Who is Vladimir Putin, and what does he really want? Why exactly has he suddenly sent tens of thousands of heavily armed Russian troops into Crimea? Why did he invade Georgia in 2008? Why is he selling arms to bloodthirsty regimes like that of Bashar Assad in Syria? And why is selling both advanced arms and nuclear technology to a rogue terrorist state like Iran?
In the face of such questions, President Obama looks disoriented and confused. He and his national-security team have been painfully slow to understand the Putin threat. They’re now scrambling to develop a coherent and convincing policy to contain Putin, much less have a chance at rolling him back.
The American people now see Putin as a real and growing threat, and not just to the former Soviet republics but to the national security of the United States and our allies, including Israel.
This month, I engaged McLaughlin & Associates, a nationally-respected polling firm, to ask a series of questions of 1,000 likely U.S. voters. Among them:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “In light of Russia’s invasion of southern Ukraine, and Russia selling arms and nuclear technology to Iran, and Russia selling arms to the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, I have come to believe that Vladimir Putin and the government of Russia pose a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States and our ally, Israel”?
In 2012, Mr. Obama mocked those who even raised such a question. Today, a remarkable 72 percent of Americans said they agreed with such a statement. Only 19 percent disagreed.
Are they right? Is Putin as serious a threat as Americans believe? To answer that question requires going beyond Washington conventional wisdom and listening carefully to what he has said in the past.
In 2000, three Russian journalists — Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov — published First Person, which may prove to be one of the most important books ever written about Putin. It is useful not because the journalists offered their own insights or analysis into Putin, but because they simply let Putin speak for himself. They interviewed the Russian leader six separate times, each time for about four hours. The book is merely a transcript, and when it comes to understanding Putin’s ambitions and approach, it is a gold mine of intelligence.
Putin on his mission in life: “My historical mission,” he insisted, is to stop “the collapse of the USSR” (p. 139). To do this, he vowed to “consolidate the armed forces, the Interior Ministry, and the FSB [the successor to the KGB, the secret police of the Soviet Union]” (p. 140). “If I can help save Russia from collapse, then I’ll have something to be proud of” (p. 204).
On his style: “Everyone says I’m harsh, even brutal,” Putin acknowledged, without ever disputing such observations. “A dog senses when somebody is afraid of it, and bites,” he observed. “The same applies [to dealing with one’s enemies]. If you become jittery, they will think they are stronger. Only one thing works in such circumstances—to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet” (p. 168).
On the czars: “From the very beginning, Russia was created as a super-centralized state. That’s practically laid down in its genetic code, its traditions, and the mentality of its people,” said Putin, adding, “In certain periods of time . . . in a certain place . . . under certain conditions . . . monarchy has played and continues to this day to play a positive role. . . . The monarch doesn’t have to worry about whether or not he will be elected, or about petty political interests, or about how to influence the electorate. He can think about the destiny of the people and not become distracted with trivialities” (p. 186).
On his choice of history’s most interesting political leader: “Napoleon Bonaparte” (p. 194).
On his rise from spy to president: “In the Kremlin, I have a different position. Nobody controls me here. I control everybody else” (p. 131).
On his critics: “to hell with them” (p. 140).
Who is Vladmir Putin? The evidence suggests he sees himself not so much as Russia’s president but as a new czar for a new age. He is determined to expand Russian territory by taking back what was lost when the Soviet Union imploded and restoring the glory of Mother Russia. Sensing weakness in Mr. Obama, he is ready to “go on the offensive” and “hit first, and hit so hard” that his opponent “will not rise to his feet.”
This is precisely why Putin is so dangerous. Hillary Clinton recently compared the Russian leader’s tactics to those of Adolf Hitler. In some ways, she is correct. Putin is not building concentration camps, but he is hungry for power and territory and he doesn’t see a single leader in Europe or in Washington who has the courage to stop him. He is testing, probing, and finding no serious opposition.
If he is not stopped, the question is not whether Vladimir Putin will hit another opponent and seize more territory. The question simply is: When?
— Joel C. Rosenberg is a former aide to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deputy prime minister Natan Sharansky. He is a New York Times best-selling author of numerous political thrillers. His latest is The Auschwitz Escape, published by Tyndale House.