VLADIMIR, THE INVADER
People in the capitals of the world are in shock. The Russian Federation led by its authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin is in the seventh day of an all-out military invasion of Ukraine. The shock is not because we didn’t know that there were huge numbers of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine, they have been there for weeks. The shock was that, right out there in the open for all the world to see, Putin had made the decision to invade. Seven days after it began those in the know are still in shock.
And, it is really Putin’s war: It is hard to see how this Hitleresque invasion could have occurred seventy seven years after the end of World War II had not the peculiarly obsessed personality of Vladimir Putin been in a position to order it. One real question then is how this small (five foot six inch) very ordinary looking man who walked with a limp could have managed to gain one man power in huge Russia in the first place.
First, some background: Vladimir Putin seems always to have wanted to join the KGB as far back as his school boy years. A grandfather had been a chef for both Lenin and for Stalin. His father had been in the NKVD, the Communist Party’s secret police, and had worked as a saboteur behind the German lines during World War II. Despite his father’s heroics, the younger Putin was forced to grow up in a drab rat infested Leningrad apartment building where the rough neighborhood boys inspired the smallish Putin to take up Judo to defend himself. What better way to achieve personal safety and live up to his heroic forebears than to join the KGB?
Finally, in 1985, with a law degree from Leningrad State University behind him, the KGB assigned Putin to Dresden in the Communist controlled, very struggling, East Germany. Putin would remain stationed there for five long years. What he did there at this distance seems murky but Dresden was the epicenter for smuggling electronic secrets from the West. Putin also was tasked with attempting to recruit vulnerable business people from the West who came to work with the East’s largest electronics firm, Robotron.
Putin (who officially was in Dresden as a Russian/German translator) was also assigned to gain what information he could on NATO from technical people who came to do business with Robotron. So, working far from the excitement of Berlin with its glittering shops along Kurfurstendamm, the younger Putin was forced to try to gain by stealth what his Communist world could not itself produce. And even then, forty years ago, Putin lived in a world where the more wealthy West and the new NATO alliance was the enemy.
When the Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989, Putin found himself going through an orgy of document burning. He then went back to Leningrad, resigned from the KGB, and went to work for one of his previous university professors, Anatoly Sobchak. Sobchak was about to become Mayor of Leningrad. Putin was assigned with alluring foreign businesses to Leningrad. It did give him practice in appearing to be more capitalistic than he actually was. When Sobchak was defeated for a second term in 1996, Putin finally moved down to Moscow to work in the administration of Boris Yeltsin.
Back in March of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev had been chosen to lead the Soviet Union, succeeding the constantly ailing Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev was a great reformer but he found himself trapped between those opposed to any reform and those who thought he should have moved to a capitalist system more quickly. The loudest voice for “more quickly” was Boris Yeltsin who forced Gorbachev’s resignation in Dec. of 1991.
Putin, by 1996, was considered a rising star in Moscow political circles. Yeltsin appointed him Director of the FSB (Federal Security Service), a new name for the older KGB. Then in August of 1999, Putin was chosen by the ailing alcoholic Yeltsin as his Prime Minister (Putin could manage the whole government from day to day). When it became clear, after multiple hospitalizations, that Yeltsin would have to leave office, Yeltson chose Putin as his successor, the final leap to the Presidency. The little boy with the limp had made it to the top.
The ability to be Yeltsin’s chosen successor is a perfect example of the way that Putin had been able to rise time after time. Unlike leaders in the West, he never had to deal with real citizen voters. In each case he had to only maneuver his way past a limited number of competitors. Russian leaders tend to be large and loud. Putin’s diminutive size probably actually helped him. He could play the quiet, competent trustworthy son.
And he was competent. Unlike his rivals he took care to really understand people and processes in great detail. Ironically he made himself more successful by not being bound by the truth. He had become a master at giving his superiors what they wanted to hear, Yeltsin, for all his flaws, really did want to move in the direction of greater democracy in Russia. Putin gave speeches that made him sound like one of history’s great democratic reformers.
When it became obvious that Yeltsin had to go (he was facing a scandal over he and his family taking money from Mabetex, a Swiss company handling Kremlin renovations) Yeltsin chose Putin to succeed him, It appears now that Yeltsin simply did not care enough about money to know where large amounts of money were coming from. Yeltsin trusted Putin absolutely partly because of his seemingly unquestioned support for a more democratic Russia.
Vladimir Putin has always presented himself as a student of history. He is a student of Russian history. It is not clear that he ever really understood much of the world outside. Perhaps it has been too much to expect that a man whose whole life has been dedicated to protecting an empire would, in Putin’s view, join the enemy.
It did become evident fairly quickly that with Yeltsin gone, Putin was simply psychologically incapable of being a democrat. He was clearly not concerned with the welfare of voters. He was also was not interested in returning to a modernized version of Communism. He did still believe in one man rule.
The last Tsar, Nicholas II, like Putin, was five feet, six inches tall. He was basically a loner who loved the idea of a great empire but participated in it at a distance. He did “love his people” but they were people he never met. He loved them in the abstract.
Nicholas presided over a population of one hundred and forty million with the help of sixty three thousand bureaucrats. He dutifully read documents sent to him but he really lived the life of country squire, off in the woods, nagged by his neurotic wife. When he was told that the Japanese were moving into Russian territory out in the East, he ordered them attacked. He lost. He had urged his government to save money on ships to build his railroad.
Vladimir Putin is a more angry version of Nicholas reborn. He too lives in isolation even from his main supporters. He is not sitting at that long table far away from them by accident. He too believes in the glory of the empire. To him, Ukraine has always been part of Russia. When Ukraine seemed to threaten to join his enemies, like Nicholas, his reaction was to attack them.
It should have been easy to have won the Ukrainians over. They are, after all, fellow Slavs. Most of them share the Orthodox religion. Ukraine is one of the most poverty stricken countries in Europe. Just being friendly with them would have won them over. Unfortunately, Putin was never interested in really knowing them.
Nicholas was forced to resign and he and his entire family executed. Vladimir Putin was uniquely equipped to rise in an authoritarian system. He may be uniquely ill equipped to deal with an integrated democratic world that has moved on. Sadly, for Vladimir Putin, in the real current world, to invade is to lose.