Vladimir Putin: A statesman, warrior or war criminal?

New DelhiWritten By: Achal MalhotraUpdated: Apr 04, 2022, 01:59 PM IST
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It is difficult to draw more than a pen picture of Putin’s persona. Nevertheless, one can say with some certainty that Putin has failed to earn the desired respect at home and abroad to qualify him as a statesman

President Vladimir Putin has been at the helm of affairs in Russia uninterruptedly for over two decades since 1999 when he was appointed Russia’s Prime Minister by then president Boris Yeltsin. Within a year he was elected as Russia’s president.

As his influence and control over his country grew and as Russia gradually became a force to reckon with in global affairs under Putin’s leadership, a systematic campaign was launched in the West to ascribe various attributes to Putin. More often than not these attributes are derogatory in nature and range between autocrat, dictator, aggressive narcissist, raging bully, ruthless demolisher of opponents, one who has presided over the systematic dilution of democracy and institutes of governance and so on.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (February 24, 2022) has created a favourable environment for the Putin-haters to accelerate anti-Putin campaign to not only to paint him as a villain who is allegedly a threat to international peace, stability and security, but also to question his mental health and describe him as “mad”. None other than US President Biden has very recently gone to the extent of dubbing Putin as a “butcher” and “war criminal” who does not deserve to be in power.

To quote Amish Tripathi : “There is your truth and there is my truth. As for the universal truth, it does not exist.” So what is Putin’s “truth”?

The book-length collection of interviews with Putin by Russian journalists published under the title “The First Person” in 2000 (soon after he became president) introduced the new president of Russia, describing Putin as a son, schoolboy, university student, young intelligence specialist, spy, democrat, bureaucrat, family man, and politician.

Even though there were no startling revelations, some of the observations are of interest. For instance, Putin was candid in admitting that he didn’t know much about Stalin’s violent purges as he “was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education".

He was critical of the Soviet leaders for the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the cold war. He says: "These were major mistakes. And the Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes."

More than twenty years have elapsed since the first glimpses of Vladimir Putin were made public. It might be useful to quickly go through some of the key moments in the life and times of Putin beginning from childhood to draw some conclusions about his persona.

Putin was born in October 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)—a city which was under siege during World War II. There is a broad consensus amongst historians, biographers and experts that Putin’s childhood was traumatic. The psychotherapist and author Joseph Burgo summed up in 2014: “Vladimir was born into this atmosphere of hunger, disability and profound grief.”

Putin recalls an interesting episode from his childhood in “The First Person'—"There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks.” The rat chase appears to have influenced his mindset as evident from his narration.

 “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly, it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose. There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered.”

Was his military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, Crimea’s annexation in 2014 and now Ukraine’s invasion in 2022 was a result of the feeling of “being cornered” by NATO’s eastward expansion and the West’s attempts to isolate Russia/ Putin by measures such as exclusion from G-8 or to weaken Russia’s economy through unilateral sanctions, and to tarnish his image?

The Americans have now doubled up their efforts to “corner” Putin. Will he step back or accelerate his mission to achieve the declared objectives in Ukraine: Ukraine’s neutrality, control over the eastern

Ukraine and a regime change in Ukraine if possible? The answer is most likely yes. Because he, at the end of the day, is a fighter who learned martial arts and excelled in judo in his childhood to fight against the street bullies and hooligans in his neighbourhood. Putin made an interesting observation in October 2015 to a western journalist: “50 years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one thing—If a fight's inevitable, you must strike first."

Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century” and that “whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart." This statement of Putin reflects his nostalgia about the global power of which he was a part as an officer of the powerful Soviet intelligence agency, KGB, for several years. But more importantly, he has also gone on record to warn: “Whoever wants it (Soviet Union) back has no brain”.

Putin is thus a realist who understands that it would be an impossible task to reconstruct the disintegrated Soviet empire. Yet, Putin remains fixated with one idea i.e., to restore the status of Russia to a global superpower which is not only listened to, but also respected and perhaps feared, too. As a bottom line, Russia defines the former Soviet space as Russia’s “near abroad”, considers it as a sphere of Russia’s natural influence and is strongly opposed to any encroachments, including NATO’s eastwards expansion.

Putin’s public views on the war with Chechnya also reflect his mindset. He once said: “I was convinced that if we didn't stop the extremists right away, we'd be facing a second Yugoslavia on the entire territory of the Russian Federation--the Yugoslavization of Russia.” In other words, if Putin cannot restore the USSR to its original shape, he would not tolerate further fragmentation of the Russian Federation.

Russia’s military campaigns in Syria were ostensibly to counter ISIS but it was soon apparent that the true objective was to defend President Assad’s government. So, here you have Putin as a leader who is willing to stick his neck out to protect a friend and ally. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Even as an acting president in 1999 Putin had expressed his desire for close cooperation with Europe and even did not rule out the possibility of joining NATO. In the wake of 9/11, Putin had offered all possible assistance to the USA in her war on terrorism. It is now only a matter of speculation as to what would have been the state of global political and security situation, if the West had responded to Putin’s early gesture and disbanded NATO in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and consequent dissolution of the rival WARSAW PACT and had incorporated Russia into a new security structure for the Euro-Atlantic as an equal and respected member.

It is also a matter of fact that from the very beginning Putin had begun to assert on issues which in his opinion were not right. He strongly objected to U.S. President George Bush’s decision in 2001 to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Later in 2002-2003, Putin opposed the US and British plans to use force to oust Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. He was always opposed to NATO’s eastwards expansion from the very beginning. Crimea’s annexation in 2015 was Putin’s firm response or perhaps revenge for the change of the pro-Russian regime in Ukraine in 2015 inspired by the West. And he did so by skilfully manipulating the incorporation of strategically important Crimean peninsula of Ukraine into Russian Federation through a seemingly democratic process of Referendum.

The soft side of Putin was revealed but only once when the world saw him crying in public at the funeral of his mentor Anatoly Sobchak who picked up Putin – then a middle-ranking KGB officer - from obscurity and gave him his first job in politics. Putin since then seems to have hardened at heart at least to the extent that he doesn’t let out his emotions publically.

It is difficult to draw more than a pen picture of Putin’s persona. Nevertheless one can say with some certainty that Putin has failed to earn the desired respect at home and abroad to qualify him as a statesman.

He, for sure, is a strong nationalist who is committed to the restoration of the lost glory of the Russian empire. He has the skill to survive against odds. He has often refused to accept the West’s convenient interpretation of the core principles of the international code of conduct and is willing to fight back whenever pushed to a corner without caring for the costs and consequences. He is a warrior but for the US President to call him a war criminal is a bit stretching it too far besides the fact that the US Presidents have many skeletons in their own cupboards.

Watch | United States: Putin misled on how war progressed

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer)