Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Putin’s rise to power and his play for the world’s attention
At the end of the 1990s I was running a small intelligence shop and it seemed like at least once a month we had to recycle the Power Point slide we used to list the names of Russia’s senior ministers. The Prime Minister slot alone changed hands four times during Boris Yeltsin’s last 18 months as President.
I distinctly remember the August, 1999 update to that slide. Still at the top was “President = Boris Yeltsin,” the second line had been changed to read, “Prime Minister = Vladimir Putin.” We had no idea who Putin was. Given how fast things were changing I only reluctantly tasked someone to learn more about him, right after we placed bets on how long he would last.
We were right that Putin’s stint as PM would be brief, but not in the way we anticipated. While Yeltsin had rapidly dismissed Putin’s predecessors from the position — and from public life generally — just four months after Putin’s appointment, Yeltsin resigned. Putin became the Acting President.
Putin has now been President for most of the last 23 years, and Prime Minister for the rest of it. He and his close network of associates have profited enormously during this time, while the Russian people have enjoyed a less aggressive improvement in their circumstances. Still, Putin has pulled off a minor miracle for Russia. In the years that followed the Cold War, the great show that was the Soviet Union ground to a halt. Seven of the 15 Soviet states declined to join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia’s economy plummeted about 40% in a decade. Soldiers were sent to harvest potatoes in hopes that the farmers would pay the government for the labor (never mind that the soldiers had not been paid in months) and the military crumbled.
In spite of this spectacular fall from being a superpower, Russia has continued to exercise disproportional global influence. They are one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, giving them a veto. They forced their way onto the G7, a meeting of the world’s seven largest economies, in spite of the fact that Russia was not one of the world’s largest economies. (Russia’s economy would rank fourth if it were a US state.) They regularly occupy a lion’s share of headlines worldwide.
Putin has worked hard to secure Russia’s place as a major player on the world stage partly out of patriotism, but mostly because his wealth and power (which are considerable) rely upon it. In the service of that goal Putin does not need praise or affirmation from other nations, he just needs their attention. Freed of normal constraints, he can achieve his goals by annexing Crimea, encouraging international cyber-attacks, poisoning opposition leaders, interfering in foreign elections, generating and distributing voluminous amounts of false information, and amassing troops along the Ukrainian border.
It is important to know that Putin spent the end of the 1980s serving as a Colonel in the KGB in the East German city of Dresden. There he watched as hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled to Hungary, and demonstrations — some violent, some peaceful — lead to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It is no wonder Putin fears a Ukraine that cherishes its independence, envisions an open and democratic future, and aspires to join NATO. It represents everything that he is betting against.
The powerful example Ukraine can set would increase the prominence of NATO and underscore the dwindling nature of Russia’s relevance. Understanding that this is the reason Putin would go through the motions of an invasion in an effort to stall Ukraine’s NATO dreams helps us better understand what carrots and sticks are available to us. The world needs to use those carrots and sticks to make it clear that if Russia wants to participate in international trade and politics, it cannot interfere with the sovereignty of independent nations.