Steven Lee Myers, author of a new biography, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, told an IPI audience that the Russian leader’s aggressive international posture is motived by his belief that he must protect Russia from outside forces.
Mr. Myers said that Putin believes “that there are forces—and by that he means Obama, sometimes Hillary Clinton—who are bent on destroying Russia.” This, he said, is “at the heart of the threat of Russia today.”
Putin’s actions in the Middle East derive from what he perceives as the dual threats of Western interventions, and the chaos that can emerge in their aftermath.
Putin’s attitude stemmed from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which he believed created a vacuum of power that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was able to fill, and gained traction in 2011 with the popular uprisings that brought down regimes and their leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
“He sees this pattern of government—sovereign governments—being toppled from external power,” Mr. Myers said. His priority is to prevent the erosion of state authority at all costs, he emphasized.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to abstain from, rather than block through a veto, UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided the legal basis for military intervention in the Libyan civil war, caused a serious rift with Putin.
Medvedev and Putin’s break was precipitated by what Putin felt was the President’s naïve response to the events of the Arab Spring. Medvedev had gone on the record stating that “governments need to listen to the aspirations of the people on the street, and that governments couldn’t become ossified in place.” Putin reacted extremely harshly to this, Mr. Myers said, because “it sounded very much like he could have been talking about Russia.”
Also at the heart of “Putinism,” Mr. Myers said, is a deep suspicion of elections. This goes back twenty years, to when the newly democratic city of St. Petersburg did not reelect its Mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, whom Putin had served as Deputy Mayor.
Out of a job, Putin was “dismayed to no end, because he couldn’t quite understand how a leader he had revered had essentially been cast aside by the vagaries of democracy, which I think is a very important lesson he learned early on about the dangers of elections,” he said.
Another specter that haunts the Russian consciousness is the perceived threat from the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), though Mr. Myers said he feels the grievance is unfounded. “I don’t think NATO was insensitive,” in its expansion, he explained, “I think it bent over backwards to be sensitive.”
Mr. Myers conceded that some states did join NATO as a defense against Russia. However, “I don’t think anyone saw it—or to this day sees it—as NATO invading Russia,” he said. “I just think that’s preposterous, and Russians just don’t see it that way. I don’t think that’s NATO’s fault; that’s Russia’s fault.”
In researching the biography, Mr. Myers said he came to appreciate how central creating a personal narrative has been to Putin’s rise and consolidation of power. Speaking in nationalistic and religious rhetoric, he successfully casts all threats to his power as foreign invasions, the book argues.
This message was central to his view of the popular uprising in Ukraine. “When Putin was here at the UN, as you all know, he specifically mentioned the events in Ukraine being an external coup,” Mr. Myers recalled.
By contrast, the almost spontaneous annexation of Crimea “was not thought out,” he said. “It was much more of an emotional reaction to what was perceived as a threat, but also a kind of defiant gesture.”
Putin’s Russia has taken the old model of Soviet information control one step further, producing content that is highly alluring. “It’s not the old Soviet propaganda,” Mr. Myers said. “It’s much better. It’s more sophisticated.”
Russian television is technologically advanced, and with the media entirely state-controlled, the unanimity of people’s opinions is almost total. “You simply don’t hear dissenting points of view,” he said. “I joke with Russian friends that Obama’s approval ratings would reach 80% if he had the same kind of TV that they do in Russia.”
Central to the media narrative that Putin is constantly shaping is the glorification of his own physical exploits, as a kind of personification of Russia’s strength, Mr. Myers explained. Putin’s displays of athleticism, such as scoring seven goals in a hockey game against his cronies, serve the important purpose of “projecting a healthy image” for the Russian people, Putin recently told Charlie Rose.
Mr. Myers’ take on these comments is that, “If you’re a country that have been beaten down, or at least perceived to have been beaten down, and perceive enemies at the gate as NATO apparently is, they want that image of the strong leader,” he said. “It’s really quite effective. I’ve asked Russian journalists about this, who will laugh with me, and say the seven goals was preposterous, but nonetheless people like to see it, and cheer him on.”
Mr. Myers said he thought the characterization of today’s Russia as totalitarian was exaggerated. “You do have these freedoms,” he said. “Now there’s an enormous middle class—shrinking perhaps—but they are able to fly to Egypt for a holiday, to Turkey, to Thailand, there’s not that kind of oppressive feeling of Soviet life.”
He added that comparisons to Stalin are also misguided. “He’s not Stalin by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I think what he is doing is his search for national identity.” Mr. Myers described this search as almost personal, “like the journey the country is on is very much one he’s been through.”
He also called comparisons of Putin to Hitler “not acceptable”
“People often do it, but when a very respected professor compared the annexation of Crimea to the Anschluss, he was immediately vilified and then fired,” he said. “It’s just a red line that cannot be crossed.”
Mr. Myers concluded that Putin “instinctively falls back on Soviet instincts.” Among such instincts is the view of the “erosion of state authority as being the greatest risk,” to Russia, and to international order. “When the government collapses, as happened in Iraq with the removal of Saddam Hussein, as happened in Libya, as happened in Egypt for awhile in his mind, I think genuinely was in danger of happening this summer in Syria, he believes the consequence is chaos, so you have to support the government,” he said.
Mr. Myers said that Putin intervened in Syria now, simply because he has the hard-power capacity to do so, and would not face US opposition. Putin believes that the alternative strategy of building up moderate Syrian opposition has failed, the author said, and he believes that if Assad were overthrown, the best result would be anarchy, and the worst result, a takeover by ISIL and al-Qaeda.
This is why “he is going to support the government as it stands, and has control of some portion of the territory and [can] hopefully expand that territory,” Mr. Myers said. “He is going to kill a lot of the moderate rebels—anybody basically who takes a weapon against the Assad government is an enemy—and they are going to push them back and hopefully reach a political accommodation at which point we can figure out what to do with the really nasty guys in the Islamic State.”
The November 9th event was part of IPI’s Distinguished Author Series.
IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, Warren Hoge, moderated the conversation.