Vladimir Putin knows that Russia is not a superpower today - “and that is why he is so dangerous,” said Steven Lee Myers. “We are heading into a period of confrontation with Russia, there is no doubt about that. And it is going to linger - the next US president will have to deal with it,” Myers told a sold-out LAWAC Global Café breakfast meeting on Thursday, November 5th. Myers, a New York Times correspondent who lived in Moscow for seven years, said that it will not look like a replay of the Cold War: “It will not be an ideological struggle any more, between capitalism and socialism or communism, but Putin does want to project Russia as a superpower.” Ominously Putin’s own character contributes to the problem: “His personal power is no longer distinct in his mind from his view of Russian power.”
Which makes it all the more important to try to understand the character of this enigmatic, wary and hard-to-read leader as he becomes more assertive by annexing part of Ukraine and moving forcefully to intervene in the war in Syria. Forbes magazine just declared Putin as #1 in its list of most powerful people in the world, because, they said Putin is “one of the few men in the world powerful enough to do what he wants - and get away with it.” One of Putin’s associates told Myers when he was writing his book The New Tsar - The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin that the Russian leader was so inscrutable he was “a zero... like a screen or a mirror, reflecting what people bring to him and see what they want to see - either their hopes or their fears.” He started out his career as a KGB agent, but he was not a very distinguished one, never rising above the rank of lieutenant colonel and getting sent to a second rate posting in the city of Dresden in East Germany, rather than Berlin or a major western capital. Putin said about himself that he was “no James Bond.” But he was a loyal apparatchik, first to his patron Anatole Sobchak, mayor of St. Petersberg and second to former president Boris Yeltsin, who annointed Putin his successor in exchange for protection against judicial investigation.
Putin’s private life is very guarded - “there are two things that are impossible to find out about - his love life and his money.” We do know that he divorced his wife Lyudmila in 2013, but Myers said that rumors of affairs with gymnasts and other glamorous women have never been confirmed. “There have been rumors about his personal life that have contributed to his aura as a sort of patriarchal, supreme leader.” Adding to his aura are the carefully staged photo ops of Putin riding bareback on horses, piloting planes and submarines and darting tigers. Russians know they are staged, but like the iconic images anyway.
In 2005 Putin famously declared in a speech that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Myers said it is absolutely not the case that Putin wants to put the USSR back together again, as some have claimed. “People see him as a KGB agent who wants the return of the Soviet Union - and that’s not true. He has said several times that anyone who wants to put the USSR back together again has no brain, and anybody who doesn’t miss it has no heart.” Instead what Putin is aiming for is to recreate an older idea of the great Russian nation, that would extend to include the millions of Russian-speaking people who were left stranded in former Soviet Republics after the USSR broke up in 1991. “That is why I called my book The New Tsar - they are reaching back more deeply into Russian history.”
Which also helps to explain Putin’s actions in Ukraine. When the USSR broke up, few Russians really thought that the majority-Muslim republics in the south, like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, truly belonged to Russia. But the two real exceptions were Ukraine and Belarus. “Ukraine, in Putin’s mind, is not a country - it is part of Russia - along with Belarus. The name Ukraine means “the border” (of Russia) - and Belarus means White Russia.” The fact that by annexing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine Putin has made enemies of much of the rest of Ukraine seems not to bother him.
In fact Putin has developed quite a record in making enemies, and Myers lamented the fact that although Putin started out as president in 2000 with a favorable view of the west and a declared intention to become closer to the US and Europe, today he has changed almost 180 degrees. “In his early years it seemed like a very progressive Russia - politicians and ordinary people debated real issues, and foreign correspondents could go into the Duma (parliament) and talk to deputies, just like on the Hill in Washington. You can’t do that now.” Instead, Putin has turned his nation against the outside world. On a recent visit to Russia, Myers said “the level of anti-Americanism is mind-blowing.” Images of President Obama eating bananas and looking like a monkey are projected onto the walls of the US Embassy. “There is no question that there is a vitriolic hatred towards Obama.” For his part, Obama does not much like Putin either. “The animosity between the two of them is palpable when they are in the same room together.”
Myers is not optimistic about the immediate future for Russia and US-Russian relations, with Putin apparently bent on confrontation with the US to boost his own standing domestically. Despite initial hopes that Putin might be “someone we can do business with,” he has turned towards a darker path, first heralded by the investigation of the wealthy oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who controlled the giant oil company Yukos until he was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years in 2003, largely for daring to challenge Putin politically. From that point on Putin became less and less tolerant of any opposition, and has co-opted Russian television to shut out any criticism of his rule. He has surrounded himself with friends and advisers that date back to the early years of his career in St Petersburg, “and he is driving out the people who want to see Russia succeed,” says Myers, about the brain drain of smart ambitious Russians to the West. “Russia doesn’t have a lot to offer people these days - it is not enough just to be a military power.” But for a Tsar, guaranteeing his own power is primary - everything else becomes secondary.