When President Boris Yeltsin retired in 1999, assisted by his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the brilliant public relations expert also known as the Puppet Master or as the Grey Cardinal, he managed appoint his own successor and handed supreme power to the former KGB colonel turned politician Vladimir Putin, safeguarding the interests of the Yeltsin family.
In 1975, after Vladimir Putin had attended Leningrad State University, he was recruited by the KGB and specialized in political intelligence and was assigned during the Cold war to a field office in Dresden, East Germany, a post of little significance.
Upon his return after the German unification, Putin was given a job as Deputy Rector of Leningrad University and soon was employed by Anataly Sobshak, his former University professor first as his Chief of Staff before being named Deputy Mayor while also rising in the ranks of the FSB, formerly the KGB.
In 1998 Mischa as Putin was known in Saint Petersburg to foreign investors, became deputy to Pavel Barodin, supervising the Kremlin’s foreign transactions and state holdings and was appointed in 1998 by Boris Yeltsin as Head of the FSB.
This was followed in 1999 by his appointment of Secretary of the Security Council, in which position he fired Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov who had authorized investigation in the corruption practices of key Yeltsin allies. Putin was parachuted into his position of power by the Yeltsin inner circle. Part of the arrangement with the Yeltsin clan was to guarantee not to prosecute Yeltsin or confiscated his assets.
Ultimately on August 9th, 1999 Yeltsin fired his Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and replaced him by Vladimir Putin and made him his successor. At the end of 1999 Boris Yeltsin resigned and Putin became acting President until the elections of 2000. As acting President Vladimir Putin pardoned Boris Yeltsin and his family from any criminal charges.
Putin had an approval rating at 2% at the beginning of his campaign and his election platform did reveal not much, he welcome foreign investment, but communicated the need for a strong state with traditional Russian values, but rejected Western Liberal democracy since this has no basis in Russian values and forged a coalition of centre-right, nationalist and communist elements. Vladimir Putin was never Democracy’s friend and is someone who sees politeness and friendship often a sign of weakness and will seek to destroy everything what he cannot control.
This all changed when in September of 1999 bombs started to exploit in different cities killing hundreds of people and Putin ordered his war against the Chechen republic deemed responsible, although FSB involvement was rumoured. Due to his ruthless approach Putin’s popularity rose to 45% by the end of the year.
In the March 2000 election Vladimir Putin was elected with 53% of the vote, helped by the Government control of the television stations and with a ruthless approach towards the Chechen terrorist treat which led to the complete destruction of Grozny. Obviously Vladimir Putin forgot to remember what Stalin did to the Chechens or he would not have invaded Chechnya again.
Russia found in Vladimir Putin the tactician an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host who in his life often was at the right time and place.
To understand Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is to look at his background as a Chekist and experiences made before and after the unification of Germany and with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire which according to Putin was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” whereby the often quoted humiliation of Russia by the US and Europe may be spurious, but not as spurious as to conclude the present Ukraine conflict has been thirty years in the making.
Like before in our common European history, during periods of Russian domestic instability, Europe has made significant territorial gains at its expense, in 1584 during the times of troubles; in 1918 as the result of the revolution and civil war; and in 1991 as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic and the South Caucasus and Central Asian states gained independence.
What the dissolution of the former Soviet Union made clear, a Russia in chaos is a nightmare. The Government was bankrupt, the protection of the nuclear arsenal was inadequate, which leads to the conclusion a weak Russia poses a far greater danger.
Nevertheless these experiences made during the 1990’s have caused bitterness and great resentment towards the west within the Russian national security establishment and increased Vladimir Putin’s popularity. As does the supposed underappreciation of Russia’s importance and exceptionalism, in the world often influenced by internal factors.
In order to comprehend Vladimir Putin is to look at Russia as a “theocratic nationalist autocracy” and at his favourited philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin who he chose as a guide, the only and most important fascist thinker, who since 2005 has known a remarkable revival in Russia.
Ilyin born in a noble family in 1883 became after the Bolshevik Revolution a contra revolutionary, advocating violent methods against the revolution. Exiled in 1922 he lived in Berlin until 1938 was impressed by Mussolini and Hitler and he started to regard fascism as of the politics of the years to come. In 1938 Ilyin moved to Switzerland where he died forgotten in 1954.
The fascism of the 1920’s and 1930’s as Timothy Snyder writes in his interesting book “The road to unfreedom” had three core features: it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy that creates these problems.
Ilyin expresses overblown visions of grandeur, while all of this is based on the devotion to the Orthodox faith and the influence of the Orthodox Church and the belief in Russian exceptionalism which as a autocracy is destined to have its own unique place in the world.
In fact like other fascists or authoritarians Ilyin saw Russia as a creature, “an organism of nature and the soul”, pure and innocent without original sins. He denied the existence of the Ukraine being able to exist beyond the Russian organism.
As Ilyin wrote “the time will come when Russia will rise with the help of Christian fascism from disintegration and humiliation and enter into a time of new development and greatness.” In this view Russia can do no wrong and is only reacting to the wrongs being done to the outside world. A world in which Russia saves the world not from fascism but wish fascism, a world in which facts do not matter and responsibility vanishes.
In 2005 Vladimir Putin organized a reburial in Moscow and Ilyin was fully rehabilitated and his fascist ideas are being used in speeches to explain the past and why Russia has to undermine the decadent west, the European Union and had to invade the Ukraine as being an element of Russia.
In this concept the European Union and Liberal order are seen by the present leadership, all men in their sixties who have all experienced the dramatic events surrounding the dissolution of the former Soviet Union as an existential threat to autocratic Russia, as the most lawless and unequal country in the world. The EU on the other hand enforces its laws, generates prosperity and distributes its wealth for members and people.
Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, 2007 was a harbinger of the things to come and the longing to return Russia to geopolitical relevance. This desire to return to Russian geopolitical relevance in fascist form is the basis for Vladimir Putin’s article of 4 October 2011 in the newspaper Izvestiya entitled ‘A New Integration Project for Eurasia: A Future which is Being Born Today’.
He announced that the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space being created by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan would be developed into a Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would join the three original members. He added: ‘We are not stopping at this point and place before ourselves the ambitious task: to go to the next, higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’ Since 2013 the principles of Eurasia have guided Russian foreign interests.
The end-product of Eurasia restoring Russian greatness requires the weakening and disintegration of the European Union in order to integrate Europe into the Eurasian Union, a Union without adherence to the rule of law or influence of the United States in Europe.
The other side of the equation is the struggle for global hegemony and for greater U.S. influence on the Eurasian Balkans, part of the Eurasian landmass. In this struggle Ukraine is only a pawn on the Eurasian chessboard a springboard for deeper expansion of democracy in the Eurasian Balkans for which Europe is its bridgehead.
In 2013 Russia turned against the liberal order and European Union, to create a fictitious problem, to distract and blaming the EU for its own failures, condemning it as decadent and hostile. This narrative about western hostility towards Russia has a long history whereby the Patriotic War of 1812, the Crimean War of 1853 and WWII also play a role, as seen as underappreciation of and denying Russian greatness, by not recognizing Russia as a great power.
Russia has through its history always had an adversarial relationship with Europe, but has also been known not to be adverse to react aggressively when its vital interests were threatened and to expand its territories when the opportunity presented itself.
The provocative invasion in Ukraine, the Crimea annexation and the intervention in Syria showed a rational and calculating approach rooted in the culture by exploiting the weaknesses of the “feel good” and “look so smart” Obama administration, when it became clear NATO would not intervene in the Ukraine to defend it or seek to defend its red lines in Syria.
For the invasion of Ukraine the same justification was invoked as previously during the 1930’s, which was based on the principle that the state might intervene to protect anyone that it defines as a member of its own culture. This is the same argument that Hitler used in annexing Austria, partitioning Czechoslovakia, and invading Poland in 1938
With the savage war in Ukraine, supported by Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church calling Vladimir Putin a “miracle of God” for Russia, the President, although a capable chess player and serious strategist, and his inner circle which all follow the Kremlin rules to avoid divergence of opinion with the Mandarin during the decision making process although they may have inner doubts, have made a grave strategic mistake which will leave Russia diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and internally divided.
Not unlike with the already aging Leonid Brezhnev, who had suffered several strokes before the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan (1978–92) when a small isolated Politburo subgroup made the decision: Ustinov, supported by Andropov and Gromyko, persuaded Brezhnev to strike, partly by saying “The Americans have done this over and over again in Latin America. What are we worse than they are them?” According to Eduard Shevardnadze, later to become President Gorbachev foreign minister, they both considered the invasion a fateful mistake.
Vladimir Putin, the autocrat who saved Russia from ruin and achieved popularity and respect in his first two terms also due to the involvement of his influential finance minister Alexei Kudrin, has returned to his former Chekist persona and has created an all controlling state, isolating himself and Russia of one half of the world. This is the nation Vladimir Putin will leave behind; poor, isolated, unfree, living hand to mouth; This is his legacy.
But like with all the elephants which have occupied the Kremlin, from Stalin to Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, when the times comes for Vladimir Vladimirovich to leave, someone else will have to clean up the mess after him.