Index: Putin with a Thousand Faces
KGB functionary, second banana, president, nationalist, dictator, strongman, mobster, murderer, conqueror, Botox enthusiast, war criminal, world pariah.
Terrorists demand our attention. That is ultimately the purpose of hijacking airplanes, taking hostages, blowing up nightclubs, and, in the case of Vladimir Putin, bombing cities of poets in neighboring countries during an illegal invasion. Now the world’s attention is focused on Russia, and on the homicidal twerp who rules the land of the tsars with an iron fist—but, you know, from the other side of a comically long table.
Putin came to power through violence and deceit, consolidated power through violence and deceit, wreaked havoc on the West and on Russia’s neighboring nations through violence and deceit. He is a combination of Romanov excess and Stalinist cruelty—one of the worst leaders his country has ever had (and they’ve had plenty of bad ones).
Is Ukraine Putin’s death rattle? That is the purpose of the economy- and society-destroying sanctions, to be sure: to cause so much unrest and dissent in Russia that its own people bring about regime change.
Ideally, that is how this ends: with Putin removed from power, dead or alive (and preferably the former).
The Russian strongman is reportedly tormented by Gaddafi’s final hours. He does not want to die that horribly: sodomized by a broom handle and hacked into bits in a public place. But historically, this is what happens to tyrants like Putin, who are the focus of so much righteous anger and hatred. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes in her book Strongmen, it always ends badly for the despot: “The authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure. . . . Nothing prepares the ruler to see his propaganda ignored and his charismatic hold weaken until he loses control of the nation and is hunted by his own people, as happened to Mussolini and Gaddafi.”
Sic semper tyrannis.
As we wait for the Russians to end the 22-year reign of their current malevolent ruler—with a few exceptions, they’ve suffered under some iniquitous autocrat or other since Ivan the Terrible became the first tsar in 1547—I thought I’d dig into the PREVAIL archive for writing on Putin and Russia.
Most of what follows was written by PREVAIL contributor Moscow Never Sleeps in 2020-21. He spent a decade living and working in Russia in the late Yeltsin/early Putin years:
Putin the Nationalist
This is by Moscow Never Sleeps:
Vladimir Putin’s strength and longevity as a ruler comes from the fact that over the two decades he has run Russia, he has developed three distinct but complementary identities, all of which are role models for Donald John Trump: the macho nationalist protector, the corrupt but successful businessman, and the ruthless capo di tutti capi of a global syndicated crime empire. Today we will discuss Putin, the patriot.
I was working in Russia for a couple years before Vladimir Putin became a household name. Boris Yeltsin picked him seemingly out of nowhere, a few months before the 1998 financial crisis, to run the FSB—the rough equivalent of our FBI. Nobody noticed him much at first, partially because he was painted as a colorless bureaucrat of the old Soviet mold, and partially because in 1998, the biggest stories in Russia were the systemic collapse of the domestic economy and Russia’s global impotence in the face of American/NATO involvement in the Serbian conflict. Neither of these were FSB turf. So for the first six months or so, Putin’s public profile was of a monotonous, if slightly youthful, myrmidon from the St. Petersburg mafiya (a term used in modern Russian as much to describe city political machines as declared criminal groups) jumped up to federal service. Everyone knew his pedigree (former low-level KGB operative, law degree, positions in post-Soviet St. Petersburg city government of Aleksandr Sobchak), which was remarkable only for its unremarkability. Within Yeltsin’s administration Putin was, as he had every intention of being, the perfect cipher. Someone to be feared if you fell into Yeltsin’s cross-hairs, but not to be worried about otherwise.
Then, in late summer 1999, Yeltsin elevated Putin to the position of Prime Minister. Again, little notice was taken. Boris Yeltsin had a propensity to fire his top subordinates whenever he needed someone to take the blame for something, which was often. Also, under Yeltsin, the position of Prime Minister had little actual power or portfolio, such that Russia watchers inside and outside the country considered Putin to be yet another in a long line of barely competent technocrats whom Boris Nikolayevich would scapegoat in a few months and replace with a similarly unqualified automaton.
We were all wrong.
I will leave for another day the question of how and why Putin got moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1998, and by whom. As interesting as that is, what is more immediately relevant when discussing Putin’s effect on Donald Trump and American politics is the depth with which Vladimir Vladimirovich perceives his role in Russian history, how he projects that image to his people, and how deeply and clearly Putin’s Great Russian chauvinism resonates in Trump’s own troglodytic hypothalamus.
Here’s Russian history in a sentence: Russia constantly believes herself under existential threat from her rivals, her neighbors, her own subjugated peoples, especially when these make common cause against her, and makes every choice accordingly. In no particular order, Russian history records invasions and occupations by Varangians, Livonians, Mongols, the Hanseatic League, Poles, German speakers from Teutons to Nazis, Turks, and Napoleon. They even remain in a technical state of war with Japan since the Second World War because a peace treaty would require that they surrender claims to a set of islands nobody lives on. The border control service for the largest country on earth uses a motto ending: We will not surrender an inch.
Europeans almost get this about their huge half-brother to the East, because since Julius Caesar was in town they too have shed regular blood to defend their sovereignty. There are currently about 45 nation-states that are located somewhere on the European continent or floating nearby it. While a lot of them are far too stupid to consider themselves in outright opposition to Russia (I’m looking at you, Italy), Russia’s Tsar Alexander III put it best when he said, “Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy.” (The exception that proves the rule is Serbia, who loves Russia the way a one-eyed pitbull loves its master, not realizing that its master doesn't love it back; its master just figures the poor son of a bitch is good for one more dogfight.)
Americans, on the other hand, are totally clueless about how viscerally Russians treat territorial security as a question of survival, because in our five centuries of history on this continent, the United States and its colonial predecessors never really fought to survive as a people. . . . We have even told ourselves that every war we fight halfway around the world is with the goal of protecting our way of life (as if Ho Chi Minh or Saddam Hussein were a direct threat to our ability to enjoy color television, birth control, and Happy Meals), but that’s not the same thing as protecting our very existence as a people. As Walter Sobchak would say, we have no frame of reference for Russian xenophobia and paranoia about the threat of the Others.
At some point as he was being groomed for the throne, Putin remarked, in one of his rare public pronouncements, that “the disintegration of the Soviet Union will go down in history as one of the greatest tragedies of the Twentieth Century.” To Westerners, that was heard as nostalgia for Bolshevism and the camps. To us, the demise of the Soviet Union was a victory for liberal democracy and “the end of history.” But to Russians, Putin’s lament was primarily geopolitical.
Look at a map of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics and the Warsaw Pact states drawn from any point during the Cold War, and it is immediately geographically obvious what every Russian sees: Except for a tiny piece of Norway and a few hundred miles of neutralized Finland, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was separated from its historical antagonists to the west and south by a dual layer of (a) brother Soviet republics such as what are now Belarus or Georgia and (b) either water, mountain ranges, or an occupied military ally. Her long-dreamt-of national security through occupied buffer zones, which took from Prince Oleg to Marshall Stalin to perfect, allowed the Russians of Putin’s generation to enjoy a standard of living, development, and worldwide prestige that was unthinkable a few decades earlier.
And in less than ten years, that was completely lost. In 1992, when Yeltsin as the head of the RSFSR and the heads of the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics signed the Belovezha Accords, disintegrating the Soviet Union from below, and then agreed (per pressure from the West) to pull all nuclear and conventional forces back into Russia, Russia’s internal buffer was erased. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union as its keystone member, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and within a decade, most of the former Eastern block countries had lined up to join the EU and/or NATO. Even the component states of Yugoslavia, previously ruled by Serbia (the only country in the world that was legitimately fond of Russia, as discussed), had left the Russian orbit. By 2000, when Putin became President, Russia’s second layer of defense against Europe was gone as well. However peaceful and cooperative late 20th century Europe might be, Russia’s historically literate paranoia won’t let her rely on the good intentions of her neighbors for her safety. On the modern map, she is more exposed to attack from her traditional enemies than at any time since Ivan the Terrible.
Any Russian with even a third-grader’s grasp of modern history could tell you whose fault all of that was. There was only one country on earth with the military, diplomatic, and economic power to surround Russia, bankrupt her in an arms race, fund her former allies into new alliances, and buttress the Europeans enough to preserve their political will in opposition to the Bear. There was only one country on earth with the arrogance to do all of those things while at the same time annoying you with lectures on your internal politics and humiliating you with lines of credit it organized for you through the world’s major financial institutions. And there was only one country on earth that didn’t even realize or care how much you feared and hated them because it never occurred to them that you didn’t love them for pantsing you at Risk in less time it took your parents back home in Ulyanovsk to get their first washing machine delivered.
Because, once upon a time, the United States of America was a world power with cadres of Russia hands that studied their principal geopolitical adversary and formulated policy proposals, and had elected officials and other policymakers who viewed the relationship between our country and the world through compound historical and political lenses, and made complex and difficult choices based on a multivariable calculus of outcomes. Or as Vladimir Putin—who had been raised his whole life to consider the Americans the #1 threat to the Soviet Union—would put it, the pindosy stripped him and his country of their birthright. And on a gut level, his people would agree with him.
Which handed him the opportunity to be their savior, their national champion. And he has played that role deftly.
Putin the Plunder Tsar
This is by Moscow Never Sleeps:
In August 1998, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of the most important commodity on the planet had approximately $5 billion in hard currency reserves against a foreign hard currency debt of several multiples of that amount. In other words, the Russian state had not much more cash on hand than Steve Mnuchin’s shiksa is going to get in the divorce, and it had debts that would make even Deutsche Bank think twice before lending. It got there because while everyone— the oilmen, the bankers, the locals, the expats, the Party, the spooks, the mafia, the international financial institutions, Bill and Hillary, etc.—was busy stealing wealth from the Russian people, the government was too lazy, distracted, or compromised to steal any of it back. Russia had become a plutocracy.
And here is where Putin comes in. To those of us who lived there at the time, the Little Colonel seemed to appear out of nowhere, transferred from running the municipal property management division of the St. Petersburg city government to a similar but much larger function for the federal President—then running the FSB—then named as Prime Minister—and then, suddenly, on New Year’s Day 2000, Acting President. Less than two years had passed since Dobby-in-Epaulets appeared in Moscow, and the public persona he projected was one of a colorless, competent technocrat, unconcerned with personal aggrandizement. As he took on the role of President—he was formally elected, without serious opposition, twenty-one springs ago—he made it clear that his role was to rebuild the country’s wealth so that its natural resources, if not nationalized, would be rationalized. Foreign investors would be treated, he promised (as Lenin had promised 80 years earlier), with equal opportunity economically and equal standing legally. Russia would no longer be run politically by its oligarchs (his word; you already know mine), but they would be allowed to keep the assets they had acquired (“to use the charitable term for what we all know they did” he would sometimes add). And corruption, of course, would not be tolerated in the modern, democratic, capitalist Russia.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
It looked good for maybe a year or two. He sidelined most of Yeltsin’s Family, his inner circle of cronies—Chernomyrdin, Mikhail “Two Percent Misha” Kasyanov (another Prime Minister whose nickname came from his supposed cut of every deal he authorized), even Yeltsin’s daughter (think Ivanka, only smart)—for a while. Then he started to put his own people in: Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev, other hard men from his KGB and FSB days. He chased one or two of the weaker and more political oligarchs like Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky (both of whom were media magnates) into exile and put Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail, but he dealt magnanimously with richer and more politic oligarchs like Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Potanin, and Roman Abramovich. As a result, Putin quickly tamed the press, the oligarchs, and the country.
And, of course, he got his taste. Yeltsin’s Russia had struggled to survive on oil that rarely cracked twenty bucks a barrel for most of his term. The same cheap oil that fueled a painless Clinton recovery from the first Bush recession condemned a country with the second-largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons on Earth to beg the IMF for ten billion dollar lines of credit. But Putin got lucky, and the price of oil skyrocketed for the next eight years, quadrupling from about $25/bbl the day he took office to a high of nearly $100 when the 2008 crisis hit.
By the end of his first term in office, Putin had paid off Russia’s foreign debt and built a budget surplus, and the value of the currency was naturally stabilized against the dollar. As with Yeltsin, every major natural resource deal—oil, gas, gold, platinum group metals, diamonds, etc.—went across Putin’s desk for approval. And just as with Yeltsin, two percent might be what Prime Minister Misha got, but the President? Oh, that’s REALLY going to cost you, rodnoy...
So here we are a generation later. Putin is still in power and there are no signs he has any intentions of leaving. A few things have changed about him: he gets nenaturalny doses of Botox, he’s gotten divorced, he doesn’t take his shirt off as often for calendar beefcake, and he seems to have forgotten all the German they taught him in the KGB. He lives in palaces that would make a Bond villain whimper in impotent envy. Because after twenty years of skimming double-digit percentages off of one of the world’s largest commodity exporters, nobody on this planet has more personal money than Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Even Crown Princes have to share with the rest of the House, but Putin is a Dynasty of One.
This is by Moscow Never Sleeps:
For 20 years, Vladimir Putin’s perceived insults to the United States and its allies have been carefully measured responses to what are perceived transgressions against Russia or the Soviet Union (the two are the same thing in Putin’s mind). They are intended to settle scores, certainly, but not to invite a counterattack that risks a snowballing conflict. Our reactions need to be measured accordingly. We can choose to match or to escalate. We cannot choose to ignore. . . .
As previously discussed, the Russians are no strangers to conspiracy theories, and their national narrative going back a thousand years breaks down essentially to: “We were just trying to peacefully stomp on some little guys when a larger guy came and aggressively stomped on us, the bastard.” If that is your worldview, then you are uniquely qualified to measure the effect of the stomping you received and craft an equal and proportionate response. The last 20 years of Putin’s Russia have been about responding symmetrically to almost 40 years of American insults, even if on a long time delay.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first: the patricide of his Motherland. Before he was President, before he was Prime Minister, back when he was simply the top Russian security official in another man’s administration, one of Putin’s first pronouncements was that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth Century. This is the same timespan that gave us genocide, the atomic bomb, and polyester spandex clothing, but in a Russocentric universe, losing the other 14 buffer states and its outer penumbra of Central European satellites negated the apotheosis of a millennium of Russian history. The man legally responsible for the official disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was Boris Yeltsin, who signed the Belovezha Accords with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus and presented the fiat to Gorbachev like Larry and his two brothers named Darryl presenting an eviction notice to Dick Loudon. So when Putin—who worked for Yeltsin when he said it—felt free to mourn the breakup, he did so knowing that Russians did not blame Yeltsin, or even Gorbachev, for the death of their beloved country.
Like good xenophobic patriots, they lay that accusation directly at our feet. And they are probably right. In the 1980s, we broke the Bear’s back financially and materially. Reagan’s arms race is still the greatest game of poker ever played. Dutch realized he did not have to have better cards, he just had to borrow all of our grandchildren’s inheritance and spend it to buy all the chips in the house, and Mishka Kosolapy would eventually fold because he could not afford to call. By the time Bush 41 was elected, Gorbachev’s pot had been splashed harder than the only hydrant at a dog park. The General Secretary was faced with a tough choice: maintain the expense of occupying the Warsaw Pact countries and of prosecuting the Afghanistan war but be unable to maintain even basic goods and services at home, or stanch the bleeding and concentrate resources on maintaining the standard of living in the Union.
As far as every Russian from Putin on down is concerned, Gorbachev made the wrong choice. By refusing to choke out rebellions in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany in the late 1980s, Mikhail Sergeevich gave the green light to widespread civil demonstrations in the Baltics, on Soviet turf. By the time Gorbachev opened fire on protesters in Vilnius (Lithuanian for “Portland”) in January 1991, it was too late: all three of the countries were irreversibly headed towards secession. This was one of the reasons for the August 1991 coup in the USSR, plotted and carried out by men who may have lacked Putin’s patience and planning skills but who were certainly simpatico with his value system: they feared that as soon as the hold on the Baltics was loosened, the rest of the republics would demand their own sovereignty. The putschists may have been troglodytes, but they knew the rules of their zoo: Gorbachev had barely shaved and changed into a new suit after being released from detention before Lithuania issued its declaration of independence, and Latvia and Estonia were not far behind. Within six months, the Soviet Union was no more.
Putin, and the people who put him where he is today, is getting his revenge—or to use the more academic term, “responding proportionately”—to this systemic disintegration of their homeland. In Russian security theory, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were necessary counterweights to NATO, the EU, and of course the US. If these structural buffers dissolved, then America and its Western Allies by definition become existential threats to Russia. Even if it has taken them two decades in power, the Putinistas (the variant term “Putinoid” sounds too much like a Devo song or the Domino’s commercial) have effectively and proportionately responded.
Soviets in Afghanistan
This is by Moscow Never Sleeps:
Americans do not fully appreciate what Afghanistan did to the mystique of Soviet invincibility. During the brief period of hugging and vodka toasts to peace and friendship with that ubiquitous Scorpions song in the background that was US-Soviet relations during Bush 41, our vets and their vets sympathized over the same wounds. We came to the simplistic observation that their Afghanistan was our Vietnam.
It wasn’t. Vietnam cost the United States the fear of our enemies for about a decade, until Reagan started picking on easy targets like Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya, but it never cost us the complete respect of our friends. Soviet-funded green or red street protests aside, we were never in any real danger of being asked to pull out of NATO or Europe or the Far East. If anything, our partners welcomed us home like Adrian helping Rocky limp off at the end of every fight he lost. Vietnam wounded but did not maim us. Somehow, it defined us as a matured superpower, capable of being humiliated without disintegrating. . . .
If Vietnam gave the United States a chance to evolve, Afghanistan was a fatal wound to the Soviet Union. Getting beat by a bunch of well-armed goatherders cost Russia the respect of its enemies and the fear of its allies. There was no coming back from that ignominious comeuppance. Within months of withdrawal, Russia had to put up with the public humiliation of watching Gorbachev treated like the prodigal son in Washington, feted like a repentant boy who’d finally found Jesus, Elvis, and Coca Cola.
America was not only no longer legitimately worried by the Bear; we thought he was cute, cuddly, and collectible, like the Russian edition of Teddy Ruxpin. Needless to say, that spectacle brought about the end of the Warsaw Pact, whose satrapies had been watching the Americans and the Russians glaring at each other across Europe for 45 years, and realized that the Russians just blinked with both eyes and kept them closed. And that, as discussed last time, was the end of the Curtain and the end of the Union.
Putin the Thief: Bill Browder and Sergei Magnitzky
This one is written by Yours Truly, but Moscow Never Sleeps joins me and Jamison Firestone on the podcast:
Firestone Duncan [Jamison Firestone’s law firm] thrived. The firm specialized in helping foreign companies navigate the byzantine Russian tax code. One of its clients was the hedge fund Hermitage Capital, helmed by William (Bill) Browder, who had a curious strategy: He invested in companies he knew to be corrupt and badly run, used his shareholder influence to oust the crooks from the managerial ranks, and then enjoyed the subsequent bump in stock prices when better executives prevailed. “Shareholder rights activism,” this was called.
That was how Browder’s relationship with Vladimir Putin went sour. When he first took over, Putin was seen as a straight arrow—a reformist who would, and in some cases did, clean up corruption. Hermitage Capital invested heavily in Gazprom, the state-owned gas company that was wildly corrupt, even by Russian standards. Browder, with help from the legal team at Firestone’s firm, produced a dossier on the wrongdoers, which was submitted to the government. Putin took aggressive action, sacking the crooks and thieves, and installing a new management team. The stock price soared. Browder made mint on that deal. And all Russians stood to gain from the corporate behemoth being properly run.
Niche law firm helps hedge fund billionaire amass wealth, while simultaneously improving the business environment for Russia in general: that should have been the end of the feel-good story. But the new managers that Putin installed at Gazprom were not reformers. They, too, were thieves—Putin’s thieves.
When Browder realized he’d been had, he liquidated his stock in Gazprom, to the tune of two billion dollars. In practice, the actual sale of all that stock was administered by Firestone Duncan—one of the services it provided its clients. The payment of the tax on the sale, a whopping $500,000,000, was overseen by the head of tax and audit at the firm: Sergei Magnitsky, who was at the time in his early 30s.
Putin’s thieves in the government boosted almost half of the Hermitage tax payment: $230 million. This was a massive tax fraud—the largest in Russia’s history—which Magnitsky investigated, uncovered and testified to in court. For the crime of telling the truth in court—a big no-no in Putin’s Russia—Magnitsky was arrested. He was tortured while in prison (on orders up the chain of command), he was denied medical attention, and he died, 11 months after being detained, at the age of 37. It was an abominable turn of events, undeniably evil, and it happened because Sergei Magnitsky had busted Putin’s goons pinching an ungodly sum of money from the Russian people.