I have followed Russia President Vladimir Putin’s career since then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. Jake Kipp and I wrote one of the first academic articles on Putin, attempting to understand him, what he wanted for Russia and how far he was prepared to go to get what he believed Russia needed.
Looking back to 2000 when he took over as president of Russia at Yeltsin’s request, it quickly became clear from his comments and articles that he had two primary goals. The first was to put Russia back on its feet. Ten years of Yeltsin’s leadership had almost destroyed the country. The economy was in shambles, and the military was a shell of what it had been during Soviet times. Indeed, the entire country seemed to be on the verge of collapse. More than anything else, Russians wanted someone who could bring stability, predictability and, most of all, a healthy economy.
Putin’s second goal was to get the rest of the world to take Russia seriously. In 2001, I was trying to get a book published on the Soviet military. My editor’s boss asked her, “Who cares about the Soviet military? It has disappeared.” At the time, specialists on the Soviet military regularly encountered such views.
Putin took some getting used to. He was direct and made clear that he intended to turn matters around.
A number of ob-servers have made much of the fact that Putin was a career officer in the KGB, the country’s secret police, which also made him a thug in an ideological straight-jacket. Often overlooked is that KGB officers were often the “best and brightest” in the U.S.S.R. Most were anything but mindless thugs, although like any security structure, the KGB had its share. I have met a number of former KGB officers. They were bright and action-oriented. That is one of the reasons American firms setting up shop in Moscow hired them. They got things done.
One of Putin’s strengths is his rational approach to solving problems. One reason he rose so quickly after he left St. Petersburg was that he could be relied upon to resolve issues. Equally important, he did so without drawing attention to himself. When Yeltsin appointed him interim president, the response in both the U.S. Embassy and in Washington was “Who in the hell is Putin?” I am sure Langley had a file on him, but he was not considered a person of much importance.
A key for Putin’s thinking was his ability to calculate the pluses and minuses of a proposed action and to act only after he considered all the issues in detail. This was apparent in his handling of Crimea. Putin’s thinking pro-bably went as follows: The liberals were taking over in Kiev, which meant that Ukraine would tie itself to the European Union. This was unacceptable. Putin, a Russian patriot at heart, was wary that Western nations would soon surround Russia and double their influence in the process. This movement had to be checked.
The Sochi Olympics delayed Putin. Shortly after the games ended, Russian troops began arriving in Crimea. Given the condition of the Russian Army, these troops, which Putin tried to pass off as local militia, had to be elite troops.
Before he acted, Putin considered the consequences. He knew he had the Europeans up against the wall because Western Europe is dependent on Russia’s gas products.
His second concern was President Barack Obama. Having dealt with Obama on a number of issues, Putin was convinced that Obama would give another speech and threaten to bring the wrath of God down on Putin,. In the end, however, the United States would do very little. There were some visa denials and some economic restrictions, but little beyond that occurred. Based on what has happened thus far, Putin calculated correctly.
Like other Russians, Putin resents the geographical results of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. To him, predominately Russian-speaking areas should be under Moscow’s jurisdiction. And as long as he believes the gains outweigh the costs, he will be looking for more chances to put Russia back together.