Russia's leader appears to believe his own propagandaby Oliver Bullough / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Europeans first mapped the world, there was a lot they didn’t know. Not wanting to admit their ignorance, they made stuff up. Some of their inventions were impressively ambitious. The fictional Mountains of Kong stretched from Mali to Sudan, and adorned maps of Africa for most of the 19th century. Lake Apalachy sat happily in South Carolina for more than 200 years, and was apparently even visited by one traveller, despite not existing. These inventions always had one thing in common: they said nothing about the place being described, and a lot about the person doing the describing. Mapmakers hate having to leave their maps blank.
This same reluctance to admit ignorance, and the same compulsion to fill blank spaces, helps to explain Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary ability to intrigue people right across the political spectrum. He is the great uncharted continent of geopolitics. He produces unpredictable weather systems that bring ruin on some and lavish money on others, yet we know almost nothing about his internal geography.
Some people decorate him with positive qualities. Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s communications supremo, has shared a platform with the Russian president and consistently argued that he is demonised: “in Russian terms he is a centrist.” Others fill in the blank spaces with monsters: Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, recently compared Putin hosting the World Cup to Hitler hosting the Olympics.
It’s not possible, of course, for the same person to be at once a centrist and a Nazi, but it’s hard to know which assessment is correct, at least partly because—although he’s dominated the world’s largest country for almost two decades—there is yet to be a great Putin book. No one has penetrated the inner reaches of Putin’s thoughts and subconscious to figure out what is causing the storms that have engulfed Ukraine, Syria and the US political system.
Putin himself is a gnomic figure who speaks for hours at a time in live television marathons, yet gives almost nothing away—apart from smirking self-satisfaction. His aides rose with him from the obscurity of St Petersburg’s local government to unimaginable wealth in the Kremlin, and long ago learned the art of not saying anything either. Media outlets that have probed behind this wall of silence have been taken over or shut down, while journalists have been killed, and independent politicians squeezed out. The map we have of Putin has become—if anything—blanker since he was elected president in the spring of 2000. At a time when Washington and Moscow are closer to war than they have been for decades, this blankness is not just worrying: it is dangerous.
As such, Michael McFaul’s new memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace: The Inside Story of Russia and America could not be more timely. McFaul is a professor and long-term Russophile, who moved from academia into Barack Obama’s White House in 2009. He oversaw the ill-fated “reset,” which sought to improve ties between Washington and Moscow. Part of the book is a defence of that policy: his argument that it achieved genuine good for both sides and has been unfairly misrepresented is surprisingly convincing. More interesting for me, though, is McFaul’s description of his negotiations with Russians, including Putin, and the lost atmosphere of hope and change that until recently imbued the relationship between the old Cold War adversaries. This is what makes McFaul’s book crucial reading for anyone interested in what’s happening inside Putin’s head.
McFaul’s involvement with Russia dates from the Soviet period. He befriended campaigners for democratic change in the late 1980s, and believed that a more open Russia was in America’s strategic interests. He met Putin back in 1991, when organising a series of seminars for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in St Petersburg: “he was careful, unenthusiastic, diminutive—an apparatchik. I could not tell from this meeting or our subsequent encounters with him if he supported or detested NDI’s work. He said little…”
There’s not much in that to help mapmakers fill in the blank spaces in Putin’s personality, but in later encounters Putin had grown in confidence, and the revelations come in herds. In McFaul’s telling, the Russian president is vindictive, grudging, obsessed with respect, and zero-sum in his thinking. On two separate occasions, Putin broke off from meeting a senior US official to lambast McFaul personally. “His attack on me that day was strangely emotional, and out of character for a leader whom I always had considered smart, rational and strategic. His focus on me seemed to be a symptom of his own insecurities.” Criticising an ambassador for the policies of the country he represents is like criticising a radio for the news it broadcasts: it is indicative of paranoia, not intelligence.
McFaul’s stint as ambassador in Moscow—from 2012 to 2014—was consumed by this distrust. His children were harassed; his driver lost his license; his diplomats’ homes were invaded; on his arrival to take up his post, a primetime programme on the main state-run television channel devoted an hour to abusing him. And this approach was not confined to McFaul. When Putin first met Obama, the first 55 minutes were consumed by a monologue about all the ways America was undermining Russia. “For each vignette of disrespect or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting… this was a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Obama listened patiently, maybe too patiently. I was amazed.”
Alarmingly, Putin appears to believe the conspiracy theories produced by the Russian government about how the CIA runs everything. (A little part of me had hoped they were just a cynical ploy to confuse everyone.) In McFaul’s description, the Russian president sees manipulators behind every grassroots movement: “maybe Putin and his KGB comrades had developed an inferiority complex with respect to the CIA over the years because their country had collapsed and ours had not.”
Perhaps most disturbing is the suggestion that Putin has become entirely reactive. When he has had the opportunity to try to improve relations, by taking small steps to increase confidence, he has not done so. He appears to believe that the architecture of international relations exists to serve American national interests, and that the system needs to be destroyed. The west is more useful to him as an enemy than as a friend, which is a very concerning thought indeed, considering the number of nuclear weapons he has at his disposal.
Despite the excellent access he had, McFaul’s perspective on Putin is that of an outsider. Which is why it was so exciting to hear about a memoir from inside the Russian elite: Vladimir Yakunin’s The Treacherous Path. Yakunin is, like Putin, a former KGB man and has known the president since the early 1990s, so he has priceless knowledge of how Kremlin politicking works. On top of that, Putin handpicked him to run Russia’s railway system, so he has a unique perspective into the country’s economy.
The book is almost completely devoid of insight, however: it only mentions Crimea once (and not in the context of the 2014 annexation), and has almost nothing new to say about Putin or his relations with the west. Perhaps the most interesting revelation is a negative one: quite how incurious and non-analytical Yakunin is about the workings of Russia and the world.
So we are reliant for filling in the map of Putin’s personality on outsiders, including Timothy Snyder, whose The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America is a sprawling epic that veers from Dark Ages Kiev to modern day Washington and back again.
Snyder is a history professor at Yale who specialises in central and eastern Europe, and whose career was energised by the Ukraine crisis of 2014. He became a fiercely moral advocate of Ukraine, and a critic of the kind of Russian mythologising that cast all Ukrainians as fascists, Crimea as a natural part of Russia, and the expansion of the European Union as a dastardly imperialist project intended to humiliate Putin. His argument in this new book explains Putin’s behaviour by reference to the philosopher Ivan Ilyin (whose creed Eurasianism, a form of 1920s Russian fascism, is best described in Charles Clover’s 2016 history Black Wind, White Snow). With Putin categorised as a fascist, Snyder slots in Russia’s anti-gay campaign, its invasion of Ukraine, its destabilisation of the US elections, its propaganda spasms, among many other examples, as classic expansionary politics.
Some of this made sense to me, particularly his treatment of how the Russian elite’s laundering of its money via western institutions has corrupted the west. “The offshore exception became the rule, as Russian political fiction penetrated beyond Russia,” he writes. He is also a forensic dissector of the kind of lazy journalism inflicted on us by the likes of anti-imperialist John Pilger.
But much of Snyder’s later argument seems to either explain too much or too little: he mocks Putin for believing the 2013-4 uprising in Ukraine was an American plot, but then characterises the election of Donald Trump as a Russian plot. Putin can either be a paranoid fantasist too weak to control Ukraine, or he can be a strategic master able to direct the United States; but he can’t be both.
This has become a familiar pattern with regard to writing about Putin, often from writers on the centre left. Although Russia is a relatively marginal country with an economy smaller than California’s and few if any significant allies, Putin is awarded a decisive role in the victories of Trump (and Brexit), perhaps because it’s just too painful to recognise that we did these things to ourselves.
Counterweight to this view of Putin as a geopolitical puppet master is Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. Walker is a journalist for the Guardian with a deep understanding of Russia, and long experience of writing about the country.
He lacks the access to Putin of McFaul and Yakunin, but takes the opposite approach to Snyder. Instead of creating a philosophical super-structure—“Equality or Oligarchy? Novelty or Eternity? Truth or Lies?”—on the flimsy foundations of Putin’s public utterances, he looks at the Russia that Putin has created in minute and humane detail.
He does so through intimate conversations with Russians (and others) who have been affected by the way Putin has run his country, and creates composite images of a nation traumatised by its Soviet history but unable or unwilling to face that past. Walker conjures up a Putin driven by an “angry insecurity in which Russia was an aggressor because it feared it would otherwise become a victim.”
McFaul also describes this element of Putin’s character, perhaps most memorably in a series of meetings for which Putin is always late. Journalists who have covered any aspect of the Kremlin know that it involves a lot of waiting around—Putin’s respect for journalists is broadly akin to Spinal Tap’s for its audience—but I didn’t realise Putin employed this same crude power play on the president of the United States.
On one occasion in 2012, Putin and Obama were scheduled to meet in Mexico. “True to form, Putin was late,” McFaul writes. Obama’s team became increasingly impatient and alarmed, but the president remained calm. “Obama got up and walked outside, alone. I had nothing to do at that point… so I joined him. I apologised that Putin was late. He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, ‘Do you think I care?’”
When Putin finally turned up, he made some “lame excuse” about the traffic, but Obama shrugged it off. He was there to talk about world affairs; he wasn’t interested in schoolboy nonsense.
This for me is the key geographical feature that these books add to the map of Putin’s personality. He cannot stand being ignored, and found Obama’s indifference enraging. He wants to be treated like the president of a superpower, even if he isn’t. So, like a child who keeps needling his big brother until he gets a response, Putin kept pushing until the United States took him seriously: he harassed its ambassador, he invaded Ukraine, he hacked the Democratic National Committee. And, lo, he’s not ignored any more. On the contrary, he is talked about more than any world leader except Trump. Just six years ago, Russia was being welcomed into the World Trade Organisation; now it is sanctioned like a rogue state—and some of its biggest companies are teetering on the brink of collapse.
This may be fun for Putin, but it’s hard to see how it does Russia or the Russians much good.
The Treacherous Path by Vladimir Yakunin (Biteback, £20)
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder (Bodley Head, £35)
The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and Ghosts of the Past by Shaun Walker (OUP, £20)