President Vladimir Putin has been at the helm of Russia continuously for more than two decades since 1999, when he was named Russian Prime Minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin. Within a year, he was elected President of Russia.
As his influence and control over his country increased and Russia gradually became a force to be reckoned with in world affairs under Putin’s leadership, a systematic campaign was launched in the West to assign various attributes to Putin. More often than not, these attributes are of a pejorative nature and oscillate between autocrat, dictator, aggressive narcissist, raging tyrant, ruthless demolisher of opponents, one who presided over the systematic dilution of democracy and institutions of governance, etc.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (February 24, 2022) created a favorable environment for Putin’s enemies to step up the anti-Putin campaign not only to portray him as a villain who would be a threat to peace, stability and international security, but also questioning his sanity and calling him “crazy”. None other than US President Biden very recently went so far as to call Putin a “butcher” and a “war criminal” who does not deserve to be in power.
To quote Amish Tripathi: “There is your truth and there is my truth. As for universal truth, it does not exist. So what is Putin’s “truth”?
The collection of interviews with Putin by Russian journalists published under the title “The First Person” in 2000 (soon after he became president) introduced Russia’s new president, describing Putin as a son, a schoolboy, a university student, a young intelligence specialist, spy, democrat, bureaucrat, father and politician.
Although there were no surprising revelations, some observations are interesting. For example, Putin was candid in admitting that he knew little about Stalin’s violent purges because he “was a pure and thoroughly successful product of Soviet patriotic education”.
He criticized Soviet leaders for the Cold War invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He says, “These are major mistakes. And the Russophobia we see today in Eastern Europe is the fruit of those mistakes.”
More than twenty years have passed since the first glimpses of Vladimir Putin were made public. It might be helpful to quickly skim through some of the key moments in Putin’s life and times from childhood to draw conclusions about his personality.
Putin was born in October 1952 in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), a city besieged during World War II. There is a broad consensus among historians, biographers and experts that Putin’s childhood was traumatic. Psychotherapist and author Joseph Burgo summed up in 2014: “Vladimir was born into this atmosphere of hunger, disability and deep grief.”
Putin recalls an interesting episode from his childhood in “The First Person”: “There were hordes of rats in the main entrance. My friends and I used to chase them away with sticks.” The rat hunt seems to have influenced his state of mind, as evidenced by his narration.
“Once I spotted a huge rat and chased it down the hallway until I pushed it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it turned around and ran away. was thrown at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. Luckily, I was a little faster and managed to slam the door in his face. There, on that stair landing. , I received a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered.
Was his military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and now the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 the result of feeling “cornered” by the expansion of the NATO to the east and the West’s attempts to isolate Russia/Putin through measures such as G-8 exclusion or weakening the Russian economy through unilateral sanctions and tarnishing its image?
The Americans have now redoubled their efforts to “corner” Putin. Will he back down or speed up his mission to achieve the declared goals in Ukraine: neutrality of Ukraine, control of the East
Ukraine and regime change in Ukraine if possible? The answer is most likely yes. Because he, at the end of the day, is a fighter who learned martial arts and excelled in judo as a child to fight off street bullies and hooligans in his neighborhood. Putin made an interesting observation in October 2015 to a Western journalist: “50 years ago the streets of Leningrad taught me one thing: if a fight is inevitable, strike first.
Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and that “he who does not regret the Soviet Union has no heart.” This statement by Putin reflects his nostalgia for the world power of which he was an officer in the powerful Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, for several years. But more importantly, he also publicly stated: “Whoever wants it back ‘Soviet Union) has no brains”.
Putin is therefore a realist who understands that it would be an impossible task to rebuild the disintegrated Soviet empire. Yet Putin remains obsessed with one idea, namely restoring Russia’s status as a global superpower that is not only listened to, but also respected and perhaps also feared. Ultimately, Russia defines the former Soviet space as its “near abroad,” considers it a natural Russian sphere of influence, and firmly opposes any encroachment, including NATO expansion. to the east.
Putin’s public views on the war with Chechnya also reflect his mindset. He once said: “I was convinced that if we didn’t stop the extremists right away, we would face a second Yugoslavia in the whole territory of the Russian Federation – the Yugoslavia of Russia.” In other words, if Putin cannot restore the USSR to its original form, he will not tolerate further fragmentation of the Russian Federation.
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Russia’s military campaigns in Syria were ostensibly aimed at countering ISIS, but it soon became apparent that the real objective was to defend President Assad’s government. So here you have Putin as a leader who is ready to reach out to protect a friend and an ally. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Even as interim president in 1999, Putin had expressed his desire for close cooperation with Europe and had not even ruled out the possibility of joining NATO. In the aftermath of 9/11, Putin had offered all possible assistance to the United States in its war on terrorism. It is now only a matter of speculation as to what the state of the global political and security situation would have been had the West reacted to Putin’s first move and dissolved NATO following the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent dissolution of the rival. WARSAW PACT and incorporated Russia into a new Euro-Atlantic security structure as an equal and respected member.
It is also a fact that, from the very beginning, Putin had begun to assert himself on issues which, in his opinion, were not right. He strongly opposed US President George Bush’s decision in 2001 to abandon the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty. Later in 2002-2003, Putin opposed US and British plans to use force to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. He always opposed NATO’s eastward expansion from the start. The annexation of Crimea in 2015 was Putin’s tough response or perhaps revenge for the Western-inspired pro-Russian regime change in Ukraine in 2015. And he did it by skillfully manipulating the incorporation of Ukraine’s strategically important Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation through a seemingly democratic referendum process.
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Putin’s soft side was revealed, but only once when the world saw him cry in public at the funeral of his mentor Anatoly Sobchak which lifted Putin – then a mid-ranking KGB officer – from obscurity and gave him his first job in politics. Since then, Putin seems to have toughened up at least to the extent that he does not publicly vent his emotions.
It is difficult to draw more than a pen picture of Putin’s personality. Nevertheless, it can be said with some certainty that Putin failed to earn the desired respect at home and abroad to call him a statesman.
He is, for sure, a strong nationalist who is committed to restoring the lost glory of the Russian Empire. He has the ability to survive against all odds. It has often refused to accept the West’s convenient interpretation of the basic tenets of the international code of conduct and is ready to retaliate whenever pushed to its limits regardless of cost and consequences. He’s a warrior, but for the American president to call him a war criminal is a bit of an overstatement, besides the fact that American presidents have many skeletons in their own closets.
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(Disclaimer: The views of the author do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. WION or ZMCL also does not endorse the views of the author)