One thing you should know about Vladimir Putin: he gives a good speech. Probably you don’t know that he does. Here are three brief excerpts, from occasions that presumably every Russian remembers, more vividly than snippets in translation can convey.
In September 2004, after the Beslan massacre, in which 334 hostages were killed by Chechen terrorists, 186 of them children:
Today we are living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge great country, the country which unfortunately turned out to be nonviable in the conditions of a rapidly changing world…. [D]espite all the difficulties, we managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union. We called the new country the Russian Federation. We all expected changes, changes for the better, but found ourselves absolutely unprepared for much that changed in our lives.… We live in conditions of aggravated internal conflicts and ethnic conflicts that before were harshly suppressed by the governing ideology. We stopped paying attention to issues of defense and security…. [O]ur country which once had one of the mightiest systems of protecting its borders, suddenly found itself unprotected from either West or East.
In February 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, after the American invasion of Iraq (which he, the Germans, and French had opposed) erupted in sectarian violence, sending an estimated 2 million Iraqis out of the country:
The unipolar world that had been proposed after the Cold War did not take place…However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making. It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within….
Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. … [I]ndependent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly close to one state’s legal system….First and foremost, the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes that?
In 2008, Russia briefly went to war with Georgia, in order to discourage Georgian ambitions to join the NATO alliance. In 2011, NATO launched airstrikes in Libya to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from attacking insurgents in eastern Libya, greatly irritating the Russian government. In 2013, the US nearly went to war with Syria, before Putin persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons.
And in March 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, not long after the flight to Moscow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, following three months of demonstrations joined by, among others, US Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Sen. John McCain:
They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.
After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.
What do we know about Putin? I spent the week re-reading The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf, 2015), by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times correspondent in Moscow for seven years during the period that the Russian president consolidated his power. It is a superb book, knowledgeable, thorough, candid, readable, and well-organized. It provides an incisive account of Putin’s youth in Leningrad; his years as a young officer in the KGB, the Soviet security service; his rise to power as a junior member of reform clique that Boris Yeltsin recruited from the re-christened St. Petersburg.
It treats all the familiar domestic stories of the Putin years: his fierce conduct of the second Chechen War; his surprising elevation by Yeltsin; his gradual suppression of private media; the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk; the Khodorkovsky trials; the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia; the Alexandr Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov murders; the Sochi Olympics and the trial of the Pussy Riot punk rock band. It gives a brief but even-handed account of Putin’s successful economic reforms. Like all good books, it has a narrative structure and a point of view, and that view is conveyed by the cover photograph, Putin looking haughty, powerful, and sinister.
As Putin prepares to run for a Rooseveltian fourth term next year, Myers concludes:
After returning to power in 2012 with no clear purpose other than the exercise of power for its own sake, Putin now found the unifying factor for a large, diverse nation still in search of one. He found a millenarian purpose for the power that he held one that shaped his country greater than any other leader had thus far in the twenty-first century. He had restored neither the Soviet Union nor the tsarist empire, but a new Russia with the characteristics and instincts of both, with himself as secretary general and sovereign, as indispensable as the country was exceptional. … He had unified the country behind the only leader anyone could now imagine because he was, as in 2008 and 2012, unwilling to allow any alternative to emerge.
There is only a fleeting examination of the fundamental issue that has shaped Putin’s view of the US over the past twenty-five years – not American interventions abroad, not its arms placements, not even its enthusiasm for regime change in Russia, but rather the enlargement of NATO over increasingly strong Russian objections, undertaken by the Clinton administration in 1993, and pursued under presidents Bush and Obama. Myers writes, axiomatically, “Most American and European officials accepted as an article of faith that NATO’s expansion would strengthen the security of the continent by forging a defensive collective of democracies, just as the European Union had buried many of the nationalistic urges that had caused so much conflict in previous centuries.”
Why is this The New Tsar’s default view? The Times has habitually viewed itself as an extension of the US State Department in matters large and small, and in this case, the logic of NATO enlargement has been asserted by three presidents whose service has spanned 24 years. Of course, US foreign policy hasn’t always worked out well. The Times supported US intervention in South Vietnam in the early 1960s, and, with aggressive reporting, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In each case, subsequent events provoked editors to undertake an extensive retracing of their steps. No such soul-searching has yet begun in the matter of NATO enlargement.
Which brings us to the current situation. The Trump-Putin equivalence that is currently all the rage –it was the cover story in The Economist earlier this month – is profoundly misleading. Putin, with consistently high approval ratings, is headed for a fourth term as president. Despite having overplayed his hand in the hacking business, he has a case to make: the US has treated Russia much too casually in the years since the Soviet empire collapsed. Like it or not, we live in a multi-polar world.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail, hoping to regain a measure of self-control and halt the alarming skid with which his presidency has begun. He has a case for better relations to make, too, but, for reasons of temperament, intellect, and his business interests, he is profoundly unsuited to make it. The US debate about US-Russian relations should go forward without equating the leaders of the two countries.