What Does Vladimir Putin Want?
Inside the mind of Donald John Trump’s master.
This is the first post by PREVAIL’s first correspondent, who goes by the nom de plume Moscow Never Sleeps.
WHEN I FIRST started working in Moscow in the 1990s, I was told that no matter how a Russian first introduced himself to you—as a government official, a businessman, or a gangster—the likelihood was that he was actually all three. Not only was this not considered a conflict of interest by any of those three worlds, it was actually regarded as an essential adaptation to the realities of post-Soviet Russia. Anyone who could not navigate bureaucracy, commerce, and corruption would not survive.
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. Yes, we had to kill some aboriginals for expansion. Sure, we had to fight skirmishes with the French and then our own English cousins to maintain political control. Of course, we had to kick the South’s ass so that we could maintain our integrity and become the last country in Christendom to figure out slavery was actually wrong (and then fuck up the lesson by treating Beauregard and Buford like prodigal sons and giving them a handkerchief when they started to cry about the lack of their chattels, as opposed to hanging a few of the rebellious trash by piano wire and making the Confederate Flag and any shithead flying it burnable on sight). 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’s nationalism is unexceptional, except in its apparent reasonableness. By nature and by training, Putin is not a demagogue, but an ascended bureaucrat. Barnburner speeches did not get him where he is or keep him there; measured sound bites and nomenklatura doublespeak did and do. Unlike Trump, he does not need to orate or inflame or even dog-whistle to the baser biases of his base because, at least as long as oil prices are high, his base is at least two-thirds to three-quarters of his country. He has traditionally avoided the overt racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism of his Western counterparts like Trump or Viktor Orban, not because he is enlightened, but because his people for the most part are not. Putin’s national security interests are served a lot less by Russian National Unity thugs in jackboots and kolovrat tattoos tromping down Tverskaya Ulitsa chanting about the zhidy and a lot more by incels in Izods and tiki lamps shrieking to the Charlottesville night that they will not be replaced by Jews. Which might be why we see a lot more of the latter than of the former.
Putin’s nationalism is also pragmatically militaristic. When it comes time to get into direct conflict with foreign countries, he chooses victims who are too small to defend themselves, too closely associated with her Russian traditional spheres of interest and too strategically complicated or remote for others to defend, or too unpopular in the West to engender enough sympathy to demand a proportionate response. In each of these encounters, Putin measures out the precise amount of overt and covert interference necessary to obtain his goal without forcing a response from an America that he has grown over the years to rightly consider toothless. In his first decade in power, it was border skirmishes with Estonia and harassment of that country’s ambassador in Moscow. When he saw that the US would close its eyes to low-level abuse of a NATO ally, he let “President” Medvedev roll tanks across the Georgian border into South Ossetia to “liberate” that part of another country’s sovereign territory. When that aggression stood for several years under Bush and Obama, he sent irregulars into eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country, in response to hints from Kiev that they might like to join the EU and NATO, and he re-planted the Russian flag on the Crimean Peninsula. When it became clear that the Obama Administration knew less about Ukraine than Jon Snow knew about life north of the Wall, Putin built up Russia’s forces in Syria in opposition to the US until he was ready to flex his muscles at Turkey, technically a NATO ally if still the sick man of Europe.
(Fun fact: There was a four-year period of time when Putin did not put one military toe outside Russia’s borders to engage or intimidate his enemies. He barely even had any dissidents killed abroad during this interlude. For whatever reason, Vladimir Putin—who probably respected Colin Powell, tolerated Condoleezza Rice, ignored John Kerry, and came to a very Russian understanding with Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo—never took any chances when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State. More on Russian fixation on—and fear of—Hillary another time, but for now, I’ll just say Lizzo was right: we coulda had a bad bitch.)
Finally, Putin’s nationalism is impressionistic. The main point of all of Putin’s carefully measured adventurism is not actually to change Russia’s borders, but to send a message to his own people and the world that the Russia he grew up with, the one we all grew up with, the one the world respected and feared, was back. If you look at a map of Russia and the Former Soviet Union now as opposed to a generation ago, not much has actually changed. Crimea is back in Russia (where it was administratively for centuries before Khruschev re-assigned it to Ukraine in 1956). Ukraine is an unstable corrupt mess destined for implosion into Russian satrapy (which it has been since independence in 1993). The Baltics are democratic, European, free (and completely infested with Russian businessmen who make sure that the countries remain on civil terms with their massive neighbor to the East on whose fuel they depend to survive the winter). The Caucasus countries are still limited by their geography (caught between Iran and a hard place). Azerbaijan is a dynastic and nominally Islamic petrorepublic, where Russians, Iranians, Brits, and Yanks of a certain stripe mingle without embarrassment (think Dubai without the dress code for the local women). The Central Asian countries were until a few years ago run by the same Brooks-Brothers-clad khans who were the national party secretaries from Gorbachev’s era (and Belarus still is). And of course Russia still has rough nuclear parity with the United States, even if you only count the weapons that probably work. But Syria, Turkey, Iran—meaning ultimately Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Emirates—are within the penumbra of unilateral Russian influence. To Russians, Putin is winning the Great Game. By default, it is true, but they’re happy to take the W after the public irrumation Bill Clinton gave them in the Balkans.
From FDR to Obama, every President of the United States has devoted a significant amount of each morning to being told in detail exactly what we know his counterpart in the Kremlin has been doing overnight, why (if known), and what our options (if any) are for dealing with it. That’s because, and I can’t believe I have to type this out loud, the world has grown accustomed to the comforting thought that the President of 49% of the world’s nuclear arsenal considers it a big part of his job to understand the President of the other 49% of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
To put it mildly, Donald Trump does not understand Vladimir Putin. Trump drastically misunderstands how Putin uses nationalism, because he only sees, and borrows, those few features for which he himself has the capacity to understand and to re-create. (There’s no point discussing how Trump matches up to Putin on military strategy or map skills.)
But xenophobia, Trump gets. The Wall is more than just a brown-phobic racist symbol. It speaks to the fear of invasion, incursion, miscegenation, and takeover that the entire hemisphere below the Rio Grande engenders in the bowels of his mouthbreathing base. There’s no direct simile in Russia—the country’s borders are too long and it’s been centuries since anyone in his right mind actually walked into Russia looking for a better life—but the emotional appeal is identical: protect us from the hordes. The Wall is Trump’s way of saying, “We will not surrender an inch.”
Of course, Trump can’t manage Putin’s subtlety in signaling to his people, because unlike Trump, Putin possesses a number of skills that allow him to deliver a nuanced message (for instance, being able to read aloud and speak in complete sentences for extended periods of time without name-calling or contradicting what he said three minutes earlier). So where Putin can allude from time to time to “the forces against Russia” (a call-out made all the more chilling for its judicious application), Trump has to name the enemy every time he sees a microphone or gets exasperated—the lying press, the nasty women, the bad hombres, the shithole countries, the sons-of-bitches, the loser RINOs, etc.
And that reveals both Putin’s biggest strength and Trump’s greatest weakness. We may never know what Putin actually believes, because even he realizes it is not important. For him, xenophobia is like plutonium: infinitely powerful when used but requiring surgical delicacy when handled. For Trump, he can’t stop talking racism because he can’t stop thinking it. But, being Trump, he’s too stupid to understand that by revealing to the world exactly what he thinks, he has made himself nothing like his hero Putin. He’s not his hero. He’s not even his hero’s sidekick. He’s his hero’s goat—and he doesn’t even realize it.
Moscow Never Sleeps comes from the pen of a professional who has spent the last four decades studying Russia, about half of which time he spent living and working there. When approached by fellow Americans in Moscow who asked him if he was a diplomat, he proudly denied it. The author's opinions are his own, his sources are public, and he is delighted to say that he has never seen nor read any classified material and has never held anything remotely resembling a security clearance.
Photo credit: Kremlin press photo bank.