‘Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’

Mr Putin: Operative In The Kremlin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Brookings Institution Press, RRP$29.95, RRP£19.99

Vladimir Putin has been compared to many things but not, until now, to Mr Benn. The 1970s’ British children’s cartoon character used to visit a costume shop and be magically transformed into the character of whatever outfit he donned, launching himself into a series of adventures as a general problem-solver for those he met.

For Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr Benn makes a good metaphor for the Russian president’s penchant for action-man escapades – flying a MiG fighter, diving for Greek amphorae, shooting tranquilliser darts at tigers. Their cover artwork is even based on the cartoon’s opening titles.

Yet these various PR-stunt identities are, in turn, a metaphor for a man who is, psychologically, composed of multiple personas. Each is a product of his background; each plays a part in his governance system, worldview, and response to events. But, tellingly, some now hamper his ability to handle socio-political changes in Russia.

From two leading US-based academics on Russia – Ms Hill is a former US government adviser – this is not just another Putin biography. It is a psychological portrait, a handbook providing sometimes speculative but well-informed answers to the question that has trailed the ex-KGB colonel from St Petersburg ever since he stepped out of the shadows and on to the international stage when he became Russia’s prime minister in 1999: “Who is Mr Putin?”

For the authors, he is a shifting amalgam of six “core” identities. First comes the statist on a mission to restore the power of the Russian state that he believed – like many other senior officials – had been near-fatally undermined by the chaotic post-Soviet transition of the early 1990s.

Then there is the history man, the avid reader of memoirs of Russian historical figures who looks to the past to find ways to restore the state’s power and its identity.

He is the survivalist, the only surviving child of parents who barely came through the wartime Leningrad blockade in which at least 670,000 people died. He sees Russia that way, too – a survivor of invasions and famines that must always prepare for the next.

Mr Putin is also the outsider, from a family that was never part of the Soviet intelligentsia or communist nomenklatura. He was even an atypical recruit for the KGB, on whose doors he knocked and applied to join. Posted to hardline East Germany, he missed Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost entirely, leaving part of his “Russian DNA” missing.

Fifth, he is a free marketeer, who believes in market economics but has a warped understanding of it. And finally, he is the case officer, who brought KGB training and methods to his presidential career.

These elements combine in Mr Putin’s self-styled role as “chief executive officer” of Russia Inc. But it is a clannish style of CEO. The St Petersburg colleagues, oligarchs and Yeltsin-era holdovers that make up his ruling group are bound partly by ties of loyalty.

The real glue is the opportunity to make money, in whatever ways, and for Mr Putin to exert power by hoarding kompromat – compromising material – that could be used against them. Corruption, for Ms Hill and Mr Gaddy, is not a side-effect of his system. It is essential to its operation.

Some myths are usefully exploded. Mr Putin does not want to rebuild the USSR, but draws on the Soviet and tsarist pasts to shape the new Russia. He does not want to restore full-blown state control of the economy. But his role as St Petersburg deputy mayor handing out permits to new businesses in the “Wild East” 1990s made him see market economics as about exploiting rivals’ vulnerabilities and “wheeling and dealing”.

But some Putin personas are now less relevant or even a liability, leaving him not just moulded but also trapped by his past. He struggles to adapt to the wealthier, more politically mature Russia that he has helped create. The history man with a love of Soviet-era jokes harping on about how only he can prevent a return to 1990s anarchy plays badly with younger middle-class Russians who barely remember either period.

Having missed perestroika, Mr Putin is uncomprehending and fearful of demands for change – hence his creeping clampdown since the protests of 2011-12, including pressure on civil society groups. It underlies his swing towards nationalism, reaching out beyond the lost urban youth to the provincial masses with whom his core identities resonate better.

Though the authors do not state it outright, the conclusion from this psycho-portrait is that to survive this presidential term to 2018 and beyond, Mr Putin must invent a new persona. For all his costume-changing antics, it is far from clear that Russia’s leader is capable of it.

The writer is the FT’s East Europe editor

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