As we watch the dangerous developments in Crimea and now in the rest of Ukraine, we have to ask ourselves whether we misjudged Vladimir Putin when he took office in 1999 as a competent, rational actor who, though deeply mired in KGB’s grim Soviet history, had a realistic view of the world and accepted Russia’s 20th century failures, and especially its fall from superpower status in 1989. Back 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 seemingly emerged who has only one advisor, himself.
Perhaps spending too much time alone in the gaudy and majestic Kremlin Palace has kindled some sort of messianism in Putin as he has held supreme power in Russia now these fifteen years, for he seems to be zigzagging more and more toward a megalomaniacal zeal to restore Russia to world empire status. This is scary not least of all because post-USSR Russia still maintains a huge nuclear stockpile.
Putin has famously suggested that the collapse of the Soviet Empire was the worst thing that happened in the Twentieth Century (and what about the Nazis?), but he 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, unilaterally it seems and without much support from anyone else in Moscow, to annex Crimea. What was he thinking? A 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 can ill afford. Before annexation, Russia had already earmarked $1.7 billion for Crimea. Now Crimea will become a sinkhold for billions more that Russia should be spending closer to Moscow. And yet Putin proceeded without consulting such clearheaded advisors as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or his Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu. They were simply ordered to implement a policy that Putin articulated entirely on his own.
The old Putin was a kind of “chief decider” in the mold of George W. Bush, an arbiter who exercised pragmatism in brokering a consensus among the thousands of competing interests whom he must manage and lead. The new Putin is increasingly the imperial Czar of Russia, an autocrat who makes decisions without consulting anyone, simply announcing them as a fait accompli.
Putin now routinely refers to the “Russian Civilization” rather than the “Russian People.” This suggests that he views Russia as something apart from the rest of the world, about as connected to Europe and Asia as Mars. The idea of a Russian Civilization harkens back to the days of Peter the Great and an expansionist Russia that viewed itself as superior to Asia and to 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 fixes, has been replaced by a dogmatic Putin who apparently believes that Russia is in grave danger, a Russia he must defend from chaos and darkness.
“Russia did not begin in 1917 or even in 1991,” Putin recently stated in 2012. “Rather, Russia has a continuous history spanning over one thousand years and we must rely on it to find inner strength.”
What is most startling about Vladimir Putin’s political biography is that, with the passage of time, most leaders evolve from the idealism of their first days in office to a kind of hard-nosed pragmatism that puts aside grand ideological themes in favor of practical political fixes that keep the trains running on time. In Putin we have seen the reverse: the pragmatic KGB intelligence analyst has become the leader of destiny, a visionary, the man who will save Russia and restore her glory (whether Czarist or Soviet is not yet clear).
What was it Lord Acton said about absolute power corrupting? There is a reason Americans insist that their presidents remain in office for a maximum of eight years, with an insistence also on a referendum by the entire nation after only four years.
Vladimir Putin has been the undisputed dictator of Russia now for a decade and a half. And he has become, it seems, a legend in his own mind. Watch out! Trouble ahead.