Ukraine Thoughts Part 1: On the Side of the Angels, Vladimir Putin's view of America and the World
I’ve been asked by a number of my friends to lay out my thoughts on the events in the Ukraine. Is a new Cold War imminent? What about World War III? Will we all be turned into Nuclear ash? What will/can/should the United States and EU do? Amidst all this have been offhanded jokes from the left that Sarah Palin, in her 2008 predictions of Russian moves in the Ukraine if Obama was actually “correct” and from the right, most recently from a former Bush 43 official David Kramer writing in the Washington Post, that Russia’s moves are the result of the failure of Obama’s reset.
I thought the first place to start was with Putin and his relations with America generally, and that story starts in 2001, not 2008 or 2014. There is some truth to the charge that the deterioration in America’s relations with Russia are the fault of the Obama Administration, but the blame lies less with Administration’s actions, though they have been typified by the half-heartedness, indifference, and poor planning that have affected its entire foreign policy, but rather in its very existence. For within Putin’s world view, where the world is defined by a constant struggle between order and anarchy, nationalism and multinationalism, identity and “rootless cosmopolitanism”, the United States, by electing a man who represents the forces of anarchy has fallen victim to the forces of darkness. And that genuine belief explains Russia’s actions.
I should note that what follows are my thoughts. They are plausible I believe, and informed by sources ranging from histories of Russia in the Brezhnev, Stalin, and modern eras, biographies of Putin, the memoirs of figures such as former Secretary of State Rice, and my own observations. That said I do not claim a telepathic insight.
The most important thing to remember about Putin is that he is a product of the KGB. He was recruited in secondary school, and the KGB sent him to university, introduced him to his wife and virtually all of his friends, and employed him for a decade and half. More importantly, as part of its affirmative action program aimed at recruiting from the peasantry and those with non-party backgrounds, it plucked him from obscurity when he had few if any prospects in an increasingly aristocratic USSR which possessed in the 1970s perhaps the lowest social mobility in the world. This is absolutely vital, but not in the way most observers have painted it.
For one thing, the KGB was not ideologically Communist. A child of Lavrentry Beria and the Great Purges, it was anti-ideological – its founder, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore had by the early 1950s already embraced free markets and expressed the need to restore private property. While Beria had made too many enemies to implement his reforms, the KGB, charged with espionage was aware more than any other organ of how far behind the Soviet Union had fallen. It was they who read and analyzed Western newspaper, who had access to actual economic data(so confidential that Andropov considered it a state secret to kept even from Ministers), and who had witnessed Western technology firsthand. They knew the Soviet Union was losing the Cold War.
They also blamed the Party for this decline. As the party increasingly became a haven for corruption and criminal behavior in the 1960s and 70s, the KGB viewed itself as the only truly state and national institution holding together the USSR. Yuri Andropov, its then director supposedly told the Bulgarian chief of secret police exactly that in 1978, claiming that the KGB was the only force holding the country together, and that he effectively ran the USSR. This adds another dimension to Putin’s recruitment – targeting individuals of non-party backgrounds was not only an issue of affirmative action, it was also an effort to keep the organization pure and to keep it out of the hands of the princelings. Increasingly the security services saw the Party as the problem - a gang of crooks under whose management both reform and reaction would turn into corrupt boondoggles. Neither could be successful unless the party could be cleaned out, which was the policy of Andropov during his short tenure as General Secretary between 1982 and 1984.The corruption into which Gorbachev's and later Yeltsin's reforms fell only further reinforced these suspicions.
These failures also reinforced other suspicions about who the enemy was. The KGB’s enemies outside of the party had from the 1950s been seen among the intelligentsia. Stalin had transformed the NKVD, whose early history had been dominated by Jewish Intellectuals, into a fundamentally anti-Semitic and Russian nationalist organization. As the Cold War progressed, Stalin and his successors feared anyone with foreign backgrounds or connections, which by definition included a Jewish community with relatives abroad, intellectuals and academics who traveled and conversed regularly. By the mid-1950s, the KGB had virtually banned the recruitment of Jews. This anti-Semitism was targeted not just at Jews. The current anti-Gay hysteria in Russia has many similarities. Gays like Jews have no link with the nation or its majority, but numerous links with their “compatriots” abroad, something recent events have reinforced. In gays, Putin has discovered a group of “rootless cosmopolitans” even more Jewish than the Jews. Jews at least have a country now, and if Putin has been driven expediency to give aid to Iran, more than any other leader in Russian history he has made clear that his personal sympathies lie with a Likud-led Israel. Here a suspicion of domestic Jewry coexists with a genuine admiration for its nationalist variety. A similar approach applies to the gay community. Just as Stalin could plan the mass deportation of the USSR’s Jewish population to camps while playing with his half-Jewish grandson, so Putin views homosexuality as cultural rather than racial or genetic. There is no more cognitive dissonance between him claiming to have associates who are gay while also seeing gays as a seditious fifth column. Individual gays as individuals can be loyal Russians who commit acts in private. The LGBT movement however is part of a global network of NGOs that are allied in conspiracy with those both domestically and abroad who seek his overthrow. For them there can be no quarter.
The Wider World
Putin’s world view defines not just his view of domestic politics, but also his understanding of politics abroad. If for Putin the conflict within Russia is between anti-national and national forces, so too is the battle within the United States or any other country. And for Putin, the United States lost that battle before Obama’s election.
For all the mockery that George W. Bush received for looking within Putin’s soul, there is evidence that Putin welcomed Bush’s election. Condoleeza Rice, in her memoirs describes the warmth of their first meeting in Croatia, and how Bush, after telling Putin he trusted Rice fully asked the Russian President if there was anyone who could say the same of, receiving the name of Sergai Ivanov, who would become a daily point of contact for Rice over the next seven years. Perhaps most instructive were Putin’s own remarks after the soul comment, when Putin noted that Bush’s father had headed the CIA, and both had been dedicated from a young age to national service.
Putin saw Bush, as many American voters had, as a continuation of his father, and he sought a relationship of alliance that Bush had held out. This was not to be the Yeltsin-Clinton partnership of the 1990s based on inequality, but closer to the Gorbachev-Reagan one. Equally relevant, however, were its principals. Clinton tried to bully and cajole Yeltsin into a new partnership based on universal understandings of human rights and the principals that underlay intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia. Putin hoped that with Bush in office, that era was over. The grownups were in charge of America, the rootless cosmopolitan busybodies who chattered about international law and human rights were exiled to academia far from the halls of power. The US would return to trying to manage the world through a concert of powers. The Europeans could join, or they could whine impotently about the treatment of random tribes in the southern Congo.
If anything Putin saw the September 11th attacks as a godsend. Finally the US understood the threat of militant Islam, which had obsessed Putin’s patron Andropov during his final years as KGB director during the 1980s, as well as the absurdity of human rights. Putin must have gloated as the US embraced enhanced interrogation techniques, opened Guantanamo, expanded executive power and embraced a definition of terrorism close to his own in Chechnya. He finally had a partner who understood his fears, and saw that the greatest threat to established governments came from multinational networks - terrorist and NGO. That the US aggressively defined the "social" wings of movements like Hezbollah as terrorists seemed to him confirmation that the message as much as the actions were what made groups subversive. Even the invasion of Iraq, as problematic as it was for Russia, was a precedent that if applied to Russia in genuine partnership would justify his own actions. That the Iraq war led to a clear break between the United States and Europe must have more than made up for Putin’s qualms. Europe was living in its made-up world of laws, courts, and statutes. America had called their bluff, and spat it back in their faces.
If the Orange Revolution mattered and it did, it created the impression that there was a "good" and "bad" faction in the Administration, a viewpoint that defined US-Russian relations through 2008, not least because it was true. A faction around Vice President Cheney would embrace the view of Russia as an enemy and attempt to recruit ex-Soviet states such as Georgia and the Ukraine against them. Yet this faction would never dominate US policy. During the Georgian War of 2008 Rice remained committed to the partnership, blaming the Georgians for provoking the crisis and urging them to accept Russian terms for mediation, even going so far as to imply Cheney's responsibility for the crisis.
2004-2006 The Years of Living Dangerously
But this alliance was vulnerable to attack by the dark forces Putin feared and in 2004-2006 both the Russian President and his American counterpart came under attack from such a wide arrange of forces on such a breadth of issues that it could only be a conspiracy masterminded by the forces of anarchy themselves. Putin’s understanding of conspiracies, steeped in the Soviet tradition, is one of ends. It does not matter if events are unconnected in terms of cause and effect – if one group commits a crime and another seeks to take advantage of it, both are involved in the plot.
Starting in late 2003 with the seizure of Beslan, Putin came under attack from all quarters. The seizure of the school by Chechen separatists and the casualties involved in its liberation motivated attacks on the Russian President from a number of quarters in the remaining liberal press, followed by a pile-on by the remaining oligarchs. At the same time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the owner of Yukos and Russia’s richest man made moves towards entering the political arena, announcing his intentions of destroying Putin.
What stung Putin most in this crisis was the sense of betrayal. Putin had, by his own standards, been kind to Russia’s liberals. He had kept the liberal Mikhail Kasyanov as Prime Minister, and protected many of Yeltsin’s circle. But when he looked for support they backed Khodorkovsky instead. For Putin, the fact that his Khodorkovsky would take advantage of the Chechen attacks smelt of treason, that he would do it in league with the fallen oligarchs of conspiracy, and that his own cabinet would oppose him of betrayal. Therefore each of these unrelated moves - Chechen terrorism, the attempted assertion of the liberal press, his cabinet's bid for independence, Khodorkovsky's abortive move into the political arena, the oligarch's bid for relevance, merged into a conspiracy. A conspiracy which gained an international component when the EU aggressively backed Khodorkovsky. It did not matter if they were behind him; they were using him, just as he was using the Chechens. In the end Putin smashed his enemies – by the end of 2005 Kasanyov was gone, Khodorkovsky in prison, the oligarchs abroad, and provincial elections abolished.
His friend Bush however was less lucky. Bush’s opponents in Putin’s eyes were equally opportunistic. On Iraq, the fact that John Kerry had voted for the war before opposing it revealed that the Democrats could not possibly care about Iraq – they were merely using the issue to destroy Bush. Following his reelection, three great crises followed in great succession. The first, Hurricane Katrina at least allowed the Democrats to stand by their beliefs, even if they exploited a tragedy. The second, the fight over a Bush Administration plan to hand over management of dozens of US ports to Dubai World Port saw the Democrats ally themselves with the sort of xenophobes who they would later gather around the likes of Glenn Beck, and orchestrate a campaign of islamphobia for political advantage. Finally, the Democratic party come close to utilizing homophobia in order to take advantage of Republican Mark Foley’s affair with male pages in order to the Republican House leadership.
Much as Putin associated exploitation with responsibility in his own domestic affairs, the actions of Bush’s foes between 2005-2006 appeared as an orchestrated conspiracy to destroy the Bush administration between factions in the media, political elite, and security agencies – in effect a coup. At the same time, the very ideological opportunism of the opposition appeared as confirmation that their real motivations must be secret. After all, if the Democrats genuinely believed in multiculturalism, how could they manipulate xenophobia over the Dubai ports. If anything, they had spent the years since 9/11 stressing that Islam was a religion of peace, that Arabs and Muslims were the victims of hysteria, and that the Administration was exploiting xenophobia. Yet when it was convenient, they turned around exploited those very forces they had denounced. For Putin, who sees fascists between ostensibly democratic movements the answer was clear. These issues were merely means to an end, that end being the breaking of the Bush coalition. But what were they seeking to replace it with?
In Putin’s world there is no “loyal” opposition. There is himself, or the forces of order, and the alliance of groups – racial nationalist, sexual nationalist, multicultural, again “rootless cosmopolitan” who are anti-national and seek the breakup of the nation. Whatever Bush’s flaws he stood for the “nation”. His foes stood for all of those forces of darkness. As such Bush was attacked from all sides from the opportunistic forces of anarchy, who triumphed, a triumph that was secured in 2008, when Obama, representing all of the anti-national, or to use American Conservatives’ own terminology, anti-American, forces within the Democratic party, defeated the at least ostensibly “national” Hillary Clinton, and went on to defeat John McCain a war hero.
Too much time is spent debating friendliness with Russia or not. It was Robert Mugabe, after 1980 squash partners with Iain Smith, who said there was nothing more despicable than a white liberal. Putin can work with and even admire a foreign leader who is anti-Russian provided he thinks they are “nationalist”. Obama appears as subversive to him as he does to Glenn Beck. Furthermore, having subverted his own country, he is now working, through the international promotion of atheism, gay rights, and his support of opposition in the Ukraine and of the EU in Libya and Syria to spread the cancer of “rootless cosmopolitanism” abroad. This is the battle Putin was trained from age 15 for, the one he has fought his own life. That he now has to fight it at the international level is no source of discouragement. He is on the side of the angels, has survived treachery, and can easily survive Barack Obama.