Noor Israr looks at an intriguing career
The enigmatic Vladimir is these days assessed by the lengths of table he sits and parleys with his distinguished visitors but problematically every yardstick he is measured by proves untenable failing to find out the central characteristic that keeps him ticking in the cut-throat political scenario in the labyrinthian confines of Kremlin. In this context it is reported that at least four times in the past week Russia’s longest-serving president hosted talks with foreign dignitaries and his own senior diplomatic and defense staff over the prospect of a full-scale war with neighbouring Ukraine from one end of an outlandishly, imposingly long desk. It is widely acknowledged to be a show of power following in the footsteps of Benito Mussolini who tried to browbeat his visitors with long distance to be covered to reach close to the table he occupied.
It is noted interestingly that he avoids following this routine with authoritarian leaders as was evident when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with whom Putin shares a fondness for right-wing politics, visited Moscow recently, he was welcomed by Putin from one side of a short table. The authoritarian leaders of Belarus and Hungary also got short tables indicating that by seating leaders of democracies on long tables Putin intends snubbing them. This may simply not be just conjecturing as such small antics have long been recognised to be the expression of some kind of complex that is considered hallmark of dictatorial heads of authoritarian regimes.
By all accounts nevertheless Putin comes out to be inscrutable, macho, distrustful, unpredictable, a cultivator of half-truths and disinformation and fabulously wealthy. He carries quite an odious reputation and is definitely an anti-democratic tyrant who is neither a man of the people nor a believer in human rights. He consistently follows the instincts of a former KBG officer who remains culturally and psychologically tethered to a Soviet Union that no longer exists. The defunct Soviet Union is undoubtedly still the most powerful influence on his personality, policies and actions. Naturally suspicious and lacking trust in everyone he is known to keep secrets even from his closest associates and is said to studiously avoid phones and computers over surveillance fears. Despite him being under multifarious forms of surveillance Putin is extremely cautious in his words and hides things to an exceptional level.
It is generally acknowledged that it is extremely difficult to understand what is inside his mind and it is equally cumbersome to predict his actions. Putin decides everything himself with a small group of officers, who he trusts are not American spies. From Syria’s civil war to silencing his critics, from US election meddling to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Putin’s political organising principle appears to be to sow doubt, then sow doubt about that doubt and at the very least, keep it all as confusing as possible. Most evidence suggests that Putin is sincere in rating that the USSR’s breakup was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century and he has returned to this theme in one form or another on various occasions throughout the years.
In his illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, Putin stamped his legacy as a gatherer of Russian lands, the first ruler since Stalin to expand the country’s territory. He has done all that and more despite repeated claims by foreign and some Russian observers that Russia is a declining power. Whether it is Putin’s instinct to gather Russian lands and restore his country’s Cold War-era eminence, repeated assertions from the Kremlin that Ukraine’s bid to join NATO represents for Moscow a major security threat or a more general existential anxiety about stamping out Kyiv’s democratic tendencies that is behind Putin’s power play on Ukraine’s borders is anyone’s guess.
In July, Putin published a 5,000-word article titled ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ that was full of impressive if not always accurate historical specificity, he argued that Ukraine, which gained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was only capable of having true sovereignty in partnership with Russia. And even as he has massed about 150,000 troops on Russia’s borders with Ukraine, prompting fears of an invasion, deciphering Putin’s agenda beyond his own self-preservation remains an exercise that yields little overall clarity.
Putin’s personal life and the source of his apparent fortune, too, are shrouded in mystery. His official salary is about $150,000, yet he wears $60,000 watches. His incarcerated opponent Navalny carried out an investigation that revealed that Putin may be the real owner of a $1.3 billon opulent palace in southern Russia that has its own underground hockey rink, casino and church. German media reported that a super yacht believed to belong to Putin abruptly left Hamburg, where it was having some repairs done, as tensions with Ukraine intensified and US and European officials started talking about unprecedentedly tough sanctions if the invasion went ahead. There is an ex-wife, at least two daughters, maybe a mistress or two but Putin has never been publicly photographed with his children.
Most interestingly, Putin has promoted an image of himself as a defender of traditional family values and often invokes the Russian Orthodox Church in speeches. In late January, Russian state media broadcast footage of him observing an Orthodox Christian ritual to mark the feast of Epiphany. Dressed in blue swimming trunks, Putin in the footage immerses himself in the icy waters of a cross-shaped pool near Moscow. For someone who was raised in the communist-atheist Soviet Union, it is hard to say how sincere this is and how much is about catering to Putin’s hyper-nationalist agenda. It is well-known fact in Russia that the country has always shown strong pro-Russian sentiment aligns with support for the church.
He openly tries to scare people as was evident from the photograph of the encounter showing Merkel looking anxious as Putin’s black Labrador settles near her feet with Putin looking in their direction and grins. He menacingly told Merkel not to be afraid of the dog knowing full well that the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful countries had an intense fear of dogs. He also is known for pursuing a policy and then openly negating it as he spent the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency insisting that there had been no meddling in the 2016 election but a few months before Trump’s term ended Putin did an about-face and announced that there had in fact been election meddling in the vote that elected Trump carried by Ukrainian oligarchs who had given money to Trump’s political opponents, namely Hilary Clinton.
More intriguing was the fact that when soldiers without insignia on their green uniforms seized control of Crimea in 2014, Putin repeatedly denied that they were members of the Russian military but a year later, Putin started boasting they were. In the same vein he has recently baselessly claimed that genocide is taking place in Donetsk and Luhansk, breakaway Ukrainian territories controlled by Kremlin-backed rebels. He has appeared to back fabricated claims by rebels that they are evacuating civilians from Donetsk and Luhansk because of aggressions from Ukraine’s military. Independent monitoring groups say that could not be farther from the truth as evidence mounts that Russia-backed separatists are shelling Ukraine’s military, Russian officials assert it is the other way around. It is in this context it is mentioned that the most dangerous moment for Ukraine would come when the world breathes a sigh of relief and its attention shifts elsewhere providing Putin the opportunity to strike. TW
Noor Israr has a discerning taste in music and is currently studying development economics at UCF