Vladimir Putin and I are about the same age and we went to college at about the same time. As a matter of fact, we went to college together. No, really.
Putin attended Leningrad State University, graduating in 1975. I was there for a semester in 1972, one of a small number of American undergraduate exchange students living in the “international dormitory,” six to a room, across the Neva River from the Hermitage Museum, once the residence of czars.
I can’t say Vlady and I were great buddies. Okay, I can’t say we actually knew each other. Leningrad State (Rah, rah, rah!) was a big school. He was in the law department, studying who knows what, heading for an illustrious career as a KGB spook. I was in the philology department, studying language and literature, heading for I knew not what. But Russian literature is splendid, and we read a lot of it. Soviet literature was abominable, and we read a lot of that, too. Anti-Soviet literature was riveting — we were not even to discuss that.
Our free time was spent in more-informal educational pursuits, by which I mean talking until the wee hours, over warm vodka and strong coffee, with whichever Russians were willing to put up with our bad grammar and vulgar accents — in other words, dissidents and KGB agents posing as dissidents. (So maybe I did meet Putin after all?)
In those days, there was still talk of the “New Soviet Man.” Spawned by Communist culture and consciousness, he was to be, as the Communist Party phrased it, “a harmonic combination,” a superior creature, fit and healthy, unsentimental and street-savvy, a proud proletarian, loyal only to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.
Back in the day, Putin surely thought of himself as a New Soviet Man. Today, I see him as a Neo-Soviet Man, by which I mean possessing all of the above attributes except for the Marxism-Leninism, which has been replaced by réchauffé Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, authoritarianism, and Machtpolitik.
Do President Obama and his advisors get this? I’m not confident. “I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during the discussions in Geneva last week.
Allow me to offer an alternative theory: Putin is deeply committed to winning, to beating Obama like a rented mule, to diminishing the United States, exacting a little revenge for all America did to undermine the Soviet empire and for inviting former members of the Soviet bloc to join NATO after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As for the gassing of women and children by Bashar Assad, Russia’s friend and Iran’s loyal servant, I think Putin will leave it to bourgeois humanists to shed the salty tears.
Putin is a man with a plan: He wants to show the world — his fellow autocrats in particular — that Russia is a steadfast ally, in contrast to the U.S., which has the nasty habit of throwing allies under buses. He wants to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East. That Assad provides Russia with a Mediterranean port is icing on the babka.
There are those who believe that Putin is now acting like a statesman, riding to the rescue – shirtless, no doubt — thanks largely to the “credible threat of force” posed by an ambivalent American president who, Kerry vowed, was prepared to unleash an “unbelievably small” military strike once that was authorized by a Congress that seemed disinclined to do anything of the sort.
Putin is now “giving the president of the United States everything they asked for and more,” Representative Chris Van Hollen said on Fox last Sunday. “He helped deliver exactly what the United States wanted.” I would ask those who buy this thesis: Did you read Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times last week?
Putin begins by lamenting the “insufficient communication between our societies” — despite the fact that his ludicrously propagandistic television station, RT, is on just about every American’s cable system. (Larry King is among the featured personalities. Really, Larry? This is how you want to end your career?)
He then warns that a military strike by the U.S. against Assad would “unleash a new wave of terrorism.” In other words, should Assad’s state terrorism be punished, the response will be more terrorism ordered by Assad, his Iranian sponsors, or Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist proxy. Apparently, Putin has no problem with that.
He asserts that the use of force by the U.S. would violate “current international law” unless it is authorized by the U.N. Security Council, neglecting to mention that Russia — which means Putin — has the power to veto such authorization. He has used it, as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power recently noted, to block “at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.”
Putin knows how to hurt a guy. He implicitly accuses Obama of acting like George W. Bush — “cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’” He adds: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement” — an astonishing statement from the man who crushed Chechnya, invaded neighboring Georgia, and is supplying conventional weapons to Syria and nuclear-weapons facilities to Iran.
At the end of his op-ed, Putin takes issue with Obama for saying last week that, unlike other nations, America is “exceptional” because Americans are prepared to act against dictators who murder women and children. Putin chides: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Oh, so that’s what’s dangerous? He adds: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Yes, Putin sees every Russian factory worker and peasant as his equal, and views Kyrgyzstan and Latvia as Russia’s equals, too. More to the point, he’s using the jejune Western ideology of multiculturalism to challenge the idea that it is America’s obligation to lead because the alternative is for despots like him, Assad, and Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei to rule.
Our professors at Leningrad State must be so very proud of him.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.