As we watch the dangerous developments in Crimea and now in the rest of Ukraine, we have to wonder if we misjudged Vladimir Putin when he took office in 1999 as a competent and rational actor who, while deeply mired in the bleak Soviet history of the KGB, There was a realistic world view and he accepted Russia’s failures in the 20th century, and especially its fall from superpower status in 1989. In those days, Putin chose wise advisers, including the liberal economist Alexei Kudrin and the political junkie Vladislav Surkov. But now a new Putin has apparently emerged who has only one adviser, himself.
Perhaps spending too much time alone in the striking and majestic Kremlin Palace has ignited a kind of messianism in Putin, as he has held supreme power in Russia these fifteen years, as he seems to be zigzagging more and more towards a megalomaniac zeal to restore Russia. . to the state of world empire. This is terrifying especially since post-USSR Russia still maintains a huge nuclear arsenal.
Putin has suggested that the collapse of the Soviet Empire was the worst thing to happen in the 20th century (what about the Nazis?), But it seemed realistic enough to accept that he couldn’t reestablish Russia as the superpower it once was. . when it was known as the USSR. Now that is in doubt.
Today’s new Putin is a man who decided, apparently unilaterally and without much support from anyone else in Moscow, to annex Crimea. What was I thinking? Rational analysis suggests that Russia already wielded enormous influence in Crimea and the entire Black Sea region without having to support it with cash outlays that modern Russia cannot afford. Before annexation, Russia had already earmarked $ 1.7 billion for Crimea. Now Crimea will become a sink for billions more that Russia should spend closer to Moscow. And yet Putin proceeded without consulting such lucid advisers as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. They were simply ordered to implement a policy that Putin articulated entirely on his own.
Old Putin was something of a “top decision maker” in the mold of George W. Bush, an arbiter who exercised pragmatism by negotiating a consensus among the thousands of competing interests whom he was supposed to manage and lead. The new Putin is increasingly the imperial Tsar of Russia, an autocrat who makes decisions without consulting anyone, simply announcing them as a fait accompli.
Putin now routinely refers to “Russian civilization” rather than “Russian people.” This suggests that he sees Russia as something apart from the rest of the world, as connected to Europe and Asia as Mars. The idea of a Russian civilization dates back to the days of Peter the Great and an expansionist Russia that saw itself as superior to Asia and Europe, and which tacitly gave permission to absorb its neighbors by force.
The pragmatic Putin of the early 2000s, who worked with European and American leaders to achieve political solutions, has been replaced by a dogmatic Putin who apparently believes that Russia is in grave danger, a Russia it must defend from chaos and darkness. .
“Russia did not start in 1917 or even 1991,” Putin recently declared in 2012. “Rather, Russia has a continuous history spanning more than a thousand years and we must rely on it to find inner strength.”
What is most striking about Vladimir Putin’s political biography is that, over time, most leaders evolve from the idealism of their early days in office to a kind of tough pragmatism that casts aside big ideological issues in favor of practical political solutions. that keep trains running on time. In Putin we have seen the opposite: the pragmatic KGB intelligence analyst has become the leader of destiny, a visionary, the man who will save Russia and restore its glory (it is not yet clear whether he is a Tsarist or a Soviet).
What did Lord Acton say about the corruption of absolute power? There’s a reason Americans insist that their presidents stay in office for up to eight years, with an insistence also on a nationwide referendum after just four years.
Vladimir Putin has been the undisputed dictator of Russia for a decade and a half. And it seems that he has become a legend in his own mind. Watch out! Problems in the future.