“The New Czar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin” by Steven Lee Myers
This was a deeply informing and mind-opening book for me. The perspectives I take away from it are many:
1. It becomes even clearer to me that Putin’s ascendency and with it his frame of mind changed event-by-event, yet inexorably over the course of his life and especially over the 15 years, 2000-2015 during which he has held power.
So much of his history grew from his earliest background, as it does for all of us. Having been born into a war-ravaged country, with his father at one point left for dead and two of his siblings dying during World War II, having seen a movie in his teens that led him to want to join the KGB and become a “spy,” having been bullied as a kid, and later pursuing martial arts, learning that one has to fight for oneself, seeing the West as a historic potential threat (witness the Cold War), with a life driven by a pragmatic, “put your nose to the grindstone” commitment, while loyally serving those in power (e.g. Sobchak) and being ready to make the most of what comes next (I can relate to that).
In that regard, nothing could have surprised him more looking back than Yeltsin’s asking him in 1999 to take his place as President.
2. I believe Putin truly started out with one overwhelming goal – to restore Russia’s stability and return it to greatness. He had experienced the ravages not only of the war but of the 1990s as the economy disintegrated.
Just before he assumed the Presidency entering the year 2000, Putin spoke at the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve saying, “unfortunately, not everyone in Western nations understood this, but we will not tolerate any humiliation to the national pride of Russia or any threat to the integrity of the country.”
Those fears were to build incident by incident during the coming 15 years.
Still, he began his Presidency wanting to become part of the West. This was reflected in his being the first leader to reach out to President Bush right after the 9-11 terrorist attack. This manifested not only his desire to reach out to the West but, above all, his fear of terrorism, of unrest, of chaos, which he had experienced in many forms.
There is no mistaking Putin’s passion or genuineness as he reacted to the news of the 9/11 bombing. He went on television and expressed his condolences to the victims of what he called “an unprecedented act of aggression..the event that occurred in the United States today goes beyond national borders. It is a brazen challenge to the whole of humanity, at least to civilized humanity.” As Myers says in his book, Putin made it clear that the tragedy was an opportunity to refashion into national relations--to fight, in Putin’s words ‘the plague of the 21st century..Russia knows first-hand what terrorism is, so we understand as well as anyone the feelings of the American people. Addressing the people of the United States on behalf of Russia,” Putin continued. “I would like to say that we are with you, we entirely and fully share and experience your pain.”
In a later conversation with President Bush, Putin said it simply, “Good will triumph over evil. I want you to know that in this struggle, we will stand together.” Words like these were not contrived.
There is no overestimating in my view the impact on Putin of the multiple terrorist attacks in Moscow, Beslan, Volgograd and other cities of Russia and then the brutal Chechnya war. Maintaining the strength of the state, including fighting off terrorism, in all its forms, became Putin’s principal goal and that goal continues to this very day in Syria.
Putin’s view of the importance of having a strong state, ensuring order over chaos, was manifested clearly in a statement he made in 2003 referring to democracy: “If by Democracy, one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy. Why is democracy needed? To make people’s lives better, to make them free. I don’t think there are people in the world who want democracy that can lead to chaos.”
Clearly this line of thinking was to find affirmation, as Putin saw in it, the tragic results growing from the move toward what was hoped to be “democratization” in Iraq, Egypt, Iraq and Libya.
Putin’s desire to work constructively with the West had other manifestations. Myers writes in his book that Putin invested heavily in developing a personal relationship with Bush. Already the first Russian or Soviet leader since Lenin to speak a foreign language, he took lessons in English for an hour a day, learning the language of American diplomacy and commerce, and he used his rudimentary skill to speak privately with Bush to break the ice. In private, he felt he could be candid with Bush about their differences, Myers writes, trying to make him understand the difficulties that Russia—that he—faced in the transition from the Soviet ruins. He sought some kind of accommodation with the United States, even with NATO, Myers continues.
Against this background, it is easy to understand how frustrated and disappointed Putin was in Bush’s abandonment of the anti-missile defense treaty.
3. Putin’s disenchantment with the West and his increasing view that the U.S. and the West were “out to humble” Russia and exercise a unilateral commitment to hegemony progressed through several stages. And so did the importance he attached to the “nation state” and his deep abhorrence of what he saw as the unilateral moves by the United States and the West to overthrow national leaders.
The expansion of NATO into Central Europe, including the Balkans, and then to the Baltic states, was not vigorously opposed, but it certainly was resented and came despite the understanding (disputed by many in the West) that there had been an understanding reached at the time of the unification of Germany that NATO would not extend in the borders of what had been the German Democratic Republic. What tipped the scales far more was the consideration given in 2007-08 to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the European Union and, following that, even NATO.
The conflict in Georgia precipitated by Georgia’s move into South Ossetia in 2008 was another point of demarcation. Putin clearly saw the U.S. having encouraged this initiative. And if it could happen in Georgia, it could happen in Ukraine and maybe even Moscow. Another nail had been put in the mindset he was building.
Prior to that, at the close of 2004, we had what became known as the “orange revolution” in Ukraine. It was treated in Russia as a humiliating defeat and as an ominous warning. Putin was convinced then, eight years before the Ukraine crisis of 2013, that Western leaders had encouraged the mass protests in the streets of Kiev. “We must not make it an international practice to resolve disputes of this kind from street riots.”
The first runoff of the Presidential election in Ukraine had given the victory to Yanukowych, a leader clearly committed to Russia. Marked by a high degree of fraud, Ukraine’s highest court ordered a runoff and Yushenko, strongly supportive of the West, won the election.
This coincided with President Bush’s now advancing what he described as “the freedom agenda” as he cheered the popular uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine. To recent elections in Iraq, Bush said, “we are part of the inevitable march of democracy that had begun with the Velvet Revolution in the then unified Czechoslovakia in 1989.” Without mentioning Russia, Bush declared that “eventually the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul. And one day, freedom’s promise will reach every people in every nation.” Without intending to, I’m sure, Bush’s words led Putin to believe that similar efforts might even be undertaken in Russia.
Ukraine’s election came the week of terrorist attacks in Russia and, in Myers view, “proved to be a turning point for Putin and for Russia.” Putin’s initial instinct to bring Russia into closer cooperation with the West, if not an actual alliance, had faded as steadily as his political and economic power had grown.
In 2007, at Davos, he spoke without, as he said, “excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. Today, we are witnessing in a most uncontained, hyper use of force—military force—into international relations, a force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” He singled out the United States which had “overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational politics it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this?” The dye had been cast.
And then you had the Ukraine crisis itself which I needn’t go through here. Putin viewed the riots which led to Yanukovych’s departure and the entry of the new provisional government as having been advanced by the U.S. and the West and indeed it had been. By now, Putin’s review of the history of the past decade had become a fixation, and in many ways a paranoia.
4. Syria—Russia’s position on Syria and what is happening right now was totally predictable. Here again Putin saw the U.S. and the West setting out to overthrow a national leader. As Myers writes, “Putin had little personal sympathy for Assad; what he vehemently opposed was another American-led attack in the Middle East. He was convinced that from the beginning the United States had been waiting for any pretext to attack and topple Assad.”
By now, Putin had the evidence that he could point to as confirming his belief. I refer to the actions taken to intervene in Serbia (Milosevic), Iraq (overturning Hussein), Egypt (Mubarak), Libya (Khadafi) and Tunisia. Each had unleashed sectarian violence.
Adding to his motivation in Syria, perhaps the most important element was Putin’s deep concern about ISIS terrorism that could flow over into Russia. Here, in Syria, Putin had the melding of all that was needed to undertake a righteous mission: the maintenance of the rule of law, national sovereignty and a fight against terrorism of a kind he had fought against almost non-stop and with the very integrity of Russia at stake as he looked back for over 15 years. Increasingly, President Putin saw himself upholding a value system being compromised by the West.
In 2013, fresh from his diplomatic triumph in reaching an agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons without warfare, Putin described the “Euro-Atlantic countries” as dangerously adrift from their Christian roots. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. Worse, he said, these nations want to export these dangerous ideas.” It was “a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.”
5. Stepping back, there is no question that for Russia to have a healthy, growing economy, and for the entire world to be safe, Russia needs constructive, non-adversarial relationships with the U.S. and the West.
At a minimum, we need to:
· Avoid a further breakdown the relationships between Russia and the U.S. This means that we must work together to resolve what are the open wounds now in Ukraine and Syria; both require a political settlement which requires Russia and the U.S. (and others) to be at the table, and the defeat of ISIS.
· Come together to identify what are the common interests which Russia and the U.S. and others must work to achieve. Interests so important and so requiring Russia and the U.S. to work together that we must form a common goal and plan. Those for me are two-fold:
o Avoiding the risk of nuclear proliferation and disaster.
o Combatting terrorism, starting with but not exclusively combatting ISIS
We are going to need to accept the fact that values as they relate to the mode of democracy and cultural issues such as same-sex marriage will be different in Russia than the U.S., just as they are different in parts of our own country and have differed over time. We must avoid seeming to or actually working to impose our values on Russia. We must acknowledge Russia as a major global power, with a history and status that deserve and demand respect. We must dial down the rhetoric which vilifies the other party when what they are doing is essentially expressing their own national interest and pride as we do. Such rhetoric runs the grave risk of creating “self-fulfilling” negative outcomes—“mythical enemies”—distracting us from the real enemies in front of us.
At the same time, we should make it clear that we will not stand by and allow Russia or any country to infringe upon the integrity of another national state like Ukraine. Indeed, that position on our part mirrors that which has been driving Putin and Russia as they express it.
We should be under no illusion that Putin’s mindset and deeply entrenched attitudes will change quickly. They are the product of decades of experience. To the degree they change—and I for one believe they can--they will change based on actions and behaviors on both our parts as we work together on objectives of common interest. Most importantly, at this moment, combatting ISIS and reaching political settlement that brings greater stability and peace to Ukraine and Syria and other countries of the Middle East.
Yes, Putin’s mindset had evolved, slowly but surely, block on block. As Myers writes, “each step against Russia, he now believed to be a cynical, calculated attack against him. His actions belied a deep sense of grievance and betrayal, sharpened by the crisis that unfolded (in Ukraine) at the very moment Russia had achieved its Olympic dream (referring to the Sochi Olympics). It was as if a political upheaval in Ukraine affected Putin deeply and personally, like a taunt on the schoolyard that forced him to lash out. For 14 years, Myers continues, Putin had focused on restoring Russia to its place among the world’s powers by integrating into a globalized economy (and), profiting from…the financial institutions of the free market. Now, Myers continues, “he would reassert Russia’s power with or without the recognition of the West, shunning its ‘universal’ values, its democracy and rule of law, as something alien to Russia, something intended not to include Russia but to subjugate it.”
As he winds to his conclusion, Myers greatly simplifies and overstates matters and, most importantly, I believe, misconstrues Putin’s pragmatic mindset and willingness to be flexible in order to achieve what in the end is his main goal: a successful, economically thriving, respected Russian state, looked at and treated as a partner in critical world matters.
I believe Putin understands that it will only be through a coalition of forces, prominently including the United States, that terrorism can be beaten, nuclear proliferation avoided and economic progress optimized.
I am convinced that if we were able to bring leaders together, to undertake specific goals, including combatting terrorism and taking steps to control the threat of nuclear annihilation, we can progress. It has always been human nature that we come together best when we face a common enemy. Unlike the past, we do not have ideological differences with Russia (as we do with ISIS) that should lead to war or that by their very nature lead to competing commitments to global expansion.
J. E. Pepper