Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin

Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

Intelligence analysts tend to focus on Russia’s weaponry, information operations doctrine, and recent tactics in the Ukraine, but few study the individual responsible for linking these activities together and driving Russia’s future – Vladmir Putin. In Mr. Putin, Ms. Hill and Mr. Gaddy explore the formative events of Putin’s life and the personal, cultural, and psychological roots of his behavior. Published in 2014, this book foreshadows his malicious and disruptive activities both in Russia and abroad and provides disturbing parallels to the current administration.

Putin’s ultimate goal is to restore Russia’s position as a great power and world civilization. To do this, he has placed himself at the center of the government, as the CEO who provides the strategy and general course. He is surrounded by a small group of trusted aides who determine the tactics for his strategy and a larger state apparatus that carries out his orders with minimal oversight. The Russian populace has no agency or influence in Putin’s corporation. Hill and Gaddy outline multiple facets of the former KGB agent’s persona, and how he relies on each to shape his strategy for Russia:

  • The History Man: Putin has a deep knowledge of Russian history and views Russia as neither Western nor Asian, but as a proud, independent state. Because he views information as a tool, he regularly manipulates history to serve his purpose. To rally Russian pride, he has altered narratives and returned toppled Soviet statues to their pedestals, claiming they are an important part of Russian history.
  • The Statist: Preservation of a strong Russian state is paramount, and Putin believes it rests on three pillars: the Orthodox Christian religion, the tsar, and the Russian nation loyal to the tsar. As he set the stage for invading Crimea, Putin emphasized the many Orthodox holy sites located in Ukraine and its history as an integral part of Russia, though he personally is not particularly religious. As the tsar, he often emphasizes the importance of the law to keep things in order and routinely claims that only he can properly run the Russian state. Putin defines the Russian “nation” as it suits him – when he requires inclusivity he uses vocabulary that alludes to Russia as a big tent with room for ethnic minorities; at other times he uses more restrictive terms that appeal to ethnic nationalists. The Russian language itself is easily weaponized; for example the word mir can denote the smallest, peasant commune as well as the outside world or universe, peace, or reconciliation. When Russia was still a wild frontier, in the Russkiy mir everyone worked together or they died apart – a concept that Putin relies on when he wants to illustrate the importance of national unity against the West.
  • The Free Marketer: Putin wants to run Russia as a business, but he views capitalism in an explicitly realist way – as long as the CEO can make the best deal for himself, the methods are irrelevant. This includes forming personal connections with regulators to achieve favorable outcomes and exploiting loopholes in the law. Putin views the relationship with China in transactional terms – they allow Russia to serve a key role as civilizational bridge between Europe and Asia, provide economic benefits, and create a geopolitical balance in the United Nations. Russia’s ties with China are still a work in progress, as it previously focused more on US, Europe, and the Middle East, and China still views Russia as rooted in Europe as opposed to an independent entity. Russia also leverages the BRICS as they have generally been a good brand, the relationship involves only five countries which Putin can personally manage, and their goal is simple – to reduce U.S. and Western economic leverage.
  • The Survivalist: Both his childhood and his early studies shaped his survial instincts. Putin grew up poor during difficult economic times in Leningrad; as a small child he learned judo to understand how to best exploit an opponent’s weaknesses. At university, he wrote his dissertation on King and Cleland’s business strategy textbook, Strategic Planning and Policy, which impacts his way of thinking to this day. According to King and Cleland, the essence of strategic planning is not long-term planning, but preparing for contingencies, adapting to the changing environment, and always remaining focused on the overall goals/objectives. 
  • The Outsider: Growing up in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) allows Putin to claim he is not part of the Moscow elite (when convenient) or the ruling class. While he was in the KGB, he was posted to Dresden, East Germany from 1985 to 1990; thus he missed Gorbachev’s implementation of glasnost, perestroika, and democratization and he did not experience the severe economic hardships of that time period which was followed by the break-up of the Soviet Union. As the “tsar” he believes he rules over the Duma, which exists only to carry out his orders. He reinforces his high station by publicly degrading and humiliating subordinates, bureaucrats, and oligarchs.  
  • The Case Officer: Putin’s KGB background colors how he approaches most relationships; he is an expert at collecting, synthesizing, and using information. He has grown his personal power through subtle and overt blackmail, constantly seeking for ways to gain leverage over key individuals in Russia and abroad. To Putin, blackmail is a way to achieve loyalty. He is slow to trust most people, though he has built some notable connections. Fluent in German, he gained an appreciation for German culture and history while stationed in Dresden and has formed close relationships with Gerhard Schroder, former chancellor of Germany, and Helmut Schidt, co-publisher of Germany’s most prominent newspaper and former chancellor of West Germany. Although he and Angela Merkel share similar backgrounds – she speaks Russian and grew up poor in East Germany – their personal relationship has been primarily antagonistic. Putin has befriended Henry Kissinger, who was born in Germany and is also a former intelligence officer; Kissinger has served as Putin’s interpreter for U.S actions and views. Putin himself has little personal experience within the U.S as he does not speak English, has not traveled outside major cities, and has no close American friends. He sees no value in a personal relationship with a U.S. president because Congress and other political actors constrain the president’s ability to act.

Russia’s April 2014 occupation of Crimea is an excellent example of Putin’s strategy in action. Putin believes the West is constantly trying to use political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and nonmilitary measures against Russia; U.S. senior officials attending the protests in Kyiv reinforced this point in Putin’s mind. As a result, Putin prepared for the contingency that he would have to intervene in the Ukraine if President Yanukovych, who was personally indebted to him, ever lost control. When Yanukovych fled following massive protests relating to his postponement of an agreement with the EU, Putin was ready to deploy a host of tactics including economic, legal, Russian nationalism and history, information operations, propaganda, and military force. He called in all Ukrainian debts and stopped manufacturing orders in an effort to destroy Ukraine’s economy and make them less lucrative to the EU. He declared Ukraine’s interim government illegal and labeled them antisemites, xenophobes, and terrorists. When the interim government briefly repealed Russian as a second official language, he claimed Kyiv posed a threat to ethnic Russians and religious minorities living in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea. He twisted history to claim Crimea was Russian territory. Coincidentally, a popular sci-fi novel series called Battlefield Ukraine was published which bolstered Russia’s image and glorified its battle against the West in a struggle for survival. When the annexation was complete, Putin hosted a huge propaganda event in Crimea which included theatrics with military vehicles and fireworks. The next day he assembled the Russian Duma in Yalta  – hearkening back to the WWII conference – and gave a speech proclaiming that the West needed to stop threatening and encroaching on Russia.

Putin continues to prepare for conflict with the West and the United States specifically; in his view, U.S. military offensives in Kosovo and Iraq and the enlargement of NATO all indicate that the U.S. is actively preparing to attack Russia. Consequently, Putin has focused on strengthening his control in Russia. To reduce its vulnerability to Western information he issued a state policy for “patriotic education” to strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society. The Kremlin, RT, and Orthodox Church urged “conservatives of the world to unite” behind Putin’s conservative agenda as way to influence Western populist politicians and make them a potential weapon. On the economic front, he has offered lucrative positions on Russian corporate boards to Western politicians and wealthy individuals. He has diversified Russia’s trade and investments to increase resiliency to sanctions and the exclusion from the G8. Militarily, Russia continues to combine real world and simulation inputs to develop its doctrine and improve its capabilities in a multi-domain fight.

Since the publication of this book, Putin has continued down a path that consolidates all the levers of national power under his control, and he has sanctioned brazen attacks against his enemies at home and abroad, including interference in American and British elections, poisoning of opposition figures, and information warfare to create doubt and dissolution in the West. It will take a focused international effort to counter his strategy, but the odds of that do not seem to be in our favor.

Follow Up:

  1. Read A Sense of the Enemy: The high-stakes history of reading your rival’s mind by Zachary Shore…when people break with patterns of behavior, that is when we can understand their real character – what they value most
  2. Read Strategic Planning and Policy by King and Cleland – essence of strategic planning is not long-term but planning for contingencies and adapting to changing environment; remain focused on constant objectives
  3. How does this one-person rule introduce vulnerabilities and how can the U.S. exploit those?
  4. Can the US compete with a country where the power, plans, and influence are consolidated under one man?

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