Decoding Putin

I think it’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin is looking like a wounded animal.

While Putin’s tough-guy demeanour and braggadocio always smacked of deep and sheer insecurity, the optimistic and brazen protests in recent days — following on from elections that took Bush vs Gore to its logical conclusion — have left his regime teetering on the brink of farce.

From the Guardian:

The thing about harsh authoritarian regimes is it’s not laws, or courts, or the rigid government hierarchy that makes them run. It is fear. And once the fear is taken out of the equation – suddenly, for the vanishing of fear is always sudden – it becomes clear that these courts, laws and hierarchies do not work. Everything just starts falling apart.

That is what happened here 20 years ago: institutions just stopped taking orders from the Kremlin. The media stopped fearing the censors who still sat in their offices at every media outlet. The police stopped applying absurd regulations, enabling the birth of private enterprise. Ultimately, the heads of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics lost their fear – and the empire fell apart, in what by history’s standards was the blink of an eye.

Right now Putin is scrambling, planting his own hardliners in key positions. He has appointed his old friend, the FSB general Sergei Ivanov, as chief of the president’s staff – even though Putin has not yet been officially re-elected president. He brought back Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s odiously aggressive nationalist envoy to Nato, to serve in his cabinet in Moscow. In the coming days, he is likely to make more appointments that will show that his is a harsh, nationalist, authoritarian government. He is doing this because he is scared – and he desperately wants to bring back the fear that has enabled his rule for the last 12 years.

But Putin’s own media is already failing him. Some of his closest aides are sending out friendly signals to the protesters. They have lost the fear, and that means the whole edifice will come tumbling down. That process is unstoppable.

Could Putin not have grasped that an anonymous and technocratic two-party-regime, offering subjects — I mean citizens — the illusion of choice, is far more effective at consolidating political power in the hands of an elite? Or does he just have a fetish for old-school demagogic Stalinist grandeur and the cult of personality? Whatever: it doesn’t really matter.

What actually matters are the dangers of a vindictive and nuclear-armed regime becoming besieged and crumbling into the sand. The danger is that Putin will now be far more willing to go to war in the middle east than before, as a war will give him the opportunity to force Russians to rally around the flag and adhere to his regime. It will give him the opportunity — just as it would give Obama — to curtail civil liberties, censor the internet and launch cyber-warfare against enemies around the globe. It will give the Russian economy a war-spending stimulus.

A little psychoanalysis: Putin believes the breakup of Soviet Union was the great geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century. He has gone out of his way to resurrect many of its institutions of governance, as well as to forge a new Eurasian geopolitical alliance to act as a counterweight to American hegemony. All of Putin’s posturing and sabre-rattling, his clinging to power, and his machismo suggest that he sees himself as a messianic figure — the saviour of Russia, and the saviour of Eurasia.

Putin’s attitude can be summed up in the words of Louis XIV:

I am the State

As a messianic figure, Putin will not be afraid to lay down the lives of Russians to defend and consolidate his regime and avoid another “catastrophic” breakdown of Russian autocracy. He will not be afraid to start new wars or proxy wars in the middle east. While it is obvious to us in the West that he is a wounded animal, scrabbling to save his regime, it is obvious to him that America — dependent on foreign oil and goods, bogged down in her role as global policeman, and massively indebted to her enemies — is wounded too.

In October, Putin noted:

They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy. They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar. If [in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities. There should be other reserve currencies.

All of this said, I think the notion of a nuclear war is extremely unlikely. There are ways and means to fight a conventional war — even a conventional world war — without a wider nuclear holocaust. The only nation that is dangerous in that regard is North Korea — and their dependency on foreign food aid, and their new Western-educated leader placate this danger.

Even in Russia, there are military men who will do whatever they can — up to and including a coup — to prevent the reckless endangerment of global security. In America, Admiral Fox Fallon bravely fought off the Bush administration’s hunger for a war with Iran, knowing that such an action risked a global conflagration.

But to many the allure of war will be strong, even in the West. Failing economic policy, civil discontent and social inequality can be brushed beneath the edifice of nationalistic expansionism.