Mr. Putin and the Art of the Offensive Defense: Observations on the Crisis in Ukraine and Crimea (Part One)

Editor's Note: In part one of her series on Vladimir Putin's thinking, Fiona Hill examines the building blocks of Putin's political and international thought. Also read Part 2 on Putin's attitudes on foreign policy, and Part 3 on the messages his Ukrainian play is sending to international actors.

To begin to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach to the current crisis in Ukraine, we have to start with an effort to understand the man himself. Vladimir Putin is a product of his environment—a man whose past experiences have informed his present outlook and world view. As Clifford Gaddy and I propose in our recent book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Putin is best understood as a composite of six multiple identities that stem from those experiences––the Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer. We argue that it is the combination of all these identities that made Putin an effective behind-the-scenes operator in Russian politics and helped propel him into the Kremlin in 1999-2000. These same identities are now at play as Putin deals with Ukraine and with the West’s response.

Putin’s broader experiences and world view are not unique in a Russian context. Three of the identities we discuss in the book, Statist, History Man, and Survivalist, are those of a classic Russian conservative, whose views have deep roots that can be traced through several centuries of Russian political thought.  This is why Putin’s actions in Ukraine are broadly popular in Russia—among both the “patriotic elites” and the general public––and have resulted, in February-March 2014, in a significant surge in his approval ratings.

Understanding Putin:

A quick review of the identities Clifford Gaddy and I discuss in our book provides more of a context for current developments in Ukraine.

First, the Statist: Putin was selected as the successor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1999, against the backdrop of a consensus among the Russian political elite about the importance of restoring order to the Russian state after a decade of domestic crisis and international humiliation in the 1990s. Putin used one of his first major political statements—his so-called “Millennium Message” of December 29, 1999—to present himself as a statist. From his earliest days in the Kremlin, Putin has promoted the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, stressing communitarianism over Western individualism. He has drawn direct links between the modern Russian presidency and the pre-Revolutionary Russian tsars, and indulged in official bouts of Soviet nostalgia. His conservative agenda is an amalgam of traditional “Russianness,” embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church, and highlights of the Soviet era—from the national anthem to the victory of World War II, to sporting and cultural achievements.

In sum, Putin has pursued the goal of restoring and strengthening the state, by rediscovering and taking back Russia’s fundamental values, and re-energizing its historical traditions. As Putin presents it, Russia is a unique “civilizational pole,” distinct from the West, with a conservative social and political base rooted in a history.  Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has put Ukraine at the beginning and the center of his narrative. Ukraine is Kievan Rus’, the birthplace of the Russian state, and Ukrainians and Russians are one, single, united people, not just fraternal peoples.

This leads us to the second identity, the History Man: In official biographical materials, Putin portrays himself as a “student” of Russian history. As president, he has tied his personal destiny to that of the Russian state. He has actively used his own interpretations of the country’s past to reinforce his policy positions, frame current events, and cloak himself in the mantle of historical legitimacy. For example, Putin has frequently highlighted parallels with Pyotr Stolypin—prime minister under Nicholas II, the last tsar of the Romanov dynasty—who championed far-reaching economic and social reforms. Putin selected the 100th anniversary of Stolypin’s death in 1911 to announce his intention to return to the presidency after four years of serving as Russian prime minister.

History is a political tool for Putin. It is also very personal. His parents were survivors of the siege of Leningrad in the 1940s and lost a son, Putin’s older brother, during their ordeal. His family’s harrowing tale from World War II fits neatly into Russia’s national historical narrative––where Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. Every calamity and great sacrifice reaffirms Russia’s resilience and its special status in history. WWII and the tale of Russia’s survival against all the odds is a constant rhetorical touchstone for Putin, as well as for others from his generation.  Putin rarely misses an opportunity to stress his personal connections to the siege of Leningrad and the national narrative of Russia’s “Great Patriotic War."

This leads us to the third identity, the Survivalist: The collective experience of Russia’s long, dark history has turned the Russian population into survivalists––people who constantly think of and prepare for the worst. Throughout his presidency, Putin has raised survivalism from the personal to the national level. Putin concluded that the colossal debts his predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, racked-up over two decades undermined the sovereignty of the USSR. They made the fledgling Russian state beholden to the IMF, the World Bank and the United States in the 1990s in times of crisis. Putin made it a priority to get rid of them. He also created massive national financial and material reserves—everything from oil, gas, and refined petroleum products, to livestock feed, military uniforms, tents, medications, and generators—so that Russia would have the resources to withstand any natural disaster, war, or future economic crisis. In Putin’s view, for Russia to survive as a sovereign state, fend off Western pressure, and regain control of its own destiny, the state had to pay off its debts and build up reserves. 

These three identities we describe in the book help explain Putin’s goals and how he sets priorities for Russian domestic and foreign policy.  The next set of three identities help explain Putin’s methods for achieving his goals and priorities. They tell us more about Putin, the man.

First, the Outsider: Putin has cultivated an image of himself as an outsider since he was a young man. He was born and raised in Russia’s second city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the child of a factory worker and sometime janitor, with earlier humble roots in Russia’s Ryazan province. In many respects, Putin was even an outsider within the KGB. He was recruited into the institution in the 1970s as part of an effort by KGB Director Yury Andropov to bring in a new generation of operatives from outside normal channels. Putin did not rise rapidly through the ranks of the KGB, nor did he secure plum postings. Putin was also never part of the leadership structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

He remained an outsider throughout the 1980s. During the critical reform period of perestroika, the KGB posted Putin to the provincial city of Dresden in East Germany.

Putin has made a virtue of this outsider status throughout his presidency, stressing his connections to “ordinary” Russians and distancing himself from Moscow’s resented elites.  But one key point to bear in mind is that, by being posted in Dresden by the KGB from 1985-1990, Putin also missed the most revolutionary and pluralistic political period of perestroika, and the high points of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.  Instead, while he was in Dresden, Putin watched East Germany implode as a result of a struggle between would-be East German reformers and the hardline regime of Eric Honnecker.

Putin witnessed protests and street violence and developed (as he himself has admitted) a very negative view of the consequences of the rise of political opposition movements. He saw, at first hand, their ability to bring down governments and destroy states. When he looks at the developments in Ukraine and the protests on Kyiv’s Maidan Square, he looks at them through the lens of his experience in Dresden and East Germany.  Moreover, when Putin came back to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he also found the USSR in its death throes. The Soviet Union had lost its dominant position in Eastern Europe and was about to lose its own statehood as a result of the same political and economic forces that pulled East Germany apart.  This, as Putin stressed back in 2005, was for him one of the great catastrophes of the 20th Century.  As a result, Putin has a very dark assessment of perestroika. He reacted very negatively to the revival of some of its core ideas in political debates and policies during the presidency of his long-time colleague Dmitry Medvedev, who came of age in Leningrad and graduated from university in that very period when Putin was in Dresden.

After his tenure as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, Putin was specifically brought to Moscow as an outsider in the summer of 1996. He was brought in as a member of the team of liberal reformers, then headed by Anatoly Chubais, to help root out entrenched interests in Moscow’s political circles and, eventually, to rein in and harness Russia’s oligarchs—the new businessmen who had acquired the most important parts of Russia’s former state energy and industrial sectors during the Yeltsin-era privatization campaign.

This leads us the second of Putin’s more personal identities, the Free Marketeer: Putin’s outsider status and his pragmatism enabled him to reject two of the central tenets of Communism: state ownership and central planning. History taught him that the Soviet economic system failed. Private property, free enterprise, and the market were superior. But Putin’s understanding of capitalism was limited. The business practices he was exposed to during his time as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg were focused on personal connections to the city government, as well as exploiting vulnerabilities and loopholes created by the collapse of the Soviet economy in the 1990s. This helps to explain why Putin is quick to use economic and trade levers in domestic and foreign policy disputes––deploying tax inspectors against domestic opposition figures and dragging them into court to answer accusations of economic crimes; turning off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and again in 2009; and imposing import bans against Ukrainian chocolate in 2013 (along with Georgian and Moldovan wine and a whole raft of European and US products at other junctures). During his time as deputy mayor, Putin came to see the free market as a tool, an instrument, as well as a source of new opportunity.

The final identity, and one of the most important, is the Case Officer:  Putin was initially encouraged to take up the position of deputy mayor in St. Petersburg by the KGB. After the collapse of the USSR, the local KGB began targeting the city’s new private businessmen and the foreign investors, who were flocking into St. Petersburg in pursuit of new ventures.  The KGB wanted to get a handle on what all these businesses were up to. As deputy mayor, Putin’s job was to monitor and “manage” St. Petersburg’s businessmen, to ensure that all the businesses, domestic and foreign, delivered on their promises to the city government. He collected compromising financial and personal information and leveraged it against them.

When Putin came to Moscow in 1996, he used these same textbook KGB tactics against corrupt bureaucrats, regional governors, and eventually the Russian oligarchs, who were fighting with each other over assets and predating on the Russian state. Through coercion, blackmail, and manipulation Putin got them under control and created a system of private enterprise with strings attached. The property rights of Russia’s business magnates were ultimately dependent on the goodwill of the Kremlin.

If the six identities of the book are applied to understand Putin’s approach to foreign policy, his main goal is that of the Statist.  Putin wants to restore and preserve a Russia as a great power and world civilization. He wants Russia to be able to protect itself against all external threats.  Putin is also the Survivalist who prepares himself to deploy all the reserves necessary to protect the state. And, most importantly, Putin is the Case Officer when it comes to his methods. Vladimir Putin’s approach to statecraft is shaped by his experience in the KGB––an institution that operated beyond the scrutiny of the public and without fear of laws or constraints in dealing with its opponents. Putin is prepared to do whatever it takes to reach his goals. His training in the KGB was shaped by the zero sum calculus of the Cold War, in which a win by the adversary meant a loss for the KGB and the Soviet Union. 

  Part II —
Approaches to Foreign Policy »