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time.com › Ideas › politics
Nov 28, 2017 - While Putin's successes are made obvious, his failures have been placed on the back burner, where they simmer in anger and disappointment.
Jun 1, 2015 - While Russian troops are again massing at the Ukrainian border, and the first reports of renewed fighting are heard, Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down hard on the free flow of information in his republic. What is Putin preparing for? And what can be done to break the hold he imposes on his ...
Kalb, senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard, is the author of the memoir The Year I Was Peter the Great—1956: Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost and a Young American in Russia.
In projecting an image of expansive personal power and influence, Putin leaves little to chance. He wears a large cross, given to him by his mother, that he swears was blessed in the Holy Land. He speaks with reverence of the year (988) when Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus led the Christianization of the Russian people. On special occasions, he rides horses bare-chested across the Russian tundra. He knows in his gut the Russian people admire such a strong vozhd, and he is determined to be their hero.
Start with the economy. It has been stagnating from slipping oil prices and the Western sanctions imposed in 2014, after Russia seized Crimea and instigated a revolt in southeastern Ukraine. Across the country, strikes (which are increasingly illegal) have sprung up—short, spontaneous and a sign of deepening labor unrest. Meanwhile, salaries have been withheld, sometimes for months. Families have been denied financial compensation for children who die on duty; this was once a given.
By now the revolt in Ukraine has stale-mated, with the conflict a costly continuing endeavor. The Russian intrusion into the Syrian civil war did embarrass the U.S.—and save Bashar Assad’s regime—but it also carries the danger of wider conflict, possibly involving the U.S. Russians have begun to ask, Is it worth it?
Why would Putin need a powerful praetorian guard? He already has a sophisticated, re-equipped military force. A study of the man strongly suggests that, whatever polls may say, Putin nurses a deep fear of his own people. He is afraid that one day they will rise up against him, as they did against the government 100 years ago on Nov. 7, 1917. One similar uprising looms large in his own biography. Putin was a KGB officer in Dresden in the late 1980s when a mob of angry Germans stormed his headquarters after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As he tried desperately to burn official papers, he telephoned Moscow for instructions. No one answered his call. Stunned, he vowed, never again.
In power, Putin has seen other popular uprisings. A “color” revolution in Ukraine in 2004 frightened him, and he was at the time unable to suppress it. In ’08, Georgia exploded; this time Putin used military force to crush it. Ukraine surged again in ’14, so Putin—concerned that the Ukrainians’ embrace of freedom and independence might spread to the Russian people—took military action. He occupied Crimea, and soon thereafter moved into southeast Ukraine, which still smolders.
Putin may strut on the global stage, but the creation of his guard betrays consuming doubts about his political longevity. Czar Nicholas II had such a guard too, called the okhrana. It protected that ruler up until 1917, when the Russian people said “enough.” That is one word Putin does not want to hear anytime soon.