Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin
by Fiona Hill, Clifford G. Gaddy
For those of us in the democratic West, the rise of authoritarianism in countries like the USA and Hungary has come as a nasty surprise, one that is difficult to accept. Though if we were to look back over the history of dictatorship in the past hundred years, we should not be surprised.
Now, with Russia’s second war in Ukraine, it is easy to see the re-assertion of Russia’s tradition of autocracy in the actions of Vladimir Putin. In Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, both fellows of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, tell the story of the demise of the USSR and the subsequent rise of Putin as a new tsar of a revived imperial Russia, harking back to its pre-communist past. Indeed, in 1999, Putin described communism as a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization.
THE PUGNACITY OF PUTIN
The first thing to remember about Putin is that he grew up as the small, but pugnacious son of a father who worked for the KGB, the Soviet secret service, and that he is a practitioner of Karate and Sambo, a martial art similar to Judo, in which victory is not achieved by force alone, but by the more sophisticated method of destabilising your opponent. A skill which he has mastered in politics.
Born in 1952, to a patriot who had survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad in WWII, he studied Law at Leningrad State University, before enrolling in the KGB in 1975.
Ten years later, the USSR began to change. However, Putin did not experience the tumultuous Gorbachev years of glasnost and perestroika first-hand, as in 1985 he was posted to Dresden, East Germany, and did not return to Russia until 1990, so he was distanced from that period of attempted political reform which preceded collapse.
Back in Leningrad as the USSR imploded, he resigned from the KGB and soon became head of the Committee for External Relations under the mayor, Alexander Sobchak, dealing with the delicate business of international relations and foreign trade. Here, despite being investigated for malpractice, he continued in this post until 1996. He then moved to Moscow, just as Russia was plunged into inflationary chaos, and here he occupied various government positions until 1998, when President Yeltsin appointed him director of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
PUTIN BECOMES THE PRESIDENT
Then in 1999, out of the blue, Putin was appointed acting Prime Minister of The Russian Federation and immediately ran for President. He was elected President in May 2000. Since then, he has been in power, either as President or Prime Minister and now, it seems, as Dictator.
He inherited a state in disarray, in which the major sectors of the economy had been privatised and were owned by a warring gang of entrenched oligarchs. Through his command of the FSB, the secret service which keeps files on everyone’s dealings, legitimate and criminal, he systematically put these oligarchs under his control. He also ruthlessly set out to get rid of any opposition.
From the Russian perspective, this may not appear extraordinary, but it is important that people in the rest of the world understand what his attitudes are and where they come from, for he is very much a Russian secret service case officer, a patriotic imperialist and a calculating chancer, who does not shy away from brutality.
Hill and Gaddy’s book, which was published in 2015, after the first Russian invasion of the Ukraine, expands on his role in world politics by analysing his character under six headings: The Statist, The History Man, The Survivalist, The Outsider, The Free-Marketeer, and The Case Officer. Each of these characters played by Putin have been essential in maintaining his career as a consummate actor on the political stage.
Putin has grown and maintained his grip on the Russian people by emphasising two characteristics, two guiding ideas to rekindle their self-respect: the Russian Nation and the Russian Orthodox Church. He has used Nationalism and Religion to give purpose to the lives of a people who had been profoundly destabilised by the failure of the Communist ideology by which they had lived for seventy years.
The state has a very specific meaning in Russia. The relationship between the state – Mother Russia – and the individual is different from that in Western countries. In America the state exists to protect the rights of the individual citizen. In Russia it is the state – Mother Russia – who must be protected, she does not necessarily protect her own citizens. In Russia, the state is primary. The individual and society are subordinate to the state and its interests.
As Putin has said: “Authority [vlast] not constrained by law [pravo] is dangerous. Law not backed up by authority is powerless. The former truth has been confirmed many times in our history. The latter truth is becoming obvious today.”
He has adapted the ideas of the late tsarist liberal conservatives to fit the present day and has continued to refine the nineteenth-century idea of introducing a constitutional monarchy. But now with Putin the president replacing the tsar as the monarch.
After 1991, despite a superficial take up of Western ideas and modes of life in the main metropolitan centres, the centuries-long history of authoritarian mind-control in Russia has ensured that the mystique of the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church could be used to bind the people, encouraging a paranoid mindset that sees Russia as surrounded by scheming enemies.
THE HISTORY MAN
Putin has always been a keen student of history, but when in April 2005 he declared Russia’s demise to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he was not referring to the collapse of the Communist system, but to the fall of the tsarist state.
His definition of the state goes back to the 1830s, when Nicholas I’s minister of education, Sergei Uvarov, declared that the State was based on “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”; the Russian Orthodox Church; the tsarist regime in the person of the tsar, the autocrat; and the Russian nation loyal to the tsar.
The Church hierarchy has expanded and funded by lavish grants from the state. Putin makes the point of appearing at church services to emphasise his support and arranges for Orthodox priests to be visible at state occasions. In return the church supports the war in Ukraine.
The Russian people, because of their collective experience, constantly imagine, and prepare for, the worst. Putin emphasises that: “The one critical lesson from history is that Russia, the state, always survives in one form or another. Every survived calamity reaffirms the special status of Russia in history.”
The policy is always to maintain strategic reserves of foreign exchange and essential materials to tide the country over periods of war, catastrophic emergencies, and exceptionally harsh winters. For “One of the lessons Putin… had learned from the Soviet experience was the connection between a country’s financial and fiscal health and its sovereignty… In all of these instances of building up reserves, both material and financial, there is a notable difference between being a survivor and having the outlook of a survivalist. The former is passive; the latter is active”. Russia must rely on itself.
In Putin’s view, disunity, like revolutionary change, or not having sufficient reserves, is a major threat to the survival of the Russian state. Preserving unity and stability at almost any cost – even by reducing Grozny to the ground and killing thousands of Russian citizens in Chechnya and the Ukraine – is necessary to ensure the survival of the state. To splinter Russian society is anathema to him, as well as a threat to the state.
This is the hallmark of Putin the Survivalist. His mentality is based on the notion that if you don’t learn from past mistakes – personal as well as national-level ones – then you, and the country, will continue to suffer from them. To survive, you must learn by noting the mistakes of others also.
As an outsider, Putin is pragmatic. He has no vested interest in policies or ideologies. In a political system so burdened by ideology; he reckons that only an outsider can see the flaws of the system. He is detached and not responsible for any particular failure, so he has no reason to ignore the truth. He can defy conventional wisdom and think outside the box. But only if he is master of the relevant information. If not, as in the battle for Kiev in February 2022, he makes gross errors of judgment.
Hill and Gaddy write: “Probably no personal experience other than his time in Dresden could have done more to convince Vladimir Putin that his future activity, in the KGB or otherwise, could not be guided by blind loyalty to an ideology or to specific political leaders. His loyalty had to be to the state itself rather than to a specific system of governance. The ambiguities of the GDR in the second half of the 1980s were perfect training for Putin’s move to the centre of government in Moscow a decade later in 1996.”
Because Vladimir Putin did not evolve through all the stages of late Soviet and Russian development that would have linked him to his peers from the 1980s through the 2000s, part of his “Russian DNA” is missing. He could not have recaptured the experience he lost while in Dresden. He remains the outsider. Others in his inner circle, such as Dmitry Medvedev, would have seen this period differently.
He also fosters his image as a tough guy, or thug, which appeared when he first threatened to “wipe out” Chechen terrorists in their outhouses in 1999. This has been central to Putin’s public persona, drawing a line between him and the Moscow elite.
THE FREE MARKETEER
As a student of Russian and Soviet history, Putin saw that the Soviet system of economic management had failed. His experience in St. Petersburg convinced him that the only way Russia could survive in the modern world was with a market economy. However, he realised that the winners in a market system were not necessarily those who could provide goods and services at the lowest prices. Rather, they were those who were best at exploiting others’ vulnerabilities.
As a dedicated gosudarstvennik (statist) with a desire to survive, he focused on protecting the Russian state. As an outsider to the system, he could ignore Soviet ideology and assess what worked and did not work. His most successful economic policies were based on intelligent pragmatism. Putin concluded that you need to be bigger and better capitalist than the capitalists.
THE CASE OFFICER
In his 1999 address to the nation, Putin pledged to rebuild the Russian state, to protect Russia’s sovereignty, preserve domestic stability and unity, and ensure national security. But he did not state how he would do this.
In St. Petersburg, he had acted as a Case Officer. His targets were Businessmen. Here, the future Russian president focussed on another set of businessmen, the Russian oligarchs. He used the kind of methods his KGB case officer training had schooled him in. He collected damning information about companies and individuals and kept it safe. He now could also offer businessmen protection against the tax authorities.
This ‘protection’ scheme would mark Putin’s approach when he moved to Moscow. Here he established the Russian Financial Monitoring Agency (Rosfinmonitoring, RFM), which collected the most sensitive financial information about Russia’s businesses. Thus, he gained leverage over the oligarchs by monopolising financial information, including data on corruption and malfeasance. In 1999-2000, Putin offered himself to the oligarchs as a protector. He reassured them that he would not dispossess them. He would recognize the basic parameters of their 1996 deal with Yeltsin in acquiring their assets. But he reminded the oligarchs that few saw their ownership as legitimate.
Putin’s team understood that they could not just dispossess the oligarchs and find another group of businessmen to take over their companies. These businessmen were “very thin and very precious … they are the bearers of capital, of intellect, of technologies.” Russia’s oligarchs, like their assets, had to be treated with care. Dealing with them was complex, but it chimed with Putin’s training as a KGB case officer. Their property rights depended on the good will of the Kremlin. So long as the Oligarchs did what he asked, they could keep their spoils, otherwise, as several of them discovered, it was either ruin or death.
THE PUTIN SYSTEM
Once they had confirmed him as president in 2000, the bargain with the Russian people was they should not ask questions about his methods. These methods are pragmatic, ruthless, and conservative. As a patriotic outsider, without a vested interest in a particular ideology or structure, whatever he needs to do to advance his view of Russia’s interests, he does. He feels no need to justify the means.
Ukraine today is now for Russia a neo-imperialist project. Whatever the Russian motherland can gain there justifies the brutal means at his disposal, for greater Russia is strategically at risk if Ukraine is allowed to remain independent. Putin feels himself justified in wreaking death and destruction to achieve his aims, as he did in Chechnya.
Such a brutal and cruel policy is irredentist. From the West it seems wrongheaded, but from Putin’s point of view it has an historical inevitability, and he will pursue it relentlessly.