Putin the Apostate
We thought he would be our bastard. Then, he became his own bastard.
The president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, made an extraordinary statement over the weekend. “Just days ago much of the world was focused on the unwanted prospect of regime change in Ukraine,” he tweeted. “Now the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.” Senior Brookings Institute fellow Benjamin Wittes was even more explicit:
For anyone expecting me to be outraged about this — I am, after all, almost daily denounced as a Putin-lover and apologist, so surely I must want the Great Leader to stay in power forever — I have to disappoint. If Vladimir Putin were captured tomorrow and fired into space, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
I would like to point out that we already tried regime change in Russia. I remember, because I was there. And, thanks to a lot of lurid history that’s being scrubbed now with furious intensity, it ended with Vladimir Putin in power. Not as an accident, or as the face of a populist revolt against Western influence — that came later — but precisely because we made a long series of intentional decisions to help put him there.
Once, Putin’s KGB past, far from being seen as a negative, was viewed with relief by the American diplomatic community, which had been exhausted by the organizational incompetence of our vodka-soaked first partner, Boris Yeltsin. Putin by contrast was “a man we can do business with,” a “liberal, humane, and decent European” of “alert, controlled poise” and “well-briefed acuity,” who was open to anything, even Russia joining NATO. “I don’t see why not,” Putin said. “I would not rule out such a possibility.”
The New York Times Magazine, noting that the KGB of the seventies that Putin joined was no longer really a murder factory but just another “thinking corporation,” even compared him once to Russia’s first true Western-looking leader:
In him, Russia has found a humane version of Peter the Great, a ruler who will open the country to the influence of a world at once gentler and more dynamic than Russia has ever been.
I’ve been bitter in commentary about Putin in recent years because I never forgot the way the West smoothed his rise, and pretends now that it didn’t. It’s infuriating also that many of us who were critical of him from the start are denounced now as Putin apologists, I think in part because we have inconvenient memories about who said what at the start of his story. The effort to wipe that history clean is reaching a fever pitch this week. Before they finish the job, it seemed worth getting it all down.
In late 1996, Vladimir Putin was at a career crossroads. His boss, Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected Mayor of St. Petersburg, had just lost an election and with Putin’s help, was gearing up to flee the country to avoid corruption charges.
Should Putin, too, flee abroad, perhaps to Germany, where he’d enjoyed a posting in his KGB days? He had his own reputation issues, having been inveigled in scandal in his time as Sobchak’s adviser and Deputy Mayor. In 1992, while head of a Petersburg Committee to attract foreign investment, he’d been given over $120 million in export quotas for timber, oil, and rare earth metals by the federal government, to trade for desperately needed food. The deal was approved by Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and then-trade Minister (and future Alfa Bank heavy) Pyotr Aven. The raw materials were not bartered but pawned off to “various commercial structures,” as the newspaper Smena put it, and the city got back just two tankers of cooking oil.
The Federal Accounting Chamber ended up writing a letter recommending that Mr. Putin not be considered for promotions. But the little man from the northern capital was destined for a higher calling.