February 5, 2013
By: Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy
Vladimir Putin has been the president or the prime minister of Russia for over 12 years. By now, many would think they are familiar with who this person is and yet he's still a mystery. This is appropriate for a man who observers variously have said has no face, no substance, and no soul. He is, they say, "a man from nowhere" - a man who can appear to be anybody to anyone.
Mr. Putin's penchant for dramatic public appearances is well known. The images that Putin's public relations team has orchestrated range from big game hunter to scuba diver to biker, even night club crooner. It is reminiscent of the old British children's book and cartoon character, Mr. Benn, who magically takes on different disguises, has an adventure and then returns to reality.
The smoke and mirrors aside, there are, in fact, several real Putins. Understanding his multidimensional nature is and should be important for U.S. and other policymakers trying to decide how to approach and interact with him. Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin divides Putin's personality into six facets. Click around each segment to learn more about the many dimensions of Putin.
Much like his main function in the KGB, Putin is a collector of compromising information and keeper of secrets. Though his tough guy image claims otherwise, Putin wasn't a hard-nosed KGB thug. He was a case officer, and his skill was "rabota s lyud'mi" (working with people).
In the chaos that reigned after the fall of the USSR, Putin saw the rise of the oligarchs and rapacious governors as catastrophic and destructive to the State - they were dismantling it for their own gain. To Putin, these men and women were like enemy agents operating on your territory. How did he deal with them? He recruited them. He understood the principle of John Masterman's "Double-Cross System": don't destroy your enemies; harness them, control them, manipulate them, and use them for your own goals.
While Putin worked in St. Petersburg, he amassed a vast wealth of information on who was doing what, with whom, and to whom and was very successful in using that knowledge to further his and his friends' causes. When he came to Moscow in 1996, he was brought in precisely to keep tabs on who was getting what from the vast assets of the Kremlin. Information about misdeeds or information about crimes that may have been committed is the most powerful tool one could have.
Putin is a gosudarstvennik, a man who believes that Russia must be a strong state and have a strong state apparatus. In December 1999, then-Prime Minister Putin wrote and published what came to be known as the Millennium Message, his personal mission statement for saving the Russian State, the gosudarstvo.
In the manifesto, Putin wrote that, since the fall of communism, more Russians exercised individual rights like freedom of expression and freedom to travel. These rights were fine, but they weren't "Russian" and they wouldn't be enough to ensure Russia's survival. It is, he argued, the Russian values of patriotism, solidarity, and the belief that Russia's destiny is to be a great global power that would protect and ensure the state's prosperous future. The individual and society are, and must be, subordinate to the State and its interests. The State does not serve the individual, but the individual serves the State. Many of Putin's actions and decisions taken as leader support his personal mission to strengthen the State.
Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of Mr. Putin is that he is an advocate and strong supporter of capitalism -- but with his own interpretation. Unlike many men of his generation, he does not strive for a return to the Soviet system of central planning and state ownership or some form of quasi-communism.
When Putin attended the KGB Higher School in Moscow in 1985, the KGB was furiously engaged in an effort to save the Soviet system by searching for a new economic model that would include elements of capitalism. Unlike most of his fellow Soviet citizens, Putin studied and had access to Western texts on economics and management. It became clear to him that communism was flaws.
But Putin faced a specifically Russian dilemma: How can you have private ownership in an "inverted funnel" economy and still guarantee State interests? The Soviets couldn't resolve it. Stalin opted only for control. Later leaders made attempts to reconcile efficiency and control. Putin found an answer by drawing upon one of his other personalities: that of the case officer.
Given their long history of war and privation, a focus on survival may be the mentality that is the most widespread of all among Russians of nearly all backgrounds and ages. But Putin's life experiences have made him extraordinarily focused on survival. His father and mother lived through the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II, in which over a million people (including the Putin's first son) died of starvation and disease. His involvement in St. Petersburg's 1991 food shortage only strengthened his impulses to prepare for the worst.
Putin has been obsessed with avoiding and coping with worst-case scenarios. He was influenced by an American textbook on corporate management that he likely read while at the KGB Academy. That book defined the essence of true "strategic" planning as "planning for contingencies," for the unexpected.
Putin has implemented this worst-case-scenario, survivalist idea on a national scale. The key is his emphasis on reserves. He built up Russia's financial reserves, reduced its debt, and reduced exposure to the global economy. He also built massive material reserves in the form of Russia's super-secret "State Reserves," managed by a former KGB colleague.
All St. Petersburgers are by definition outsiders to the center of power that resides in Moscow. Putin was an outsider to the privileged circles of the KGB. Unlike most other Soviet citizens, Putin did not experience perestroika -- he stationed in Dresden, Germany. He was brought into Moscow by politician Anatoly Chubais as outsider. He was not a "Golden Boy."
Putin cultivated this reality to his benefit. The outsider can be pragmatic; he has no vested interest in current policies. In a system so burdened by ideology, only an outsider could clearly see the flaws of the Soviet system. This is what allowed Putin to abandon the strongest element of communist ideology, the myth of state ownership and central planning. He could admit that the principles of free enterprise and private property were superior. Later, as Russia began to redesign herself, Putin and his circle of friends were based in St. Petersburg – a perch from which they could observe and critique Moscow's moves. Those observations would later inform Putin's decisions as Russian Head of State.
In Putin's Millennium Message, he said that Russia should find its path forward by looking back to its past. As he has progressed in his political career, Putin has constantly cited historical themes, thus making himself a protagonist in Russian history.
When Putin decided to return to the Russian presidency in 2011, he said it was because he wanted to see the process of restoring the Russian State to its full conclusion. He sees himself as the only person who can guarantee that this will be completed. Mr. Putin becomes the History Man; he becomes the standard-bearer of centuries of Russian attempts to reform the state, to put the Russian state on a firm footing, to give the Russian state the greatness that he believes that it should have.
Each of the identities and the outlooks they represent have been important components of Putin's strength as a leader and ruler. They explain how he succeeded in coming to power and why he defined his tasks as he did. But they are also key to explaining his vulnerabilities.
These personalities are often in conflict with one another. Putin the Survivalist is in conflict with Putin the Free Marketeer: policies oriented towards survival and security are costly and inefficient. Putin the Case Officer is also in conflict with Putin the Free Marketeer: the Case Officer controls the businessmen through a protection racket. He manipulates them, and he constrains them. Because of the constraints, they cannot be truly free entrepreneurs.
These personalities may hinder Mr. Putin's political future. Many Russians want a modern government, and parts of Putin's personalities do not or cannot allow him to do that. After more than a decade in positions of political power, it is hard to reinvent one's self. But not all is lost for Putin. He is equipped with the pragmatism of an Outsider, the skill of a Case Officer, and a changed, enlightened view of what it means to be a Statist, these personalities could provide Putin the next steps to leading a modern Russia without compromising his personal mission.
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