Monday, March 14, 2022

Mr. Putin

What is Putin's end goal? Everyone seems to know what it is, but the problem is that they are saying different things. Is he trying to build an empire? Trying to re-create the Soviet Union? Simply protecting Russia from NATO? To help me make up my own mind, I just read Fiona Hill's Mr Putin.

I had very little knowledge of this guy before reading the book, so I found it highly educational. But it is also as incomplete a book about somebody as I've ever read. While the lives of a lot of famous people are open books (no pun intended), that is not the case here. Putin keeps a tight lid on info that comes out about him, and whatever does come out about him is quite possibly totally fabricated!

Still, by piecing together whatever credible tidbits of information there is, the authors have done what appears to me to be a masterful job at helping the reader understand this man. Joe Biden called the book "insightful", so at the very least it gives you an idea of how Biden sees Putin, which is helpful in itself.

The book classifies Putin as having six important leanings, which I understood as follows:

- Statism (He believes the state should play a large role in people's lives, and is also very inclusive regarding who should be part of the state, including different ethnicities and perhaps different geographies, which is somewhat problematic.)

- History (He selectively uses history as a weapon to help justify his agendas.)

- Survivalist (He has learned to create contingencies and reserves to protect his interests, even at great expense.)

- Outsider (As a relative newcomer to Moscow before attaining Russia's presidency, Putin was able to view issues without previous biases. He relishes this position as one who can fix things without having to accept blame for the problem in the first place.)

- The Free Marketeer (Putin is no communist; he recognizes the power of price signals, having lived through the decrepit conditions of the end of the Soviet era.)

- The Case Officer (This is where Putin really excels from what I could tell. He finds people's weaknesses and uses the threat of exposure of them to get what he wants. This is how he initially controlled the oligarchs as he rose to power, and this may be how he controls puppet politicians that are in Russia's sphere of influence.)

It is through these leanings that Putin's behaviour is analyzed.

As he rose to power some 20-25 years ago, Putin did not seem to have animosity towards the West. He appeared to view America and Western Europe as potential allies that could benefit Russia where mutual interests intersected. He even called Bush just before 9/11 to warn him of the impending attack, as Russian operatives had caught wind of Osama bin Laden's activities!

The next decade of the West's behaviour seemed to turn Putin from potential friend to decisive foe. Putin had trouble cementing deals with Western leaders, who, because of checks and balances in their own governments (e.g. Congress/Senate in the US), couldn't maintain their ends of agreements.

Putin was also displeased at U.S. unilateral behaviour in its international interventions. Russia was excluded from the table in U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, among other issues. While these countries are far away geographically from the U.S., they are close enough to Russia to cause direct impact to Russia, which has had its own problems with terrorists.

U.S. circumvention of the U.N. in order to force its own agenda also served to villainize it in Putin's eyes. Putin was public about saying Russia knew very well that Iraq had no WMDs, so how is it that the US was so ignorant? He began to see the U.S. as an incompetent actor, if not a subversive one.

And then things got worse! The anti-corruption, pro-democracy protest wave that swept Eastern Europe (e.g. the Orange Revolution) put Putin on the defensive. He saw the West as empowering and aiding the protests, which were very dangerous for him. He clamped down on freedoms, took full control of the media, and adapted his government so that it could fight a new type of war that he saw the West as successful waging: one of propaganda and information, such that few bullets would need to be fired in order to win.

He used these new weapons to annex Crimea, which went much smoother than his operation in Georgia a few years prior. He continues to use these weapons to wage war both on anyone who gets in the way of his agenda.

So, after all this, what is his agenda?

Having a large Russian sphere of influence (to avoid isolation; he has no interest in becoming a North Korea) is clearly important to him, so when Eastern European countries turn to the West, it is a problem for him that he is obviously willing to go to great lengths to fix. Small countries that are dependent on Russia for economic interests are where Putin has leverage, and he will use that leverage (and any other leverage, including on its own leaders!) to keep those countries under his control.

NATO is also a threat to him. He sees the U.S. as hostile now, so being surrounded by a group largely controlled by the US is another major problem.

So I guess these are the reasons why an invasion of the West-leaning Ukraine made sense to him. But if he's allowed to get Ukraine, all the other former Eastern-bloc countries face the same risk. While they are nominally "independent", they are effectively imprisoned as a Soviet-style state, as any attempts to exercise that independence towards the West puts them at considerable risk.

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