Putin, Russia and the West: beyond stereotype

Yesterday saw the final episode of ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ aired on BBC2. The four-part documentary has attracted a huge amount of criticism — yet most of it has been undeserved, says Fydor Lukyanov. Those who watch the films with an open mind will see they contribute much to our understanding of recent political history, in particular the phenomenon of Vladimir Putin.

The BBC2 documentary ‘Putin, Russia and the West’  created a significant stir with several attention-grabbing statements by its heroes – first and foremost, of course, the admittance by Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s former chief of staff) that the ‘spy rock’ the FSB produced in 2006 was indeed a slip up by the British intelligence agencies. This journalistic coup by the filmmakers and surprising openness on the part of a high-ranking – albeit retired – government civil servant caused a storm in Russia and Great Britain.

The series has other vivid and interesting moments. In particular, the sweet story about how Sergei Ivanov and Condoleezza Rice, bored by classical choreography, escaped from a performance of the Nutcracker together to watch a contemporary ballet by Boris Eifman. The words of the ex-president of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski who actively participated in political regulation of the crisis in Ukraine in 2004, about how Vladimir Putin suggested sending Boris Yeltsin as the Russian representative to the conciliatory ‘round table’ of candidates in Kiev. Leonid Kuchma’s direct testimony that Putin clearly intimated he should stop dragging his feet, and it was time to use force to bring an end to the ‘orange’ uprising.

‘The main value of the four-part series is not in the truly amusing anecdotes and obscure details, but in the filmmakers’ skill in using them to convey a picture of Vladimir Putin’

Details of the events which led to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, already partly known but nevertheless important since they came directly from the lips of participants. Finally, the dramatic and as yet unreported nuances about just how difficult it was for Moscow and Washington to conclude the START treaty in 2009-2010. These are just especially memorable individual incidents from a very rich and professionally made film which is not directing attention at the current state of affairs, but is so objective and detached that it could properly become a resource for the study of recent political history.

However, the main value of the four-part series is not in the truly amusing anecdotes and obscure details, but in the filmmakers’ skill in using them to convey a picture of the person who decisively influenced Russian history at the beginning of the twenty-first century – Vladimir Putin.

The paradox of Putin is connected with the fact that the perception of him in the West, at a certain point in time (at a fairly early stage in his presidential career it should be said) became detached from him as a person and from Russia as the country he heads, and took on a life of its own. It is impossible otherwise to understand why Time magazine nominated Putin as the most influential person in the world in 2007, and why in 2011 Forbes magazine listed him as the second most powerful person after Barack Obama, ahead of the Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

Putin_Getty

Vladimir Putin has for sure left his mark on domestic and global politics in the first decade of the 21st century. But have Western journalists exaggerated his power and influence? Photo: © Getty Images

The first nomination may be explained by the effect of the Munich speech (February 2007), which came as a complete surprise for many. Through her president Russia, practically consigned to the political scrapheap for several years already, not only announced her return to the premier league but even began to threaten the world’s grandees. But the rating in 2011, well now, that was entirely irrational. The prime minister of Russia (even with the almost imperial pall that surrounds him) simply by definition cannot have more influence in international affairs today than the ruler of the People’s Republic of China. He simply can’t, no matter who he is. And this is, as it happens, clear evidence of the fact that Putin’s image exists independently of its material foundations, both personal and national.

Vladimir Putin as an individual is basically an ordinary person with a surprising biography, who occupied the autocratic throne of an enormous country by the will of historical logic and the chance confluence of circumstances. He proved considerably more skilled at this work than anyone could have predicted at the end of 1999, when the first president of Russia elevated his candidate to second position. Putin became neither a puppet, as some had hoped, nor a nonentity, as others had expected, and speaking objectively, his impact on the country’s history has been very great, although it will always be evaluated very differently. The personal peculiarities of Putin, which became apparent fairly quickly, defined both his success as a leader, and the limits of that success, the borders of the worldview which he is unable to escape now or, probably, in the future. Moreover, the example of Putin yet again confirms the banal observation that the burden of power always leaves its mark, on everyone – even the most capable leader changes irreversibly over the years. The mandatory turnover of rulers is not simply a democratic whim but a means of national and even personal self-preservation. All in all, it’s a very human story.

Russia, the country which Putin governs, is essentially perceived in the world as a decaying power. Besides dependence on certain successes to restore her position, internal problems – demography, lopsided economics, endemic corruption, inability to compete with developing neighbours – mean the inevitable decline of her strategic role in the world of the future. Moscow’s equity in the global ‘share capital’ of international politics will fall, although gradually and not without spikes, so there is no pressing need to pay Russia that much attention. And this opinion is almost a consensus, shared in the West and in the East, although people may feel differently about it.

‘Over the four part series it becomes evident how much Putin has changed. From a young prime minister/president, guarded but ready to respond flexibly and engage in direct dialogue, to the disillusioned leader at the beginning of the 2010s, less tolerant and unwilling to accept doubt in his rectitude.’

Given this perception, it is hard to understand what has provoked the demonisation of Putin which clearly exists in Western media and political discussions, where the prime minister of Russia often features as almost the personification of evil. The reason, it would seem, is not in him, but in the internal insecurity of the West, in the growing sense that not everything is proceeding quite as it should, and as might be desired, but what should be done about it or how to correct the trajectory isn’t clear. Vladimir Putin, by the strength of his character, constantly and very openly (to the point of sheer impropriety) indicates to western partners their mistakes and failures. He criticises their hypocrisy and double-standards, appearing in the role of an idiosyncratic Savonarola whose utterances are especially annoying because they are often true. Moreover, it is true that the rabid denouncer is himself certainly no kind of disinterested monk or zealot for truth and justice; he plays by the same rules as everyone else but simply doesn’t see the need to dress this up in respectable ideological garb. And the fact that – whether by force of luck or by force of a more realistic calculation – he furthermore periodically outperforms his partners, compelling them to take the opinion of that same declining Russia into account, adds a mystical halo.   

The series, shown on BBC2, is good in that – in a calm and objective fashion – it shows the real person of Vladimir Putin and an adequate picture of why under his leadership the relationship between Russia and the West has developed precisely as it has, and not otherwise.

Over the four part series it becomes evident how much Putin has changed. From a young prime minister/president, guarded but ready to respond flexibly and engage in direct dialogue, whose declarations (albeit often sharp to the point of rudeness) seem frank, to the disillusioned leader at the beginning of the 2010s, less tolerant and unwilling to accept doubt in his rectitude. He also talks differently – much more smoothly and professionally, but one can no longer detect in his words that (occasionally even scary) sincerity of 10-12 years ago. Emotional and intellectual fatigue – that, if anything, is the main impression conveyed by the Putin who is returning to the post of president. 

The filmmakers show that the changes Putin and Russian internal politics underwent in the 2000s are not the result of the Kremlin’s arbitrariness or the conscious development of an anti-western trend, but, as a rule, a logical and natural response to the stormy progression of events in the world and in post-Soviet space. In other words, the way the Russian course has developed is by no means only the result of her internal inherent characteristics, but also of external stimuli which have compelled a change in line and churned up the psychological atmosphere. The original Putin was minded to make Russia part of a kind of international ‘concert’ with the West. And the first years of his presidency, probably right up to the ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine, were times when he tried to enter the western orbit from a variety of angles. Of course, under conditions which he himself considered just, and which did not seem so to [western] partners.

‘The creators of ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ should be congratulated on their excellent work which, I hope, will also be shown on Russian television at some point. As an example of genuine objectivity and professionalism.’

Unfortunately, this period in Russia’s outlook fell within a period in which the United States, governed by the neo-conservative administration of George Bush, attempted to definitively bring to life their vision of the USA’s complete supremacy in international affairs. What is worse, to a significant degree the spearheads of this approach proved to be directed where Russia would feel them most acutely. Amongst the priorities of Bush’s second term was the acceptance into NATO of Ukraine and Georgia, the deployments of Third Site missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic whilst asserting the shared idea of furthering democracy, although by that time it was already clear just how pernicious the results could be.

The clash of Putin’s ‘constructive’ with Bush’s ‘negative’ had an almost fatal outcome. Theoretically one could even in part rejoice that it culminated only in a small local war in the Caucasus (for all its tragedy). But it drew a line under the dangerous escalation and since then Russia and the West have gradually entered a different stage, the contours of which are as yet impossible to define.

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Old friends. Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin have met nearly 10 times and once dined in Kissinger’s home in New York. Their last Moscow meeting took place in January, while Putin was fighting for his political future (photo: premier.gov.ru).

The behaviour of the parties is difficult to predict because of the internal difficulties they are facing (political and economic crises), and also the cardinal changes in the global context connected with the growth of Asia. (Incidentally the influence of the Asian, Chinese factor on relations between Russia and the West falls beyond the scope of the four part documentary, completely understandably – one cannot do the impossible. But this could become the subject of the next project). Be that as it may, Putin is returning to high office in conditions of complete uncertainty, and is taking on huge responsibility. The programme is open ended and its makers consciously do not draw any conclusions.

One can identify shortcomings in the documentary. Some events, it seems, have been unjustifiably omitted. It’s odd, all the same, not to mention the Munich speech which has become a symbol and counterpoint of Putin’s presidency from the point of view of his relationship with the West. The first two episodes are more rich and arresting than the second two, as if the makers had grown a little tired of their material along the way. One could have added a couple of attention grabbing details about the personal relationships of Putin with western leaders; for me there weren’t enough remarks by Silvio Berlusconi about his friend Vladimir, which would have been colourful and eloquent without any kind of commentary. However this is mere detail, and there is no limit to perfection. And generally the creators of ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ may be congratulated on their excellent work which, I hope, will also be shown on Russian television at some point. As an example of genuine objectivity and professionalism. 

About the author

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs (founded in 2002), a journal published in Russian and English with the participation of Foreign Affairs. Fyodor is an experienced journalist and political analyst who has worked in the past for different Russian newspapers, TV and radio stations.  

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Vladimir Putin’s speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy 02/10/2007

Excerpts:

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

In international relations we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to so-called issues of political expediency, based on the current political climate.

And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasize this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. Of course such a policy stimulates an arms race.