Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)
Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)

MARK MACKINNON

How the West lost Putin: It didn’t have to be this way Add to ...

It’s a narrative that’s growing in popularity in the West: Vladimir Putin as a 21st-century Adolf Hitler, an unhinged dictator bent on collecting lost Russian lands.

It was floated first on CNN last week, where former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili – who fought and lost a war with Russia six years ago over a place called South Ossetia – compared Mr. Putin’s stealth takeover of the Crimean Peninsula to the Nazi annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. The Canadian government has since embraced the storyline, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird using the Sudetenland comparison while denouncing Russian military moves in the Ukraine.

More Related to this Story

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made similar remarks, and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a fundraiser in California: “If this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s.”

We are, worryingly, in a situation where such comparisons can’t immediately be laughed off. Mr. Putin’s own press conference this week was characterized by two things: his alarming insistence that Russia had a right to use its military to protect ethnic Russians living in other post-Soviet countries, and his bitterness at the West for ignoring him until he was pushed into a corner.

The immediate triggers for Mr. Putin’s fury are now plain. The Kremlin feels (and has evidence) that the West put its shoulder behind the Ukrainian opposition that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych last month following a deadly week of street battles between protesters and police.

Mr. Yanukovych was pro-Russian and clearly corrupt. But he was also the elected president of Ukraine, with 12 months to go in his five-year term. His overthrow was inspiring to watch, but it was also unconstitutional. (For the record, the Kremlin says it’s the West that is encouraging fascism by siding with the revolutionaries in Kiev who include right-wing ultranationalists in their ranks.)

That precedent set, Mr. Putin now seems willing to go as far as he needs to in order to regain Russia’s lost influence in Ukraine – in the entire country, if he can, or any pro-Russian part he can snap off.

But this New Cold War didn’t start last month. Nor was it doomed to happen this way.

When Mr. Putin came to power 15 years ago, he did so as a candidate who appealed to many sectors of Russian society. His KGB background suggested to those nostalgic for the Soviet days that Mr. Putin was the tough leader Russia needed after the chaos of Russia’s 1990s. But his track record as an aide to Anatoliy Sobchak, the reformist governor of St. Petersburg, also persuaded Russia’s pro-Western liberals that he was a man who shared their mindset, too.

Mr. Putin’s first four years as president were marked by an battle inside the Kremlin, pitting a camp of ministers and aides known as the siloviki, the men of power, who had KGB backgrounds like Mr. Putin’s, against the reformers, men like Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexander Voloshin, the powerful chief of staff Mr. Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Putin was seen as listening to both sides, favouring neither. This was the man who was the first foreign leader to call former U.S. president George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the man who shared intelligence with and opened his airspace for the subsequent NATO invasion of Afghanistan.

But the siloviki gained strength, and the reformers faded, as Mr. Putin saw that favour go unreturned. He furiously railed against the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, but was ignored. Then came the 2003 Rose Revolution in the former Soviet republic of Georgia – which saw the U.S.-educated Mr. Saakashvili brought to power – and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later.

The Georgian and Ukrainian revolts had many things in common, among them the fall of autocrats who ran semi-independent governments that deferred to Moscow when the chips were down. Both uprisings were also spurred by organizations that received funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. As in the Middle East, “promoting democracy” in Eastern Europe became a code word for supporting pro-Western politicians.

The Western-backed revolts came alongside several tranches of eastward expansion by NATO, an alliance that Moscow sees as retaining its Cold War intent, as well as the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile shield in Europe that Russia saw as upsetting the strategic balance by eliminating its treasured nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Putin became convinced that the siloviki were right, that the West was intent on keeping Russia weak, as it had been under Mr. Yeltsin. By the beginning of his second term as President in 2004, Mr. Kasyanov and Mr. Voloshin were gone from the Kremlin. Only the KGB remained.

Barack Obama saw the damage done, and came to office in 2008 promising a “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow. The timing was right, with Mr. Putin stepping down the same year to the theoretically junior post of prime minister in favour of one of his few remaining liberal aides, Dmitry Medvedev.

The two new presidents got along well, and Mr. Medvedev even gave Russian acquiescence (in the form of an abstention at the United Nations Security Council) to the establishment of a NATO no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. But Mr. Putin – still the most powerful man in Russia – was furious to see Russia’s goodwill again misused and the no-fly zone expanded to include airstrikes that helped rebels topple and kill Moammar Gadhafi, a long-time Kremlin ally.

Six months later, Mr. Medvedev awkwardly declared he would step aside so that Mr. Putin could return to the presidency.

“We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?’ they say ‘yes.’ Then, I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they either acted without any UN sanctions or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya,” Mr. Putin fumed during a press conference Tuesday, his first remarks since the Ukraine crisis erupted. “Our partners, especially in the United States, always clearly formulate their own geopolitical and state interests and follow them with persistence. Then, using the principle ‘You’re either with us or against us’ they draw the whole world in. And those who do not join in get beaten until they do.”

Even while Washington was talking at home about a reset, the messages it sent to Moscow were more confrontational. Mr. Obama’s first secretary of state, Ms. Clinton, made headlines during her own 2008 bid for the presidency by stating Mr. Putin, as a former KGB agent, “doesn’t have a soul.” (Mr. Putin shot back that anyone seeking to be U.S. President “at a minimum … should have a head.”)

Even more controversial was Mr. Obama’s choice of academic Michael McFaul as ambassador to Moscow in 2011. By his own description, Mr. McFaul, who couldn’t be reached for an interview, was an expert on how popular uprisings happen in authoritarian regimes. A decade earlier, he had authored the provocatively titled book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. One of his first acts after arriving in Moscow was inviting several key members of the anti-Putin opposition to the U.S. embassy for a private meeting.

The opposition protests that swelled before and after that visit, and which tarred Mr. Putin’s 2012 election win, were seen in the Kremlin as more proof of Western meddling in and hostility to Russia. Mr. Putin accused Ms. Clinton of personally giving “the signal” for his opponents to rise up against him.

Since returning to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. He has backed Bashar al-Assad to the hilt in the bloody struggle for Syria, another long-time Soviet ally. Last month, he welcomed Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sissi to Moscow, and offered him military aid and an endorsement of his undeclared presidential run, as Washington backed away from Cairo’s latest military man in charge. A win for the West is a loss for Moscow. And vice-versa.

In a September essay in The New York Times arguing against U.S. intervention in Syria, Mr. Putin took on the idea of “American exceptionalism,” and by extension U.S. world leadership. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too,” he wrote.

“You have to understand the world in which Mr. Putin believes he lives. He’s sure he’s in a power struggle, a geostrategic battle with the West,” said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military analyst. “One of the battlefields is Ukraine. In the beginning of December, he thought he’d won, and then [Mr. Putin believes] the West organized these protests in Kiev and stole his victory. Now he has to show his Western counterparts that he’s not weak. He also has to show his inner circle that he’s not weak.”

In Ukraine, it’s Mr. Putin who is bending the rules and distorting the facts in the same way he has accused the West of doing elsewhere. But the battle for Ukraine is existential for him. Ukraine is central to Russian history and culture, and crucial to Mr. Putin’s ambition of restoring a sphere of influence over Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbours. He’s almost certainly not going to back down, whatever the cost. There “will be mutual damage,” Mr. Putin said when asked about the possibility of Western sanctions over Crimea.

We knew this, or at least we should have. But a lack of Western scholarship on Russia – and the closure of many foreign media offices (including The Globe and Mail’s own Moscow bureau a few years ago) – has contributed to a dangerous lack of understanding of Russia in the West.

China, by contrast, has in the past 15 years been deemed far more worthy of study and journalism than Russia. Lobby groups such as the Canada-China Business Council badgered Mr. Harper relentlessly when he didn’t visit Beijing during the first two years he was in office. No one seems bothered that Mr. Harper – eight years into his prime ministership – is the only G-8 leader who has never made an official, bilateral trip to Moscow.

“In North America, the thinking was that European affairs are European affairs,” said Andrew Robinson, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine. “We don’t have a relationship with Russia right now.”

Which, we can see now, has its costs. Every Western leader understands that opening an embassy in Taiwan would bring a furious response from Beijing. But no one in Washington, Brussels or Ottawa seems to have expected what Moscow might do if the West encouraged the overthrow of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine.

When Mr. Baird was in Kiev last week to show his support for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leadership, I asked him when was the last time he had met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was a pause of nearly 10 seconds before Mr. Baird recalled that both he and Mr. Lavrov had attended a Syria peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland in late January. They’ve had no interaction at all, then, since the change of power in Kiev, or the Russian moves in Crimea.

A decade ago, The eXile, a now-defunct satirical magazine based in Moscow, published a list of 101 ways that Mr. Putin’s Russia then resembled Weimar Germany. It was meant to be humourous, but the issue in fact made for extremely depressing reading. Anger at foreigners was rising, the eXile noted, as was militarism.

Russia then was a proud but wounded country, one suffering from collapse of its empire. The fall of the USSR was Russia’s Treaty of Versailles.

Mr. Harper, Mr. Baird and Ms. Clinton say Mr. Putin’s Russia today reminds them of Nazi Germany. Scary words to describe a scary situation.

If only they paid such attention to Russia in the decade before we got to here.

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Single page

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular