Is Putin mad or just bad? What are his aims? What will he do next? What can stop him?
The answer lies in Putin’s background.
May 7 2000, The former KGB officer who only eight months earlier had been an unknown bureaucrat, was to become the President of Russia. In his inaugural speech he said, “We should know our history and take lessons from it, and always remember those that created the Russian state . .. and made it great and powerful state . . . . I consider it my holy duty to unite the people of Russia, to collect its people around clear aims and tasks, and remember each day and every minute, that we have one Motherland, one people, and that together we have one common future”.
Putin’s origins are very ordinary, but he was obsessed from an early age with learning German and to join the KGB. In his early thirties he made it into the school for foreign-intelligence officers and a first foreign posting to Dresden. This was a small KGB office and seemed to be far removed from serious intelligence action. And Putin has always played down his role and its importance at that time. However the backwater status of the KGB office seems to have been a cover for creating and managing links with terror groups across West Germany in the seventies and eighties, and in particular with the Red Army Faction, the PLO, Libyans and others. The Stasi, supported by the Putin and the KGB, provided safe havens for the Red Army Faction – also known as the Bader-Meinhof Group who launched a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and bank robberies in the late 1960s , killed prominent West German industrialists and bankers in the seventies and bombed US military bases, killing and injuring many servicemen and women. This model of false flag operations has been a hall-mark of Putin’s methods throughout his career.
From Dresden Putin moved back to St. Petersburg. In the early nineties the city hosted an alliance between the KGB and organised crime. Putin became deputy mayor and worked closely with organised crime to establish monopolies on oil trade and other exports. This was a violent environment, the port was totally criminalised and Putin was at the centre of it. With his KGB allies and organised criminals they ran much of the city’s economy for their own benefit.
Putin’s move to Moscow was not an obvious move. But in the space of seven months he had moved from a provincial administrators role to head of the Control Department , responsible for ensuring the president’s orders were executed, and then a year later he was promoted to first deputy chief of staff in charge of regional government, and the third most powerful role in the Kremlin after the president. And after just three months in that role he was appointed head of the entire FSB organization. Four months after Putin’s FSB appointment, a St. Petersburg human rights activist, Galina Starovoitova was shot dead at the entrance to her apartment building. At that time she was St. Petersburg’s leading democrat and vocal advocate against corruption, and deeply involved in investigations into corruption in St. Petersburg and a direct threat to Putin.
By 1999 the then president Yeltsin was incredibly weak. And the FSB effectively carried out a coup to put their own man into the presidency. Putin was a compromise figure who was acceptable to all the various power players. For a long time Putin’s ascent had been seen as accidental, but the reality was it was nothing to do with chance. The FSB engineered Putin into the position of successor to Yeltsin.
In September 1999 just a few days after Putin was appointed prime minister, a car bomb ripped through an apartment building in the Dagestani town of Buynask killing sixty four people. The blast was considered a response by Chechens to Russian aggression. Four days later another blast ripped open an apartment building in central Moscow. Without presenting any evidence officials denounced the bombing as a Chechen attack. Four nights later a further blast occurred in the south of Moscow. One hundred and nineteen people died. Panic spread throughout Moscow. Suddenly newly appointed prime minister Putin was front and center, taking the initiative and spotlight from Yeltsin as commander in chief, leading a campaign of avenging airstrikes against Chechnya. Putin appeared as a judo playing action man dressed in fatigues; a breath of fresh air compared to Yeltsin and a shoe-in for the presidency. Authorities clammed up refusing to comment to press inquiries about the source of the blasts. A few years later a former FSB colonel attempted to investigate the bombings, and was tried and sentenced to four years in a military prison. There was clear understanding that the KGB men would do literally anything to achieve their aims.
On achieving the presidency Putin surrounded himself with former allies from St. Petersburg. One was Nikolai Patrushev, an experienced KGB operator, replaced Putin as head of the FSB and would remain in power for the whole of Putin’s first two terms of office. He was observed as very close to Putin. One person close to Patrushev said, He’s a Soviet person of the old school. He wants the Soviet Union only with capitalism. He sees capitalism as a weapon to restore Russia’s imperial might.” Another commented, “Patrushev is a visionary, powerful personality and an ideologist for the rebuilding of the Russian empire. He’s cleverer and wilier than Putin, and he’s the one that got Putin into these all these ideas.”
Closest to Putin was probably Igor Sechin. A long serving, under cover KGB officer and linguist, also from St. Petersburg. He served as secretary and gatekeeper to Putin. He was very close to Putin, carrying his bags whenever he travelled, moving into higher and higher posts as Putin’s career soared. When Putin became president he made Sechin deputy chief of his administration. He controlled all access to, and all the papers Putin saw. He also collected all the bribes! Behind his subservient manner lay a relentless ambition for control and endless capacity for intrigue and plots. People close to him said he hated and resented his master. While Sechin quietly and cleverly fed ideas to Putin, Putin regarded him as a mere servant of his regime, a bag carrier. At the beginning of their Kremlin careers in the mid-nineties both men were provided with apartments in the centre of Moscow. But a problem arose when Sechin invited Putin to his apartment and Putin realised Sechin’s was larger than his own. Those familiar with the incident recall that Putin had an envy problem. And he stepped away from Sechin as if he had betrayed him. Apparently, he couldn’t speak directly to Sechin for weeks after. It’s an important insight into Putin’s mind, that he will take offence at perceived slights and keep chips on his shoulder for years.
While still an inexperienced leader Putin was faced with disaster when a torpedo abord one of the country’s nuclear submarines, the Kursk, somehow exploded, sending the vessel and crew to the bottom of the sea. Advisors indicated everyone on board would have been killed immediately. Putin was initially paralysed with fear. He didn’t know how to deal with it. He played for time. The Norwegians and others called to help but Putin didn’t want anyone to find out that everyone was dead and refused help. All the lies about the situation made everything worse. On the tenth day Putin emerged in public. He flew to Vidyayevo, a closed military city above the Arctic Circle and home port of the submarine where relatives of the crew had gathered. The day before the Russian authorities had finally admitted that all 118 crew were dead and Putin was taking heat from the media and public for his inaction. Putin exploded with rage and claimed his security men had given him a report saying the women who appeared on TV were not relatives but prostitutes hired by the media to discredit him. When Putin arrived in Vidyayevo he faced real-life anger from wives and relatives who tore into him. Putin’s reaction was another sign of his deep seated paranoia and total lack of empathy. He blamed the bungled rescue operation on the pitiful state of the military which had been left to decay during Yeltsin’s regime. Shortly after, the media personality, Berezovsky, that had led the charge against Putin, fled the country before he could be questioned and charged. He never returned to Russia.
It’s highly likely that today, Putin is badly informed. No one wants to give him the truth and the bad news. He will be fed lies about the state of the military; how it has been defenestrated by corruption, led by incompetents and manned by largely uneducated, demotivated conscripts. Yet Putin will likely be demanding to be in total control, and making decisions on the basis of flawed information. It’s clear that Putin is replaying the strategy from Aleppo and Chechnya where he is focused on bombing civilians and homes, creating terror and expecting the Ukrainians to surrender large chunks of their country. Yet in contrast we see the Ukrainian army increasingly well equipped, motivated and focusing on killing Russians and destroying their military capability. This is confirmed by the death counts which show large numbers of military deaths on the Russian side and large numbers of civilian deaths on the Ukrainian side.
On this basis, providing the West is prepared to continue supplying modern weaponry to Ukraine, it’s possible that Ukraine will push Russian troops back and reclaim the East and South. The bad news is that this will take time and cost vast numbers of civilian lives. When this becomes clear, we might expect that Putin will not accept failure. This would not be an option for him. More likely (as the poker player), he will double down on the strategy, being more aggressive at taking out the Ukrainian military equipment supply lines; or broadening the conflict by attacking one or more Baltic states, or even the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Any one of these options would bring NATO into the conflict, which would escalate the a direct confrontation with the West. And let’s be clear, Putin would like this conflict to be with directly with the West. He would be gambling that Joe Biden and NATO would resist uncontrolled escalation, rather responding with limited actions. Under these circumstances the Kremlin and Russian people would almost certainly continue to support Putin.
The West should be considering right now how they bring this conflict to a close. The best way to do that is to accelerate the destruction of the Russian military with injection of overwhelming levels of advanced military equipment and intelligence support and concurrently apply the harshest levels of economic sanctions that demonstrate to the Russian people that the war is a lost cause.
Reference: Putin’s People, How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took On the West.
Catherine Belton, William Collins 2020