ were patently afraid of giving the wrong advice. Even Sergey Naryshkin, head of the powerful SVR foreign intelligence service, stammered like a schoolboy before the headmaster.
When a powerful man surrounds himself with people who will say only what he wants to hear, he can quickly lose touch with reality and make decisions which are dangerous for himself and others.
Contempt for those he sees as weak, which includes Western leaders, must be considered one of the most important elements in Putin’s personal makeup. This was demonstrated when he brought his black Labrador Koni into a meeting with Angela Merkel, who it is well known has a fear of dogs after being bitten. This was more than trying to take advantage of an opponent by playing mind games, it was showing utter disdain for the leader of one of the West’s most powerful countries.
Even more important is his complete contempt for Western institutions such as international organisations, treaties and laws. His personal view of the world is such that he can never allow the West to get the better of him. To do so would diminish himself in his own eyes.
Putin was brought up under a state with a Marxist-Leninist worldview which generated a strong tradition of regarding Western institutions as inevitably being instruments of capitalist or bourgeois oppression, and thus to be treated with contempt.
The culture in which he was raised was also one where the ends justified the means. This is why for him it was no problem to continually violate the conditions of the 1997 ’Agreement on Friendship, Co-operation, and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia’, the so-called ‘Big Treaty’.
For Ukraine, the vital part of this treaty was Russia’s agreement to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the existing borders between the two countries. This was clearly stated by Hennadii Udovenko, Ukraine’s foreign minister when he addressed the Ukrainian parliament during the ratification of this treaty. The Kremlin’s recognition of Ukraine as a sovereign state and equal partner was crucial.
Treaties, however, are meaningless to Putin when they can be abrogated to Russia’s advantage. Russia encroached on Ukrainian territory to such an extent that despite incredible patience Ukraine was forced to terminate the treaty in 2019.
In Ukraine Putin is pushing at an open door. Internally, Ukraine’s eastern regions have a large Russophile population who see their future with Russia rather than the West. Like many countries newly free of soviet domination Ukraine, despite efforts at reform, has a serious problem with corruption with the judiciary in particular proving resistant to reform.
Externally, the West has handled the continuing crisis ineptly from the beginning. Ukraine is the largest and most important amongst potential EU members and the desire to see Ukraine as an EU member state has led to strategic blunders by the EU. In particular they thought that Putin was posturing for political advantage when he was deadly serious. Putin is not playing a political game, he sees himself fighting against Russia’s greatest threat, Western adventurism. There has been little co-ordination within EU ranks with France and Germany in particular pursuing their own ends.
The downing of Flight MH17, the ongoing reports of human rights violations in Russia, the crushing of political opposition, his military support of the Syrian regime and relations with pro-Assad Iran, the annexation of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and his role in manipulating the current crisis in Ukraine … all demonstrate Putin’s determination to restore Russia to global superpower status.
He can be described as being stubborn and tenacious in seeking to reshape the world in accordance with his personal vision. His foreign policies are often characterised by the tenacity with which they advance one central idea, Russian greatness.
In the case of Ukraine, it is seen in the intent to bring that country back under Russian control bit by bit. Putin has doggedly used salami tactics to achieve his goals there, beginning with seizing Crimea, then encouraging and arming rebels in eastern Ukraine, and now recognising the ‘independence’ of the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as preparatory to further intrusion.
Putin is a kleptocrat. His personal wealth is impossible to ascertain but is estimated to be anything between 70billion and 200billion dollars. Aspects of his lifestyle can be described as palatial. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that he is motivated purely by personal wealth or power.
Putin’s core ideological belief is that the world is divided between his Russia and the West, often using ‘the West’ or ‘democracy’ as a scapegoat for his problems.
He was brough up in ravaged Leningrad, with memories of the horrendous Second World War siege by the Germans and Russian heroism still fresh.
Then, rising through the KGB and into Russia’s political elite, he entwined himself with the history of Russia. Typical of narcissistic leaders with exalted self-concept and dreams of glory, he views his destiny and that of the Russian state as one and the same. Putin is Russia, Russia is Putin.
He is quoted in one biography: ‘I consider it to be my sacred duty to unify the people of Russia, to rally citizens around clear aims and tasks, and to remember every day and every minute that we have one motherland, one people and one future.’
It is telling that in 2003, when asked by a journalist which foreign country he respected the most, he replied: ‘Israel, because they built a country out of nothing, out of the desert, and resurrected a dead language.’ Putin is determined to resurrect Russia.
He displays a desire for control and deeply entrenched feelings of resentment toward the West. So close is his identification with Russia than in his zero-sum world, any gains by the West or by domestic opponents are considered moral threats to his personal power. Nato is seen as an aggressive alliance whose existence is a threat to Russian dominance of the region.
From the wee boy learning of Russia’s greatness in a dingy apartment in Leningrad, to joining the KGB, the ‘sword and shield’ of the state, and enforcing Soviet will in East Germany, to grabbing his chance and entering the political elites, to becoming one of the most powerful men in the world, Putin has demonstrated considerable ability, determination and tenacity. He always gets his own way.
To imagine that he will halt at Ukraine is wishful thinking. The very nature of the man will not allow him to stop there. Western leaders had better be prepared to face the fact that they have a choice: Either compromise away Ukraine’s sovereignty, or confront Putin with all that that will cost.