The Vladimir Putin Enigma

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By DANIEL AARÃO REIS*

Considerations concerning Russia's intentions in the war with Ukraine

Churchill's phrase about the Soviet Union is well known: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery within an enigma". He expressed his and other Western leaders' bewilderment over Soviet intentions in the course of World War II.

Comparable doubts have been raised about Vladimir Putin, Russia's current president. He rose from anonymity to the proscenium of Russian politics in the late 1990s. How could this happen?

Since the end of the Soviet Union, in December 1991, the government of the Russian Federation had adopted an ultraliberal policy with two objectives: to transform a decades-old political dictatorship into a liberal representative democracy and to convert a state-owned economy into a country governed by private companies within the framework of a market free of controls. There was an expectation that Russia would soon catch up to the standards of Western European societies. It was a delusional purpose. It couldn't work, it didn't work.

And the country plunged into a kind of wild west, open to adventurers of all stripes, chaos – economic, social and political: galloping inflation, mass unemployment, dismantled social services, demoralized armed forces, collapse of state-owned companies, sold at low prices. to a new oligarchy that emerged from nowhere and that, through deals and coups, erected itself into a kind of new ruling class. The state was delirious. And it raised concern around the world, as Russia was still the world's second atomic power.

At the helm, Boris Yeltsin, a political leader who had been associated with the breakup of the USSR, saw his popularity slip away in a blind search for directions. It was there, in August 1999, that the figure of Vladimir Putin appeared, called to occupy the position of prime minister, it was the fourth in a year and a half, and nobody believed that he could remain in the exercise of such high functions. A few months later, another surprise: Ielstin resigned as President of the Republic and the position, by virtue of constitutional provisions, fell into Putin's hands until the following elections.

Who was Vladimir Putin?

The question was posed to a panel discussion on Russia at the annual meeting in Davos in January 2000. No one could answer and ignorance aroused general hilarity.

Edgard Morin rightly insists that in history, the improbable often happens. Now, nothing could be more improbable than the anointing and permanence of Vladimir Putin at the head of Russian society. But that's what happened, confirming the French thinker's hypothesis.

Who, anyway, and where did Vladimir Putin come from?

Son of a humble couple, who survived the siege of Leningrad, he was born in 1952, still in the ruins of a country that was barely recovering from the destruction caused by the World War. His childhood and early youth, although he attended schools, took place in the MMA of the streets. A strong candidate for juvenile delinquency. He was saved by a fight trainer who persuaded him to give vent to his courage by learning boxing. Later, at university, he felt drawn to the intelligence services, the Committee for State Security, KGB in Soviet acronym.

Sinister and famous, like the equivalent services in the world, the KGB, despite the atrocities it committed, aroused enthusiasm among many young Russians. He was surrounded by an aura of courage, adventure, defense of the country, all of which was encouraged by radio and TV series and crime novels. Putin joined the revered and feared corporation. Being fluent in German, after specific training, he was sent to the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, where he carried out his duties without greater prominence.

From there, he followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the colossus that his organization was destined to defend. Like most Russians at the time, he was not happy with what was going on in the country. He returned to his hometown, where he became close with a rising politician, Anatoly Sobchak, the first elected mayor of Leningrad since the October 1917 revolution, occupying functions linked to the prefecture's external relations. He would have resigned from the FSB / Federal Security Service, the new name of the KGB, but there is controversy about this. As there are controversies about his activities. For some, an incorruptible employee. For others, skilled in shady business. Through Sobchak's connections with Yeltsin, he was eventually called into Russia's presidential administration. He was distinguished by efficiency and ability to work.

As provisional president of Russia, Vladimir Putin ran for election in the elections scheduled for March 2000. During the campaign, he cultivated two images that were not easily reconcilable: that of a pragmatic reformer, a democrat, and a man with an “iron fist”. He benefited from an atmosphere of fear aroused by terrorist attacks that shook the country. Chechens, the usual suspects, were blamed and Putin appeared on TV saying he would hunt them down wherever they were and dispatch them through the toilets. A vulgar speech, compensating for his insecurity, but strong enough to trample controversies that attributed to former colleagues of Vladimir Putin the real authorship of the actions. With 52% of the votes, the man became the elected president of the Russian Federation.

He was re-elected four years later, in 2004, now with 71% of the votes. A comfortable victory. Due to favorable circumstances – exponential rise in oil and gas prices, Russia's main export products – and also to policies that he knew how to formulate and apply with rare decision-making capacity. He crushed the insurgency in Chechnya with fire and iron, stopping the process of disintegration that threatened the country. He framed the oligarchs who didn't pay taxes, sending several of them to jail, including the most important one, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with interests in oil and banking. The processes were full of glaring flaws, but who cared about the fate of those oligarchs?

At the same time, and through the same methods, it nationalized the main TV channels and ended regional and local autonomies. The State was strengthened, centralized, consecrating the “vertical of power”, an expression of Vladimir Putin himself. With the income provided by exports, he established Sovereign Funds, recovered public services, with emphasis on the armed forces and security services. In foreign policy, he approached the United States and the main European states.

With Washington, it allied itself in the war against Islamic terrorism, supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001, and bowing to the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. With Europe, it intensified economic ties, making the continent dependent on Russian energy products. It was thus possible to deal with the international economic crisis of 2008 without major shocks.

The anonymous “fished” by Yeltsin in 1999 now appeared enshrined, among Russians and internationally, as a leader committed to the modernization and stability of his country and to constructive foreign policy proposals based on peace and cooperation.

The Constitution, however, did not allow him a third consecutive term. Vladimir Putin jumped the barrier, nominating Dmitri Medvedev, faithful assistant, to succeed him. Once elected, thanks to the outgoing president, Medvedev appointed him prime minister. Their relationship, not free of friction, lasted four years. During this period, however, the presidential term was extended to six years, always allowing re-election, which allowed Vladimir Putin to return in 2012 and be re-elected in 2018.

However, from 2010, the contradictions increased. In Russia, the opposition denounced the corruption that was rampant in the highest spheres of the State, implicating the president himself, the increase in social inequalities and the curtailment of civil and political freedoms. The government responded by repressing street demonstrations, arresting leaders and covering up the beatings and murders of critics and oppositionists, whose responsibility it vehemently denied, but whose perpetrators could not be found. But not only intimidation and repression did the government survive.

On the external front, and since 2007, Putin began to denounce the underestimation of Russia's interests by the US and other western powers. The progression of NATO in central Europe and in ex-Soviet countries, disregarding commitments made in the early 1990s, gave it objective reasons for discontent. Stirring them up, he activated nationalism and patriotism, resources always wielded by political leaders in the face of internal difficulties. In this preaching, he found resonance in deep traditions, reinforced by a pervasive sense of nostalgia and resentment for the abrupt demise of the Soviet Union and the failure of Russians to find the paths to prosperity and security to which they considered themselves full-fledged aspirants.

And so, what could be considered a mere propaganda exercise gained another – and new – consistency. Undoubtedly, the debates held at the Valday club, named for its proximity to the pleasant lake Valdayskoe, Vladimir Putin's favorite resting place, where he has a dacha, undoubtedly contributed to this sense. Since 2004, in annual meetings, and in several cities, dozens of scientists, journalists, political and intellectual leaders, Russians and foreign guests, have come together to discuss the problems and challenges of the world and Russia in particular. In the final session, Putin would always be present, presenting and discussing his and his government's analyzes and positions.

Over the years, the man gained solidity and nothing reminded him of the faltering leader anointed by Yeltsin. Articulate, incisive, dominating the main dossiers from memory, answering complicated questions, some hairy ones, as in the interviews with O. Stone, in 2017, a metamorphosis was evident: the pragmatic and indecisive Vladimir Putin had turned into a doctrinaire, confident of your ideas and purposes. The audacious and successful military adventures in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014) and Syria (2015) confirmed him in his options.

What did his doctrine consist of? There was a fusion of several layers there, combining philosophy, history and politics.

On the philosophical level, the defense of permanent values. Putin made them explicit again at the last meeting of the Valday Club, in October 2021. It is a “reasonable” or “moderate” conservatism or, in another version, “an optimistic, healthy conservatism”. What does it consist of? Putin dixit: "there are people in the West who believe in the aggressive erasure of entire pages of history itself". They practice “reverse discrimination, against the majority and in the interests of a minority, demanding the renunciation of traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of this is the hallmark of a proposal for social renewal”.

Drawing on N. Berdyaev, a Russian Christian philosopher of the early 1921th century, Putin argues that conservatism is essential to avoid chaos and ensure life, family and procreation. It also uses, as a “bedside book”, another thinker, Ivan Alexandrovith Ilyin, an ultraconservative religious philosopher, resolutely anti-Bolshevik, favorable, in XNUMX, to the organization of a Military Union, a last attempt to restore the “old order”. ”.

In this articulation, Vladimir Putin is supported, among others, by a personality who has been standing out in Russia: Sergei Karaganov. The following words are his, quoted in a recent study by Claudio Ingerfm: “Shouldn't we stop pretending that we are fighting for democracy? And make it clear: we want personal freedoms, a prosperous society, national security and dignity…the restriction of political freedoms is inevitable. What to do with those who…reject history, country, gender and beliefs, such as the aggressive LGTB and ultra-feminist movements…this moral epidemic…I believe they are post-humanist…we must fight them…, leading the majority of humanity to that congregates around conservative values, or to say simply normal values”.

Conservative values ​​are rooted in history. For Vladimir Putin, the long domination of Western civilization, founded on the European powers and the USA, is in its terminal phase, like volcanoes in extinction. New centers of power are emerging, volcanoes are erupting, and it will not be possible to stop them. As for Russia, backed by its thousand years of existence (a count that is not supported by any evidence), it is up to the fight for its identity, reunifying the Russians who are scattered in the territories that were part of the Soviet Union, even because the nations created from its extinction have no historical viability, they are artificial inventions.

In another sphere, also decisive, the government must combat and make unfeasible the falsifications of history (for this purpose, a control committee was created with a prominent participation of representatives of the armed forces and security agencies).

Then, it comes to politics: in the country, consolidating the aforementioned “vertical of power”, neutralizing centrifugal and disaggregating forces, strengthening the State and, in particular, guaranteeing the immutability of Putin himself in an increasingly authoritarian presidency, which has already been approved by new laws allowing indefinite re-elections. On the external level, “uniting the lands”, in a process of “creative destruction”, as a means of guaranteeing conditions for Russia to play an important role in the concert of alternative “volcanoes”.

In this perspective, the invasion of Ukraine, since February 24th, although targeting – and destroying – the country, has another, much more important, strategic objective: to defeat or weaken the US and the associated European powers. It is a war of survival, “existential. And that is why “Russia cannot lose this war”, as Karaganov stressed in a recent interview. If so, he said, it should escalate, including considering the use of atomic weapons. The phrase was echoed earlier this week by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov: “the use of atomic weapons is a real hypothesis”. In the camp of Russia's enemies, the prospect of escalation also prevails, and there are already those who speak of a victory for Ukraine, whose forces have begun to bomb Russian territory.

By not integrating Russia into a sphere of cooperation, security and common prosperity, European states and the US missed a historic chance. In the course of time, as we have seen, the pragmatist Vladimir Putin became a doctrinaire of the apocalypse. If world public opinion does not impose a kind of “peace of the brave”, or if the Russians do not have the strength to detain and overthrow their president, the world will be close to an unimaginable and irreparable self-destruction.

With his hand on the nuclear catastrophe button, Vladimir Putin announces that he is determined to do everything to save Russia. And his hands don't seem to shake.

*Daniel Aaron Reis is a professor of contemporary history at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of The Revolution that Changed the World – Russia, 1917 (Companhia das Letras).

 

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