Ukraine Thoughts Part 2: When You Play the Game of Princes You Win or You Die

March 6, 2014
February 29, 2024

It may seem odd that after 2500 words, I have yet to say much about the Ukraine in a series ostensibly dedicated to expressing my views on the current crisis. But as someone who believes that the conflict currently going on is between Putin and the West, with Ukraine itself, and even its Russian minority as means to an end, understanding what Putin is trying to achieve is vital.

In the last essay I outlined what I believed to be Putin’s world-view, and how his views of the fate of the Bush Administration reinforced those prejudices. The result was that in 2008 Putin felt increasingly isolated, and far from greeting the victory of Barack Obama with anticipation, his reaction was rather one of trepidation mixed with horror. Barack Obama was someone whose entire biography was designed to frighten a KGB Paladin of Order. Born out of wedlock to a mother with a penchant for foreign men and ideological fads, Obama’s father was a Kenyan politician and his step-father an Indonesian businessman who raised him abroad. After attending college Obama spent five years in New York City “finding himself” before attending Harvard Law School, where he achieved universal acclaim and became Editor of the Law Review, but nevertheless boasted not a single article to his name. These stories have bred conspiracy theories on the Republican right, but to a KGB agent, the biography seems disturbingly familiar – the half-decade long gaps – the lack of written records amidst universal individual testimony of talent – all would be designed to put a Chekist on edge. That Obama’s circle in Chicago included figures like Bill Ayres or Reverend Wright probably affected Putin’s views of him as much as it did Rush Limbaughs. A man with a sketchy background, no racial identity, feelings of national alienation who associates with ideological and societal dissidents, and identifies himself with subversive activists, it would have been more of a surprise if he was not associating with gay rights activists.

Therefore Obama’s own background mitigated against any prospect that Putin would “trust” him without substantial reason to do so. Tragically, Obama’s very efforts to reach out, backfired spectacularly. Specifically Obama’s attempts to build up the position of Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev appeared to be a blatant effort at interference in domestic Russian politics, and were a challenge that no Russian leader would tolerate. It forced Putin into retaliatory action to damage Obama domestically, and helped lead to the toxic relationship that exists today.

A Game of Princes

The most dangerous challenge to a successful autocrat almost inevitably arises from the problem of the succession. Outside opponents are easy to identify, and tend to be harmless unless and until things go bad, but any human leader is vulnerable to the simplest fact of human existence, namely that someday it will end.

The very act of anointing a successor is often highly dangerous for a political leader. With open alignment with the opposition an impossibility, those discontented with the status quo, either for reasons of policy, or because they feel their talents are unrewarded gravitate around the man(or woman) of the future expecting high office. Even if personally loyal, the heir will by their very existence attract a court of the ambitious and disloyal, and become a center of opposition.

There is a long tradition of this in English politics which gave rise to the term “Crown Prince’s party” after the tendency for the parliamentary opposition of the day to gather at the Crown Prince’s residence during the 18th century in order to plot their ascension to power. The tendency was not limited to the monarchy. During Tony Blair’s later years, disconnected leftists and those who had failed to achieve their ambition under the former’s stewardship gathered around Gordon Brown, turning him almost against his will into a center of opposition to Blair’s government, especially after the invasion of Iraq when running as a Brownite allowed individuals to challenge the party’s position on the war by proxy. In the United States, Vice President Biden’s lack of viability has weakened Obama’s congressional position since day one, with the certainty that Hillary would be the 2016 candidate after either an Obama victory or defeat in 2012.

These conflicts rarely resulted in violence. Even during the middle ages it was unheard of for British Princes to plot the murder of their parents. That is not so in modern autocracies. Even if the Crown Prince does not intend treason, those around him may be motivated to hasten the succession. Even if they are not, the prospect that they might is a cause for suspicion, and that suspicion provides a motivation for the Crown Prince to plot even if only as a means of self-preservation.

In the Soviet System, there was no more dangerous or temporary position than that of heir apparent. The appointment would turn an ally, no matter how loyal into a potential enemy, and as a result any leader with a sense of self-preservation would have to destroy his current heir after a short period of time in order to maintain his own position. All of Stalin’s designated successors fell in this manner. Sergei Kirov, who slept on Stalin’s couch in the early 1930s following the death of the former's wife, watched his relationship collapse after he was the subject of a plot to replace Stalin that occurred without his consent and which he reported directly to the dictator. His murder in 1934 almost certainly took place on Stalin’s order, though Stalin’s grief may well have been genuine. He regretted both Kirov's death and its necessity. Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chosen heir after the Second World War, died in 1948 under mysterious circumstances, and his death was followed by a murderous purge of his supporters. Khrushchev had been sacked from his control of the Ukraine in early1953 and summoned back to Moscow as deputy Premier, an effort to separate him from his power base that appeared a clear prelude to his destruction, before Stalin suddenly died. Brezhnev’s final years saw Fyodor Kulakov and Pyotr Masherov, two of the leading lights of his government, die in mysterious circumstances.

As for Putin, in the spring of 2001 he told George Bush that the one man he trusted with his life was Sergei Ivanov, the former KGB agent who he had made Minister of Defense. Yet when the time came to seek a successor as President in 2008, Ivanov was passed over in favor of Dmitry Medvedev. There was a prelude to this – a series of investigations into the abuse of conscripts in the Russian Army led to articles in the state media denouncing Ivanov’s heartlessness to the mother of a soldier who was raped and then beaten to death. While Putin may have been outraged, its seems more likely an effort to diminish him.

Dmitry Medvedev on the other hand had no power-base – but his very elevation made him a center for discontented Putinites and liberals who hoped that his ascension would bring on an era of reform. He had to tread carefully, as any real efforts at reform would be seen as disloyalty to Putin and provide the impression that he was plotting against his new Prime Minister.


Enter President Barack Obama. Barack Obama and his advisers had a theory of international relations – that the Bush Administration’s provocations had destroyed US relations with Iran, Europe and Russia – and a plan – that by removing the atmosphere of abrasiveness and seeking the personal connections that so helped him win the election he could restore America’s place in the world. Republicans denounced this as Obama’s “apology tour” in particular citing a speech Obama gave in Cairo as a sign that he was admitting that US Foreign Policy was something to be ashamed of. Had this actually been Obama’s policy towards Russia it might well have turned out far better than it did.

Obama’s policy towards Russia was in reality far more aggressive. Obama noticed, correctly, that Medvedev’s inner circle was filled with liberals discontented by Putin’s tenure. He concluded, perhaps a basis in reality, that Medvedev himself sympathized with these views. As a consequence he set out to use the powers of the American Presidency to build up Medvedev as a counterweight to Putin.

Obama’s method was to make use of the prestige of his own position. He missed no chance to treat Medvedev as an equal at summits, to issue him invites to the United States, or to ensure that he was photographed prominently with other world leaders. At the same time he made every effort to pretend that Putin did not exist. To Obama it seemed logical that if he treated Medvedev as if he were the ruler of Russia internationally, then he would look like the ruler of Russia, and this would give him power at home.

In reality however this involved not only the appearance of insulting Putin but the substance as well. Obama repeatedly snubbed him at international conferences, which was irritating enough. More substantively Putin concluded Obama was meddling in Russian politics to weaken or even oust him, and he was right. Angered, Putin began to hit back, trying to meddle in US politics. At first this was almost embarrassing – in 2010 he warned Americans about making the mistakes the Soviet Union did in embracing Socialism, an awkward effort to reach out to the Tea Party and Republicans. His efforts gained sophistication with time. Angered that his humiliation of Obama and John Kerry over Syria in the summer of 2013 was being treated as a “success” for the Administration by some Americans, he took to the Editorial Pages of the New York Times for a victory lap, lest anyone miss the point. Obama has not been off the mark when he has compared Putin to a disruptive and petty child in a classroom – Putin is in fact motivated by a desire to damage and humiliate him. But Obama began the process first.

The immediate effect however of Obama’s efforts was to doom Medvedev. Putin probably did not know whether Medvedev was in on the plot or not. But Obama’s behavior made Putin’s return to the Presidency inevitable. And if there was any doubt Medvedev's failure to deliver results domestically, a failure reinforced by Obama's encouragement, sealed the deal.

The 2011 Protests

Obama's policy, as provocative as it was towards Vladimir Putin, was not doomed to failure. In fact, had Medvedev managed to demonstrate concrete political successes, he might well have been able to challenge his patron. The problem was that Obama badly misjudged the sort of successes that Medvedev needed. Medvedev did not need American geopolitical handouts, especially the inconsequential and quite humiliating collection of summit selfies Obama seemed determined to foist upon him. What he needed was a domestic political success.

Here of course he ran aground upon the paradox of reform. The point of liberalization is to provide more room for the opposition, but a leader's success is measured in their own performance. The more liberal Medvedev was in opening the media to dissident voices and the electoral process to opposition candidates the worse his party would do, and the worse he did the weaker his position would be vis-e-vis Putin. To complicate matters further, "his" party was not really his, but Putin's. United Russia bore him no loyalty, and its success would strengthen rather than weaken Putin.

Whether a different course of events would have benefited Medvedev and allowed him a second term is an open question. But what did happen in the the 2011 Duma elections almost certainly dealt him a fatal blow. United Russia had easily won a majority in 2007 – most real parties other than the Communists had failed to reach the new 7% threshold in 2003, and the Kremlin had been forced to create new ones such as the left-leaning Just Russia in order to maintain the appearance of competition.

Fake competition however bred disillusionment, and liberalism(or Putin) prevented pre-election fraud from picking up the slack. In 2011 when voters went to the polls, most chose to sit it out. Those who showed up generally voted for anyone on the ballot that was not United Russia. Early Exit Polls showed United Russia falling from 64% to 37% of the vote, and it appeared certain the Kremlin would lose its majority. Drastic action was needed.

In Russia most election management occurs before the voting involving genuine parties being banned from running due to the disqualification their signatures, and to government media manipulation. In 2011 however it was too late, and mass rigging took place, rigging that was captured on video and uploaded to numerous Youtube accounts. When final results showed United Russia at 49% of the vote, above the Exit Poll results, mass protests broke out across the country.

Just as their failure to support him versus Yukos in 2004 caused Putin to break with his liberal advisers, so 2011 was blamed on Medvedev. His policies had delivered neither votes nor order, and Putin saw in the protests, which with their tech savviness, use of youtube, and urban focus appeared largely western, the culmination of Obama’s efforts. Had Medvedev and his circle sabotaged him hoping for a loss or had they just been incompetent? It did not matter, they had to go. Few chances were taken in the Presidential elections the following year, even if with massive intimidation Putin only managed 63%, down 8% from Medvedev’s 2008 total.

Putin convinced the EU, Obama, and Russia’s own liberals and educated elite, an elite that he had helped nurture and create were turning on him, made a rapid shift to the right, embracing xenophobic nationalism. NGOs were closed – many were linked to the opposition and those that weren’t, such as feminist or LGBT ones, had a high overlap.

The attack on the LGBT community was a natural extension of this campaign. LGBT groups had numerous links abroad, were run by the urban elite that was close to the opposition, and used their resources to reach out to youths and activists around Russia in order to bring them onboard. What looked to activists like a support helpline for a local teenager in Irkutsk appeared to Putin like an effort to create a subversive web of agents throughout the Federation.

The response to the attacks however if anything eliminated Putin’s doubts. The international outcry was enormous, with President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron denouncing the laws and pledging support to the community, and organized boycotts across America and Europe. For outsiders, this was a natural response to injustice. For Putin however it stretched plausibility that an American President and British Prime Minister would actually care so much about "sexual deviants" that they would allow it to dominate their international relations with Russia. Rather, he concluded "logically" that the LGBT issue was part of an orchestrated propaganda campaign designed to demonize Russia on the Left in the West, the group most likely to oppose Western policies in the Ukraine. Again, for Putin, the difference between correlation and causation is irrelevant. The fact is that the campaign in support of LGBT rights has done enormous damage to both Russia's image in the West and his own, and that heightened tensions, including a geopolitical offensive against Russian interests in the Ukraine has followed it. 

If anything, the coverage of the Olympics only redoubled this. Not only did the US President and dozens of other national leaders boycott, ostensibly over LGBT issues. The Olympics were also subject to a media campaign focused on the dreadful accommodations in Sochi. In effect, at what should have been a moment of triumph for Putin and Russia, the coverage veered between mockery and hostility.

For Putin the events in the Ukraine are not a plot. Rather they are part of an offensive plot that has been ongoing for at least six years. And the objective of that plot is his removal.

Putin therefore in moving against the Ukraine is not moving against Kiev. Rather he is moving against Obama and the EU, in two ways. First to undermine whatever efforts they are making against him, and secondly to humiliate them internationally in the hope that the damage will affect Barack Obama’s position domestically. In the next part I will look at how that motivation is driving the nature of Putin’s actions in the Crimea, and why it means the West should expect a much greater degree of brinksmanship over the next several days.


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