L’etat, c’est moi
— Louis XIV
Those words reflect not only the totality of a leader’s identification with the functioning of his entire state, they also speak of a damaged personality and, in their imperious arrogance, a lack of insight that we should bear in mind when contemplating the fundamental distinctions between Western and Russian governance. The former’s ability to change leaders and adjust in an orderly, transparent and bloodless fashion sets it apart. Russians on the other hand, along with Arabs, Africans and many others not blessed by traditions of democracy, property rights and free speech, lack such mechanisms. This makes it of immense importance to understand the personality of the autocrat presiding over the Russian Federation and its nuclear arsenal. As the West has no choice but to cope with Vladimir Putin, it is essential to understand him.
First, never forget that Putin is a product of a country isolated from the wider world by history, religion and culture, even down to its alphabet. Above all, what has set Russia apart is the abiding fear of its ruling class that their own people will come to recognise just how pitifully incompetent and corrupt are their masters. Russians bear the accumulated scars from centuries of bloodshed and despotism, the well-founded expectation being that those in power will always feel free to treat the populace with utter contempt when it suits their purposes. This is Putin’s cultural legacy as both a product of that society and the man who now presides over it. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in one of her more astute moments, Putin inhabits a world of his own. He is sincerely convinced that he is empowered to redress with his actions and policies the historic injustices he sees as having been inflicted on his homeland by the West. To balance the scales, to achieve what he sees as “justice”, he will do whatever he deems is required. More than that, he will do so without shame, reservations or apology.
We can discern the man’s personal narrative at work as well. Having come from an impoverished background, the determination to get rich, be rich and become even richer also underpins his actions. Like Louis VIV, he sees himself as the very embodiment and incarnation of the state, regarding any interference with his wealth as an attack not merely on him but on all of Russia. In protecting his personal fortune and financial interests, Mr Putin will not think twice about deploying assassins against his critics — detractors, for example, such as Alexander Litvinenko, who was tracked down and poisoned in exile. Add this to Putin’s achievements: he is the first post-Communist Russian head of State to be accused of a political murder overseas. Stalin’s hitman used an unsubtle ice axe to take out Leon Trotsky in Mexico, but progress of a sort has since been made. Putin’s killers claimed their scalp with radioactive polonium, leaving a trail of radioactive contamination about London in the process.
Look also to history for an explanation of the incredible speed with which Putin wasted the initial goodwill of the West towards post-Communist Russia, instead reviving the animosity, suspicion and fear that characteristed the Soviet era and mentality. Now, having rebuffed the invitation to join the ranks of the West’s democracies, Putin numbers as his country’s friends North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, not to mention assorted Middle East butchers and fanatics. In casting his lot with the Shia branch of Islam, Putin stokes the animosity of Russia’s almost 40 million Sunnis. They are his subjects and, like it or not, they will just have accept their master’s edicts. If they don’t, they will be made to.
There is a pettiness to Putin’s bastardry as well. Riled by Western sanctions, he ordered the theatrical destruction of imported foods beneath the iron tracks of bulldozers – this waste in a country where social security expenditures are so pitiful, so inadequate, they do not deserve that description. Annoyed by the revelations of his connections with corruption, Putin made Russian orphans his whipping boys by forbidding foreigners to adopt the most hapless of his countrymen. The best estimates say that Russia is home 700,000 abandoned children, some of whom might have found better lives and futures with Western families. Now, in order for Putin to display his displeasure with the West for making note of his regime’s corruption, those kids must languish in the squalor of state-run institutions. Is it any wonder Putin has become a pariah in the polite society of international diplomatic gatherings?
Mr. Putin’s domestic approval ratings remain consistently high, reflecting the belief of the Russian people that the relatively good life of the last ten years is solely due to their President’s efforts, not the formerly high energy prices from which Moscow has derived as much as 65% of its income. The ongoing collapse of oil prices might chill this warm appraisal, but do not bet on such a shift of sentiment. Russians know that it is their duty to worship their leader, just as their grandparents once paid homage to Stalin and their more distant forebears revered the Tsar.
Incessant propaganda on Russian television and throughout the media preaches that the country is surrounded by enemies bent on, as the official message constantly attests, “putting Russia on her knees”. This fervent belief grows from an acute inferiority complex, rather than the perception of real danger. Nevertheless, the popular resentment of the West is real and very strong. The reality — that Russia is destined to stand on the roadside of history as the future passes it by — is simply too painful for most to contemplate. Not so long ago, and certainly enshrined in popular memory, the Soviet Union was a superpower commanding respect. Now, pathetically, it will not let the peripheral republics go their own ways, especially when, as in Georgia and Ukraine, the gaze is toward the West. To do so would be to concede a new and different reality applies, a heresy against the official doctrine of Russia’s awesome magnificence.
To foil these ambitions Putin fosters a state of more or less permanent territorial conflict between different ethnic groups, portraying himself always as the defender of ethnic Russians, forever painted via state media as victims of injustice and oppression. He than turns these largely imagined and manufactured conflicts into very real territorial ones. In Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic republics fear of Moscow, and wariness about what it might do next, is palpable. Locals look at the Ukraine, where Russian forces masquerade as aggrieved locals, and wonder when it will be their turn for more of the same.
Nothing will deter Putin from his chosen course of restoring Russia to its imperial glory — no conferences, no sanctions, no summits, no “reset buttons“, no token half-measures will carry the case for pacific coexistence with the rest of the world. Only the imposition of clear boundaries and limits can assure that end and secure the stability of peace.
One can talk until hoarse but, in the end, Putin and his ilk will always respond by posing their updated version of Stalin’s response when informed that the Pope took a dim view of his actions. “The Pope, how many battalions does he have?”
The West, we might ask ourselves, how strong is its resolve?
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978