Western administrations have done their best to fashion a perception of Vladimir Putin as some form of European social democrat. The recent poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the gunning down of the anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskaya earlier in Moscow, as well as other “wet affairs,” have brought that characterization sharply into question. The real issue, however, is why such a benevolent representation ever existed in the first place.
Little “Putka”, as he was called by his boyhood friends on the streets of Leningrad, has been a dedicated apparatchik since his school days when his ambition to join the KGB first began. He hasn’t changed — only the world around him changed — and he has taken advantage of these changes.
Putin is a legitimate tough guy, not a poseur. He trained himself mentally and physically, with the help of the Soviet security system, to be so. More importantly he knows how and when to use that toughness, a valuable asset for the leader of a country seeking to reassert itself as an international power.
Along with his obdurate personality is a sense of national pride that borders on the obsessive. Putin has no life other than his job and his family. He works out vigorously to stay physically hardened and capable of focusing his energies. He is no suburban jogger. His commitment to judo and the Russian self-defense technique, sambo, which began as a teenager, continues today. His preferred sport personifies his world outlook, finding areas of leverage and exploiting the advantage mindless of the pain involved on either himself or his opponent.
Putin never would have authorized the killing of a loud but lightweight dissident like Litvinenko. Such action placed Putin in a vulnerable leverage position. Additionally he never would have ordered the use of an exotic killing agent in a situation that required “plausible denial.” Along with his other attributes Putin is the best educated and perhaps the smartest Russian leader since Lenin — in spite of what Mikhail Gorbachev might think.
The problem facing Putin nonetheless is of his own making. He has allowed his “untouchables,” both on-duty and retired Russian security officers, to run rampant in their efforts to ensure loyalty to Putin’s form of democracy. This has been interpreted as authorization to harass anyone who speaks out contrary to the Kremlin line. At the same time sycophants have been unduly rewarded and, according to the World Bank, corruption has become so wide spread throughout the government that bribery and kickbacks have become an integral part of Russian business.
The private holdings of the Yeltsin-era business tycoons have been shifted over to government ownership under the control of Putin stalwarts. The deposed “oligarchs” are either residing in jail or, as in the case of Boris Berezovsky, Litvinenko’s patron, are using their stolen millions to support anti-Putin political forces from abroad. Adding further to Russian domestic insecurity is the continuing no-holds-barred battle against Chechen insurgency that seems to produce a murder every few weeks in and around Moscow.
So it appears that no matter how intelligent and well-schooled Putin is, he does not have control of his own apparat. This is no more apparent than in the growth of self-appointed guardians of Putin’s “new revolution.” This possibly ex-KGB cadre is high on the list of suspects in the growing number of unexplained assassinations both within Russia and in cities around the world. Today it is as if the good old boys had seen the Godfather series far too often, with a little French Connection thrown in on the side.
Whether or not the Russian domestic security service, FSB, was directly involved in the recent killings, Vladimir Putin is ultimately responsible for creating a security milieu that encourages assassination as a political and personal weapon. By not being vigorous in his disavowal and investigation of the poisonings and murder in Russian political life, the dedicated judo champion has lost the initiative and thus leverage in his leadership.
Putin’s penchant for the establishment of the “Russian way,” the melding of Soviet central controls with elements of Western representational government and market economy, has created a Frankenstein monster. Russia’s recent economic success has been based to a great extent on an extraordinary increase in its oil and gas revenues. Without this spike the Putin years would have been deemed a failure.
After designating his successor Putin is hoping and planning to sit out the mandated four years after the next Russian presidential election, and then take over once more. No matter what it is called, it is nothing more than old time Soviet pragmatism played out in the charade of Putka’s version of Russian democracy.