Most of Putin’s critics don’t understand him

By Dale R. Herspring

Given the important and visible role Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing at home and abroad, one would expect those who write and speak about him to take the time to learn something about the man. 

Instead, some pundits on the right call him a “thug,” while those on the left sometimes say he is “misunderstood.” In reality, he is neither. Based on 30-plus years of working with representatives of the Kremlin and studying the country, I view him as typical of Russian leaders I have met, though he is a better tactician.

Putin is from St. Petersburg and from a loyal, working class family. In his autobiography, he admits that during his youth he drifted. He has said that what saved him was judo. He became fascinated with it, worked at it and became city champion in his weight class.

Putin also was enamored with stories about the security service, the KGB. While the purges were long finished when Putin was a youngster, the KGB was still looked upon with misgivings by much of the population. The less contact one had with the KGB, the better is the way most people thought. Thus it must have been a shock to a young captain when Putin walked into the local KGB office and announced that he wanted to sign up. The captain noted that one did not volunteer for the KGB,  saying, “We will find you if we decide we want you.”  In the meantime, Putin was advised to go to the university and study law. (In those days that meant learning about the communist system and how it operated.)  

Putin eventually was contacted by the KGB, and he joined.  He spent several years learning his new craft and was assigned to East Germany.  This was not an especially desirable posting; West Germany, with its access to Western goods, was much more attractive. He, his wife (he is now divorced) and two daughters spent about two years there.  He returned to Russia fluent in German.

Putin held a number of jobs, beginning with working for his old law school teacher in St. Petersburg, and rising to positions of increasing responsibility in Moscow — at one point serving as director of the KGB. Putin could always be counted on to be efficient, thorough and on time while not calling attention to himself. It was this latter trait that caught Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s eye when he was looking to replace his prime minister.

One of the many statements made about Putin is that he wants to rebuild the Russian Empire. He said in one of his earliest speeches that the end of the U.S.S.R. was a tragic day for the country.  As for wanting to rebuild the Soviet Union, his views are in line with those of most Russians I have had contact with.

Russian authorities and diplomats have always had a reputation for toughness. They neither give quarter nor ask for it.

Putin looks upon our bilateral relations as a zero sum game. He approaches foreign policy like a street fighter would. Russia’s military forces in most cases are 15-20 years behind ours, yet he does his best to project an image of strength and toughness.

Putin’s decision to move into the Crimea is typical.  He understood what was at stake. He knew that the majority population in Crimea is Russian and that given a chance, would prefer to be part of Russia. He also knew that the Europeans were too dependent on Russia for gas and oil to offer much resistance. Besides,  their militaries are too small to threaten him.  

The planning for the take-over also bears Putin’s imprint. The unmarked uniforms were carefully prepared. If I had to guess, the throngs of soldiers in those uniforms were probably from the naval infantry detachment in the Crimea. Putin gave orders to avoid violence, and his troops have carried out this order.

The situation in Crimea now is a poker game, and Putin holds the strongest hand. President Barack Obama’s phone calls might make sense if he were talking to a mayor or city official in the United States. Putin is probably amused by them but unlikely to be swayed.

Regardless of what Putin thinks of Obama, Putin is primarily driven by Russian national interests.  He is unlikely to make unilateral concessions, period.

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