To understand Vladimir Putin and his KGB/FSB cadre, it is necessary to back up to the situation of the period of Yeltsin’s rule of Russia after the breakup of the USSR. When Putin took office the situation in Russia was desperate, and the nation was on the verge disintegration.
The budget of the Russian Federation, circa 2000, was approximately that of New York City; police outside Moscow went years without paychecks, emergency medical care was unavailable without cash payment, and lawlessness ruled. I saw this in Russia and spoke to many Russians, most of whom had been forced to be criminals to survive. Honest members of the Duma were machine-gunned down in broad daylight in Moscow. Every member of the Moscow Businessmen’s forum (a reform group) was murdered, one using a biological weapon from the Soviet bioweapons arsenal. Banks were taken over by armed bands that literally burst into boardrooms and forced officials to sign over their banks at gunpoint. I was told in confidence by homicide police while visiting an extremely dangerous Russian city that 30% of the population was believed to have untreated syphilis and at least 25% of the city had died in the previous 7 years from homicide, suicide and starvation; but these were state secrets and anyone revealing them risked life in a prison system where a 5 year sentence had come to mean a 50% chance of survival. Death of schoolteachers, university personnel and other responsible people from starvation had become routine. Ordinary people lived in constant fear of being murdered anywhere, anytime. Girls on their way home from junior high school were raped regularly. I knew a mother who moved heaven and earth to get her daughter out. Russian orphans were bought by the thousands and shipped to Europe to be prostitutes.
At least one million had died from homicide, suicide and starvation in the reverberations of shock treatment on an unprepared population. This number is a simple extrapolation from the figures I obtained in one Russian city that had a population of 800,000 circa 1990 and logged 200,000 such deaths. It must be understood that starvation occurred with food in view in stores, because people had no money and food from aid organizations was stolen to sell on the black market. I was told of children who after serious frostbite in winter because of lack of heat in their homes ate the dead flesh of their hands and arms by a friend of a policewoman in Russia. Russia was a debtor nation, literally laughed at and dismissed by the West. The situation was beyond any tears that could ever be shed from now to eternity.
And yet, in 1998, I was kissed by a huge old boxer, a Master of Sport, in a park far from Moscow. He was so poor the fly of his pants was sewn up with thread, and he asked me to please thank Ronald Reagan for breaking the regime, which I did, although I am not a republican. The time preceding the breakup had been terrible also, and many elders remembered their thirst for freedom. But as George Soros pointed out, freedom without choices is not freedom at all.
In response to this, a cadre of the former KGB worked together to take the country back. These were mostly honest, courageous and patriotic men that decided to rescue their nation. I have great respect for them, and if the USA ever falls into Russia’s straits, I can only hope that we would find men as good and capable. This movement had its roots as a carryover of the old guard in the immediate period after the breakup, which influenced decisions of the Yeltsin administration as it could.
Putin was elected by the sea-change in public opinion created by the bombing of Serbia. This was served up on Russian television with the effect that it would have on the USA if China were to bomb London for months while the USA were weak and powerless. The change in Russian public opinion was so profound that the Moscow chapter of Physicians Against Nuclear War wrote a letter to Yeltsin requesting that he reinstate the policy of mutually assured destruction to protect Russia. Primakov, it may be remembered, was the last person to talk to Milosevic prior to Milosevic defying the USA and NATO. After that last meeting, Primakov told the Western press that he was unable to talk sense into Milosevic. But when Primakov deplaned in Moscow, he told the Russian people that he was reconstructing the Eastern bloc alliance, and Serbia was his first signatory. I happened to be on the phone to a Russian friend who was watching TV during our phone call when this came on. Russia ran our blockade against Serbia for the entire war.
But it was not Primakov who took office. Russia needed a younger man, and one who was not a heavy drinker, so that his brain would not fail in office as so commonly happens in Russia. Putin stabilized his nation; the Russian treasury is now overflowing (quite unlike ours) and fortunes of ordinary Russians have tremendously improved. Putin is a man of hope and change who delivered big results to Russians without big promises. Americans quite simply cannot comprehend what Russia has been through. Every nightmare scenario of the survivalists came true and then it got worse. I include myself when I say that.
Putin is a savior of his people, an honest and very bright patriot; a capable man captaining for the other team. He has done it by riding the price of oil, helped along by black ops, the latter only to be expected, as people use the tools they know to accomplish their goals. Much could be said about that, but here I will point out that Russian behavior in the Middle East has been of the pot-stirring variety, speaking out of both sides of the mouth, which is entirely logical, since disruption of the Middle East causes oil prices to rise. Every time something happens, heads Putin wins, tails everyone else loses; Russia rises rapidly in relative terms, and the cost is next to nothing.
Looking ahead, what do Putin and his cadre of patriots see as challenges for Russia? He sees the USA, with its vast military might, with a huge military base in Baghdad, which is as close to Russia as Mexico City is to the southern border of the USA. He sees China, a nation with 7 times Russia’s population on his flank, rising economically with astounding speed, buying up the soybeans of entire nations like Argentina. He sees global warming scheduled to turn Siberia into a vast new farmland while virtually every other nation’s arable lands shrink. What he sees should make him uneasy indeed.
And that brings us to the Caucasus/Georgia region, and why Putin pressed the Chechen war after he took office. He did so for good reasons – access to the oil and the Caspian Sea. Georgia itself holds the keys to a quantum leap in Russian income and power. There is a pipeline through Georgia from Baku that is the only exit for oil from Central Asia that does not pay toll to Russia. Seizing control of that pipeline will both give Russia income from that oil, and it will provide Russia with the means to strangle the Central Asian former provinces into submission. The significance of these nations for Americans is primarily the economic impact on our pocketbook when the price of oil rises again because Russia gets control of another 46 billion barrels of oil to increase its own 74 billion barrels of reserves. In the larger picture, those Central Asian nations can serve as a tool to bring the USA lower by more and more rapid wealth transfer as prices rise. However, these are independent nations now, not provinces of the Russian Federation. Beyond that though, we must recognize that the ROI of Putin’s investment in Chechnya/Georgia is projected to be phenomenal for the Kremlin. Quite frankly, were I on Putin’s team, I would be making most of the same moves.
This “overreaction” in Georgia is not thuggery for its own sake, nor does it have anything to do with emotionalism; it is a masterful triple play bid. It provides opportunity to perhaps take the nation of Georgia over, and the pipeline with it. At minimum it will end with progress toward that goal of retaking Georgia. It is a step toward re-acquiring an unobstructed land route into the Middle East. And, it is a message to all those small nations that with the USA as your friend, “Who will help you if Russia knocks on your door?” The answer? Not the USA. But the West will shake its finger and scold. The message is that with friends like the USA, who needs enemies?
Beyond control of the only pipeline that supports the central Asian nations that Moscow wants back for their oil, Georgia is a strategic gateway on the map that controls the Georgian Military highway going Iran and Iraq. What does the Kremlin want with Iraq and Iran? Eventually, oil. Russia sees the Middle East as its back yard. They view our being there sort of like the USA views Russian troops in Mexico. On the long slide down from Hubbert’s peak, oil is the key to Russian survival and dominance.
What is most important in the long run is that we need to think very carefully about how we can create linkages with Russia that will give Russia’s leaders an alternative to the present course. For the past 10 years, I have seen no other viable course for Russia to pursue if they are to survive as a nation. Russia has very real problems they must solve in a do-or-die effort. The future of Russia looks very troublesome to them if the nation does not strengthen itself tremendously. The USA demonstrated to Russia that we will not help them, and that we probably are not capable of helping them if we tried. We have shown that our solutions do not work for them, using Russia as an academic’s economic laboratory for failed experiments. We have shown that we will always regard them as an enemy by pressing to expand NATO. By the Kosovo war we have shown Russia that they cannot trust us. Most Americans blithely presume that all Russia needs to do is listen to the USA and their problems will disappear, which is quite wrong. Russia listened to the USA to an extraordinary degree and doing so almost destroyed them. It will take a lot of time and effort to change Russian perceptions, and that won’t happen by serving them platitudes or any other form of talking at them. Is America of the early 21st century capable of thinking and acting intelligently for decades on end toward Russia?