Putin inauguration: World view of a Russian feeling dissed
As the second presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin approaches, a former correspondent who once worked for him looks at the world view of the Russian iron man. His theory: The president is feeling dissed by the West and believes it conspires to "destroy" Russia.
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The US Defense secretary, Robert Gates, sat in the front row, feeling the full force of Putin's invective. Mr. Gates was not entirely unsympathetic to Putin's gasp of despair, and during talks in Moscow later that year, made some unprecedented concessions to the Russians, offering them a 24/7 presence at the missile defense installations being planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.Skip to next paragraph
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Gates felt this would assuage the Russians' fears that the system might be aimed against them. The Russians were astonished by the offer – it was the kind of gesture that could have kick-started a whole new relationship, by making the Russians feel included in the West's defense plans rather than threatened by them.
But it came to nothing. Gates had been winging it. When he took the idea back to Washington, it was immediately shot down by the defense establishment. "When we got the offer in writing," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told me with a derisive smile, "not one of the proposals was in it."
Instead of improving ties, incidents like that made things infinitely worse. Putin began to feel he could not trust anything the Americans said. The distrust was mutual. In my role as an adviser to the Kremlin, I tried to explain why it was that the West did not trust Russia. Don't you see, I would say, that if you are cracking down on democracy at home, if you are taking control of all the media, if you refuse to condemn the Soviet past – and even treat Stalin as if he had been just a normal leader – then people in the West are bound to look at you with fear?
The answer was always the same: The West shouldn't lecture us about democracy. We will do things our way.
This brings me to the crux of the problem – the point at which foreign relations and internal politics intersect. Putin is a complex and, in many ways, misguided character. His understanding of "democracy" sees nothing incongruous about the state controlling the media or police beating up demonstrators. But grafted on to this KGB-inspired, controlling mind-set is something the West rarely appreciates – Putin's fear that the West is actively meddling and is determined to "destroy" Russia.
When I first heard him using such language, I took it as mere rhetoric. Now I think he really believes it. He believes the conspiracy began with the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003 and the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, which brought pro-Western leaders to power. Because American-funded pro-democracy groups played a prominent role in these revolutions, Putin believes they were entirely sponsored by the West and would not have happened without Western interference. He believes the recent demonstrations in Russia have the same backing and the same aim – to overthrow his regime.
In fact, both the US and Russia tried to influence the Ukrainian election of 2004. One of Putin's spin doctors, Sergei Markov, sent to Ukraine to help the pro-Russian candidate, spoke to me in apocalyptic terms about what he believed the West was up to: "These people were determined that Ukrainians and Russians should start killing each other – and I mean killing each other." Another spin doctor, Gleb Pavlovsky, said it was part of a "Destroy Russia" project.
The disturbing thing is not that Mr. Markov's and Mr. Pavlovsky's words are utterly fanciful. It is that Putin almost certainly thinks the same way.