Putin’s power paradox
This column is the second of three about the greatest dangers facing Presidents Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Each of these dangers, perhaps surprisingly to the reader, arises at home.
The first column argued that Xi has done a “Reverse Gorbachev” that could prove his undoing. Mikhail Gorbachev inadvertently ended the Soviet Union by opening it up through perestroika and glasnost. Xi is now shutting China down and killing off the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit unleashed under Deng Xiaoping.
The final column will argue that the greatest danger facing President Biden is a broken American society. Vladimir Putin is today’s focus. Putin has unintentionally followed the lead of Xi. But instead of imposing a “Reverse Gorbachev,” Putin has recreated the Soviet style of governing and controlling society without – and this is the fatal flaw that may do him in – the accompanying apparatus, party infrastructure and ideology to legitimize, enforce and ensure his leadership.
Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev relied on the party structure, ideology and dreaded secret police to maintain power over the Russian people and the Soviet Union. The Communist Party controlled the cadres that in turn controlled the masses. Ideology legitimized power and the virtue of sacrifice to achieve a classless society in which all citizens were equal. And where the party failed, the NKVD, KGB or SVR interceded.
Surveillance was crucial. Citizens were required to ensure the loyalty of fellow comrades to the state and to the party. But, as Gorbachev learned, central control created brittleness, inflexibility and avoidance of fact and truth not to reveal the true weaknesses of the state.
When the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, so did the Communist Party and Marxism-Leninism. The newly-formed and vastly smaller Russian Federation had to grapple with imposing a new and foreign political system that entailed some form of democracy, unseen in Russia since the Kerensky government failed in 1917.
When Putin became acting president on New Year’s Day 2000, as with all other Russians, he had no experience in democracy. Although born seven years after World War II, that war affected him immensely. And Putin’s upbringing in the KGB was not exactly the best schooling for a would-be future democrat.
In my book “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD,” I carefully record Putin’s evolution over the past two decades, from his millennium speech to his tirade on Ukraine. It is clear that Putin initially wanted to work with the West and establish a new Russia free from ideology, recognizing the faults of the old Soviet structure and the worst geopolitical disaster of that century in which the Russian peoples were broken apart. Yet, those goals became illusive and then impossible to fulfill without a dramatic change in governing.
Fairly or unfairly, Putin laid out his grievances with the West beginning in 2001 with the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been the strategic foundation for superpower stability, and ending with the cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Open Skies Agreement under the Trump administration. The Afghan and later the second Iraq War convinced Putin he could no longer trust the judgment of U.S. presidents. NATO expansion was perhaps the breaking point.
At the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, as a throwaway line, George W. Bush promised NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine. That marked the point of no return for Putin.
Later that year, he provoked Georgia to respond to an attack and used the pretext to occupy South Ossetia. In 2014, when Ukraine appeared headed for EU or NATO membership, Putin sent little “green men” to control Crimea.
At home, Putin became convinced that more, not less, authoritarianism was essential if Russia was to be considered a great power with global status beyond its arsenal of nuclear weapons and vast energy deposits. That meant eliminating rivals at all levels and through all means. Hence, today, while president in title, Putin is commissar or tsar but without the party and other apparatus or ideology to ensure his reign.
At 70 years old, Putin may have many years to rule. But no successor is apparent. According to most polls, he is still popular, certainly by American standards. Yet, as the war in Ukraine continues to bleed Russia of men and treasure, that popularity is unsustainable.
As the USSR imploded, at some stage, Putin’s regime will become unstable. Of many contingencies, not only is the West least prepared for this one, so is Russia. And therein rests the danger.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.