Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students

When Putin occasionally grieves publicly over the Soviet Union’s demise and expresses pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners worldwide. Putin, just being himself, certainly does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Still, he is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. A group of university students in the US inquired with greatcharlie on Putin’s expressions concerning the Soviet Union following a lively seminar debate. It was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to their inquiry. Hopefully, what is at the root of Putin’s stance on the Soviet Union has been figuratively dug up for them to see.

In late-May 2019, greatcharlie received an intriguing message from some undergraduate students of a university in the US concerning recurrent comments of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, lamenting the Soviet Union’s demise. There had apparently been a very lively debate in their political science seminar on Putin’s “often public lamentations over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his insistence that it had many positive attributes and that as a superpower, it played a valuable role globally.” The students’ solicitation of greatcharlie’s thoughts on the matter was flattering. It was even more stirring to see them express great interest in international affairs and Russian politics in particular. Another subject was selected for greatcharlie’s June post.  However, rather than simply suggest a few books and journal articles to supplement their seminar debate, it was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to the students’ inquiry. Undergraduate and graduate students represent a significant portion of greatcharlie’s audience. The hope of greatcharlie is that by responding in this way, these intrepid students and others reading the blog will be encouraged to further pursue their international affairs studies and to continue reaching out beyond their classroom lessons to augment their knowledge base.

Confusion over one’s thinking can often issue from imprudently offering enthusiasms on a subject. When Putin occasionally offers pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners. Putin, just being himself, does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Yet, Putin is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. It would be counterintuitive not to accept that when Putin acts at any level, he does so with purpose and that purpose can be uncovered. What is at the root of Putin’s nostalgic, pro-Soviet position is figuratively dug up for them to see from this somewhat informal, multidirectional examination. Hopefully, it discusses a few valuable points perhaps not covered in the inquiring students’ seminar. Further, from this examination, insights were generated on the Russian Federation President’s intentions and actions that will contribute to the foreign policy debate internationally. Nulla tenaci invia est via. (For the tenacious no road is impassable.)

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was the very public nature of his expressions. Even in those dire initial days in office, Putin rarely offered comments off the cuff that could possibly produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as they related to feelings of patriotism were heard from him before. Still, he avoided uttering sentiments that stemmed from truly personal feelings. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Putin Has Said Some Interesting Things about the Soviet Union

When Putin first began publicly discussing his feelings about the Soviet Union, he provided a rare glimpse of how thoughts coalesced in his consciousness. Only a few years earlier Putin had become a full-fledged political man, a deputy mayor of St Petersburg, and then suddenly found himself at the very top, learning his way through the Kremlin jungle, domestic politics, and the larger world of global international affairs. Prior to his statements about the Soviet Union, Putin left no doubt that the essence of his thinking was akin to a “Russia First” concept. On August 16, 1999, the members of the State Duma, the Russian Federation’s Parliament, met to approve Putin’s candidacy of a prime minister. He was President Boris Yeltsin’s fifth premier in 16 months. In his speech to the Duma, Putin stated with spirit: “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest . . . We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.” Being Yeltsin’s choice, Putin was dutifully confirmed as prime minister without much been made in support of, or against, his nationalistic stance. His strong patriotic tone was heard again in a statement made in Part 5, “The Spy” of Putin’s memoir First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) page 80. One of the interviewers preparing the book, notes that she asked him, “Did you suffer when the Berlin Wall fell?”, he explained: “Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable. I only really regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”

Even so, only after a few short months as acting president and as the elected president, Putin, with the apparent aim of keeping the Russian Federation a welcomed player on the international stage, began taking a nuanced approach in issuing statements. When Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin departed in 1999, he left his young, hand-picked successor, Putin, with a rather dire situation economically, socially, and politically. Through strenuous efforts, Putin managed to halt what was once the country’s downward spiral toward abject ruin. Yet, after leveling things off, he hoped to move forward with plans and programs to improve living standards for average Russians and conditions around the country as a whole. At Kremlin press conferences, official government meetings and events, political rallies,  presentations at universities, policy think tanks, scholarly journals, and other institutions, Putin expressed his desire to create something better for the Russian people. Reading through Putin’s December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”, that appeared on the website of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, he clearly believed, boiled down to the bones, that the key to Russia’s progress would be a successful effort to maximize the performance potential of the Russian people. That became his stated aim. He would focus on those factors that have brought some level of success and advancement, and attempt to amplify them to create some change.

Putin also was interested in acquiring Western investment into his economically troubled country to provide the people with the support they needed. For a while, he seemed to stoke Western approval of the Russian Federation with his words. However, he also made a number of half-turns away from a pro-Western position that really evinced there was a duality in thinking. As an example, on March 5, 2000, Putin made a statement to the effect that he did not rule out having the Russian Federation join NATO. However, he stressed that it would only do so “when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.” After stating that he could not imagine Russia being isolated from Europe, Putin went further on NATO to state: “it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” Putin’s nuanced language was apparent, too, when very publicly broaching the issue of the Soviet Union’s fall. He remarked: “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain.” Putin’s efforts were successful to the extent that statements as these caused the West, if not to drop its guard, certainly to take a more relaxed view of him and his intentions. It would seem even then, that his true feelings and intentions would have readily identified him as a Russian nationalist. In that same vein, those pro-Western statements ran counter to the strong nature of his later statements of near adoration of the Soviet Union.

Soon enough, that nuanced bit of his statements that provided a touch of goodwill to the West was dropped. The collapse of the Soviet Union was publicly discussed by Russian Federation officials with the apparent goal of amplifying the message to world of how badly Russian people suffered as a result and that consideration might be given to increasing any efforts to invest in and generally assist their country. It also had the purpose of letting the Russian people know that their government was aware of their plight. No deception was being used then to hide deficiencies in the system which was the practice under Soviet rule. On April 25, 2005, Putin stated: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” In process of repairing things, however, Putin encountered significant obstacles that primarily concerned the capabilities and capacity of the Russian people to get beyond only making changes here and there for the better, and get behind efforts at making real progress. The product of his efforts could be characterized as rather anemic. There was still an uneasiness in Russia when Putin began as president. Morale was low, fruitful activity was sparse, and new, useful ideas were absent. One might posit that faced with disappointment and discontent over immediate results of his own efforts over the years, he has been able to manage his greatest concern which is not to allow the country to roll backward. That was probably a nightmare that likely nearly suffocated him many nights at the time. In order to stabilize the situation, he apparently decided to turn toward something that felt familiar and safe. Eventually, Putin’s goal became to develop some simulacrum of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union. Sustainability was less likely a concern given the exigent circumstance of a need for immediate answers. On March 2, 2018, Putin issued his most direct comment to date about the Soviet collapse. Taking questions from supporters in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad, Putin was asked what Russian historical event he would like to change. Putin immediately answered, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was its very public nature. Putin has never been anything akin to some wandering preacher, expressing his convictions about matters. Even in those dire early days in office, Putin, who emerged from the secret world of Soviet intelligence, rarely offered comments off the cuff that could produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as it related to feelings of patriotism were certainly heard from Putin before. Still, Putin is a man who has typically avoided uttering sentiments genuinely stemming from personal feelings, which in this case was his grief over loss of the Soviet Union. If he ever slipped up and revealed blithely his inner feelings on a matter, he would have moved quickly to preserve the confidentiality of such statements. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was clearly because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated Western characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons.

The KGB Factor

An immediate impression of Putin’s words might reasonably be that he and most likely many others who were part of the Soviet apparat continued to adhere to their “unique reality” about the Soviet Union. Indeed, his statements were true to life with respect to the commitment to the Soviet system by hardline, old guard, former apparatchiks, which includes Communist Party functionaries or government bureaucrats, nomenklatura or high ranking management, and dead-enders among former rank and file Soviet citizens. For all those from the same water in which Putin swam, each time anyone referenced the Soviet Union in such a positive manner, there would doubtlessly be agreement that it was the full version. For them, such words from Putin likely ring patriotic bells. It strikes greatcharlie as hopelessly derivative to remind readers that Putin’s decisions and actions have been influenced by his life in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, initialized from Russian and better known as the KGB. It was Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Nonetheless, it is a reality and an important factor that should be examined first.

A seemingly infinite number of primary and secondary sources exist on the KGB. However, an intriguing Cold War era description of the KGB that greatcharlie has referred to often is a concise November 13, 1982 New York Times article entitled, “KGB Praised By Some Feared By Many”. The article explained that the KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the Soviet Government. It measured the strength of the KGB at 90,000 or so staff officers inside the Soviet Union to guard against internal security threats and run the political prisons. Along the country’s borders, 175,000 of border troops patrol its 41,800 miles of frontiers. Outside of the country, the article noted that its scientific-technical operatives sweep Western countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its ”illegals” try to penetrate foreign intelligence operations. The article explains further that the first Communist secret service, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage, mainly referred to under the acronym Cheka, virtually copied the Czarist secret police organization and even co-opted some of its more capable officers. The Cheka’s founder, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was quoted as saying, ”Trust is good, but control is better,” and, in 1918, ”We stand for organized terror.” In its earlier years, the article states, the Soviet secret police acquired a reputation as an instrument of mass terror: beginning in the 1920s as the organizer and supplier at home of huge concentration camps where millions perished; in the 1930s as Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s executor of huge purges of the party and the Red Army officer corps; and, in the late 1940s and 1950s, as the perpetrator of assassinations of opponents abroad. The latter killings were performed by a group specialized in what Soviet intelligence reportedly  called ”wet affairs”. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death on March 5,1953, the KGB was accused of trying a coup in the Kremlin, using secret police troops. Its chief, Lavrenti P. Beria, was seized by his party comrades and executed. The article notes that it was not until 20 years later that the KGB recapture the degree of respect it once held in the Soviet Union when its director, Yuri Andropov, was elected to the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

Citing a common perspective of Western intelligence specialists then, the article states that the KGB, while retaining excellent abilities in traditional espionage was devoting greater resources to acquiring Western military and industrial technology. In fact, in the decade before the article was written, the KGB has acquired the plans of American spy satellites, advanced radar, computer source codes and conventional weapon innovations. It posits that those acquisitions could have been attributed to Andropov. It was under his supervision the KGB became a type of office for technology transfer from the West, in addition to its conventional tasks, such as penetrating the coderooms of the NATO alliance. The article further explains that the KGB, to the envy of foreign intelligence services, was able to retain key personnel for many decades, providing a kind of continuity particularly valuable in counterintelligence. The article quoted an assessment of the KGB by James J. Angleton, retired head of the CIA’s counterintelligence branch, a controversial figure, yet sacred cow US intelligence. Angleton simply stated: “I wish we had their continuity.”

Interestingly, the New York Times article’s treatment of the KGB had an almost prosecutorial tone. Still, there should not be any misunderstanding that among those who were or potentially could have been victims of the KGB in the Soviet Union and abroad, the organization was not by any means viewed as the “good guys”. its actions were not misunderstood. However, while it is a bit one-sided, the article manifests prevailing Western impressions of the KGB at the time, It hopefully allows one to gain a sense of the tension and tenor of the geopolitical struggle between East and West during the Cold War as late as the 1980s.

In First Person, Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Indications are that members of the KGB managed to skirt many of tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. He has great reason to be thankful to it.

On Putin’s KGB Perspective

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. (Into the truth through shadows and images.) Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. While embellished to a considerable degree, that remains the “commercialized”, Hollywood version of the KGB officer, popular in the West during the Cold War. It was certainly a great departure from reality. Essentially, for Putin, they paint a portrait of someone who does not exist. Some appear so satisfied seeing Putin as such, they do not seem interested in getting the picture straight. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons. A fair appraisal of Putin’s career would be that he was good at his work and that he well-impressed his colleagues and superiors alike. Certainly, he could be dashing and audacious when necessary, but moreover he was honorable and discreet, using his wits and memory. He progressed gradually and fruitfully with agents he recruited. As a result of his many successes, he received promotions up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Similar to most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian noted: “Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”  In his bildungsroman, First Person. Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. The officers of the KGB were the tried and true protectors of the Soviet Union. The organization was praised by the Communist leadership as the country’s ”sword and shield”. The KGB certainly had the trust of its customers. At the same time, the KGB, was an indispensable instrumentality of the government to the extent it was the means through which it subjected the Russian people to terrible conditions believing that there was little chance that those conditions would fully effect its members. Indications are that KGB officers managed to skirt many of the tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. For those reasons alone, he has great reason to be thankful to it. In Part 3, “The University Student” of First Person, Putin states about himself: “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” Ubi bene, ibi patria.  (Homeland is where your life is good.)

It must be mentioned that Karen Dawisha, in Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014), insists that there was more than an emotional connection between former KGB officers and the Soviet Union. Dawisha explains that in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency that the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dmitry Medvedev.) When his boss, Alexander Sobchak lost his bid for reelection as St. Petersburg’s mayor, Putin was out of a job. Yet, in the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President. On April 2, 2015, greatcharlie posted a review of Putin’s Kleptocracy. There is far too much to follow along that argument to unpack here. However, Dawisha does an excellent job of providing evidence to support her thesis. It could very well be an important part of the larger picture of Putin, the KGB, and governance in the Russian Federation.

Why a KGB Veteran Is Likely to Follow His Former Institution’s Line of Thinking

Surely, those who joined the KGB would say that they had answered the call to serve their nation in the security service. Some likely found a home, that offered employment security, a steady salary a place to belong to, a place where they will be taken care of, and an ordered life. That would not be considered irregular. The same could be said of those who have sought military careers or foreign service careers. Yet, as a result of more than a “collective consciousness” about defending the homeland, and given the unique nature of their work, a bond would form among KGB personnel and their families to the extent that a sort of mini society existed in the service. There may be some evidence that KGB officers, having an innate sense for being discreet, were mainly repressed people. Unable to express love within family or in close circles, the repressed have a habit of investing emotionally into larger organizations. Their love can be put into an institution, which in the case of Putin and his colleagues, was the KGB. The intelligence service, that closed off part of the intelligence officer’s life, becomes his family. For some, it becomes their raison d’etre. That type of linkage can lead to difficulties upon retirement and separation from organization. That makes associations of retired intelligence professional all the more important by creating links to the organization in which they served. The more contentment officers found in the KGB, the more settled and satisfied they became with their lives. Through the KGB, they got the picture of their lives straight.

Putin rose meteorically through the newly formed Russian Federation Government under Yeltsin almost as if his life had been mapped out by providence. He found support and guidance from former KGB colleagues from St. Petersburg which is both his hometown and where got his start in politics at the local level. Many have since become officials in Putin’s government, political leaders, and key business leaders with whom Putin remains in close contact. In the KGB, these former officers are affectionately referred to as Chekists. They come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Among the aforementioned cadre of government officials, political leaders, and business leaders with whom Putin has surrounded himself are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg were mostly Cheka. Putin’s own Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was in fact raised in the Chekisty (Chekists) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. With a loyal and effective team, Putin could stay ahead of troublesome political and business leaders that would disrupt his plans more often than not to the extent they would enable themselves to achieve their own self-aggrandizing, short term goals. However, by surrounding himself with like-minded Chekists of his “KGB family”, retaining his prevailing Chekist beliefs that aspects of the Soviet Union provides a good model for Russia to itself build upon has been made easier for Putin.

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, were not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. Those who were not privileged seem to discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. According to a December 19, 2018 Levada Center poll, more Russians regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union then than at any other time since 2004.

Is Putin in Touch with His Fellow Russians Regarding the Soviet Union?

His KGB life aside, Putin must be able recall that the Soviet Union was not satisfying for all Russians. Even in First Person, Putin admits that housing conditions for his family in St. Petersburg were far less than perfect, nevertheless, they still lived better than many. For those not so enthusiastic with the Soviet system, Putin’s pro-Soviet sentiments likely reminded of the ugliness of a not so distant past. The majority of Russians were unable to obtain positions equivalent in prominence and power as Putin held. Surely, they did enjoy the relatively staid and secure life that came with it. While it was more “democratic” to claim that Soviet citizens had equal access to education, opportunity, housing, sustenance, health care, social welfare, and other programs, efforts by the Soviet system in that direction were more cosmetic than consequential in establishing the type of society to which they made claim. All of those services, while satisfying when made available and were of appropriate quality, hardly reflected an effort by the Soviet government to respond to the will of the people.

Under the authorized description of the Soviet system, it was a so-called classless society. However, it assuredly was economically stratified, and could be visualized in terms of concentric circles. The quality of life for citizens in the society would degrade sharply as one looks outward from the center all the way to those circles at the end where citizens struggled daily to survive. Those who occupied the center circle were the nomenklatura, the country’s leaders and power elites at the top. Those moguls lived in luxury relative to other citizens, and enjoyed the best things that Russia had to offer. Outside of the nomenklatura, the standard of living was passable for Soviet citizens from what would approximate “middle-class”. Those were usually the apparatchiks of the Soviet system, full-size functionaries of the Communist Party or the Soviet government apparat (apparatus). Apparatchiks were also those who worked in any bureaucratic  position or position of political responsibility. In many cases, they were lucky enough to be employed under the “self-management” concept positions, which required employees to evaluate the quality of their own productivity. However, that virtual middle-class was never completely comfortable for they , too, could suffer the effects of housing shortages, rationing, corruption, and other inconveniences. In some cases, they had to pay their superiors in order to keep their positions. This was even true in some parts of the military

Russian citizens living under a lower standard encountered those same problems and more with far greater intensity. They often suffered periods of rationing and privation. Some fell into a state of penury, a reality that the Soviet system desperately sought to conceal. They were forced to make the most of nothing. Those citizens emerged from the Soviet system holding a worldview, infiltrated by pessimism. They fully experienced the self-serving, self-enriching, behavior of national leaders for whom they were simply statistics.

Of the many Russians émigrés who escaped the Soviet Union during the Cold War, some who were activists or associated with activist organizations, were labelled anti-social elements when they lived there, and the Soviet government was likely happy to rid the country of them. There were some defectors, and some who managed to immigrate in order to take advantage of Western educational and professional training programs, getting away from the Soviet Union. What these groups typically had in common though, was the manner in which they spoke with disdain about of the Soviet system once they arrived overseas. They generally told stories with unmitigated rancor of an abominable government security apparatus that abused power, had neighbors spy on neighbors, obliterated all aspects of privacy, and made freedom something that could only be enjoyed in dreams. They could vividly recount their difficult lives in a manner that would bring the walls down. Very often, Soviet intelligence services would troll émigré communities in the West, to recruit and develop agents abroad using the threat of harming family members still living in the Soviet Union if cooperation was not provided.

Immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, tens of thousands of detailed facts, intriguing anecdotes, and classified debriefings collected on furtive actions taken by the KGB were collected from the archives (vaults) of what was once called 2 Fellx Dzerzhinsky Square Moscow, the headquarters and prison of the KGB. With that information, and insights such those discussed here, there is enough to assess today, as it had been at the time of the Soviet Union’s demise, that the inability of the government to find an efficacious way to meet its all important responsibility to provide for and ensure the well-being of its citizenry, that led to the country’s downfall. Despite all of the alleged promise and dogma uttered about the “great socialist system”, the results confirmed that the Soviet concept was never viable. Despite all appearances, the country for years was slowly being strangled by many ills from within. While not easily stirred by the transfer from one national leader to another, at some level, Russians surely had expected that the rather shrewd, worldly-wise young ex-KGB man, Putin, might be the elixir their country needed. Many may have hoped that he would be able to present a concept for change to overcome what was before. It certainly would not have expected that Putin main focus would be to use Russia as a platform from which the supposed splendor and the power of the Soviet Union could be reestablished

As Putin, himself, acknowledged, the average Russian citizen had little idea beyond the US and the European Union to find examples of what they quietly wanted to be after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in that case, they had absolutely no idea what it would really take to reach such heights. They also had little knowledge of how to discern what would indicate a political leader has the qualifications or capabilities to put the country on a path to advance there successfully. Steps in that direction were made. Russia was made a member of what became the G8 and G20. It would become the key member of NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It participated in UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions mandated by resolutions. After the 1990s, there was the image of Russia acquiring a place at the main table with the top industrialized countries despite its precarious situation economically, socially, politically, and militarily. As a policy, Russia sought to incorporate itself into the international system of regulating foreign economic operations, particularly the World Trade Organization. However, paying careful attention to Putin’s words when he was acting President, the impression is created that finding a true path toward comity with the West was not actually on his mind. Putin explained in his very revealing essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”: “Russia will not become a second edition of say the US or Britain, where liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, it is a source of order and the main driving force of any change.”

Do Russians Want to Go Back to Soviet Days?

In the West, one might expect that concerns or fears would be so universal among all Russian citizens over any wording that would even hint some form of the Soviet Union would be reanimated in Russia. That uneasiness clearly would not be based on unreason and paranoia, but rather upon the experience of having lived so shabbily under its system. Conceivably as a result of the experience many Russians had enduring dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union and living with the limitations and inconveniences of daily life in the Russian Federation, they had become expert in keeping a sense of proportion. The follow-on to the Soviet system was supposed to be the great Russian liberalization. However, that was not the case.

There are occasionally some significant grumblings about Putin’s governance. Protest rallies become considerably more intense than perambulating demonstrators near election dates. Flaps of clashes with police and the security services by more politically active segments of the population have been predicted by Western experts, and reported in the Western media, as spelling the beginning of the end for Putin. Nevertheless, Putin remains. Interestingly, Putin has been ridiculed and denounced in the news media. Further, there has been television programming in the Russian Federation that has lampooned Putin much to his dissatisfaction. However, he hardly dealt with any problems of considerable intensity from his core constituency or, relatively, from the majority of Russians countrywide. They have not really exhorted Putin to try harder. They keep within the margins. Perhaps the old adage “go with what you know” could be applied, for it best suits the situation for the Russian people regarding their country’s path and its leadership. To the extent that they will continue have any order in their country, average Russians believe that they can at best rely upon Putin. That begrudging sense of being somewhat satisfied has been just enough to bring Putin victory in election after election. One might say therein lies a sort of duplicity on their part. Still, in an even bigger way, the Russian people are really gambling on Putin’s mortality. The possibilities of who might come to power from other powerful political forces in Russia is hair raising. Via trita, via tuta. (Beaten path, safe path.)

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, typically are not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. That is quite intriguing because those who were not privileged seemingly discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. They are the dead-enders. It is posited here that in some cases, such pro-Soviet elements apparently focus upon and magnify aspects of Soviet life that they may have enjoyed from the totality of their experiences and then determined that it was as a result of the benefits of being Soviet. To be more precise, it appears that as a result of some psychological transference, what defined their private existence somehow became what universally defined their existence under the Soviet system. Those positive, pleasant aspects of Soviet life may actually have been things such as good times had among family, friends and colleagues that in reality are common to people all over the world, transcending citizenship or nationality. Perhaps in Soviet terms, it could be chalked up to humanism. While being a Soviet citizen may have been a common experience, what they had even more in common was their humanity. It was the US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey, who stated: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

Statistical evidence of such pro-Soviet thinking among former rank and file Soviet citizens was provided by a poll published on December 19, 2019 by the Levada Center, a Russian independent, nongovernmental polling and sociological research organization. According to that poll, more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union at that moment in time more so than any other since 2004. The poll was conducted between November 18, 2018 and November 28, 2018, surveyed 1,600 people nationwide. When asked whether they regret the 1991 Soviet collapse, 66 percent of respondents answered “yes”. That represented an increase of 58 percent from 2017, and is the highest proportion since 2004, the last year of Putin’s first term. Reportedly, 25 percent of respondents said they did not regret the Soviet breakup, the lowest proportion since 2005, and 9 percent said they could not answer. Interestingly, Levada found that Russians’ concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret. Indeed, a Levada pollster explained that 52 percent of respondents named the collapse of the Soviet Union’s “single economic system” as the main thing they regretted. The peak of regret over the Soviet collapse came in 2000, when 75 percent of Russian polled by Levada answered “yes” to the same question. At the same time, 36 percent said they miss the “feeling of belonging to a great power,” and 31 percent lamented mistrust and cruelty in society.

US and Soviet armor units face-off at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin October 27-28, 1961 (above) For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against efforts by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West always emphasized its moral superiority, but that never needed to be done in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West through newsmedia stories, spoke for itself.

The World Does Not Miss the Soviet Union

An examination of the Soviet Union’s position in the world cannot be made by only weighing how the government administered the domestic affairs of the country against the preferences of quondam citizens. Those who speak nostalgically before the world about their own positive version of the Soviet Union, such as Putin, typically engage in an act of omission by airbrushing its realities. The impression is given that its collapse was the result of some benign decision among its republics to succeed to pursue their own aims. They omit, albeit intentionally, that the failed country not only posed problems for its own citizenry, but particularly after World War II, it posed a threat to the world. To be frank, the history of Soviet behavior is atrocious. The people of countries that stand just outside of its sphere of influence but close enough to feel threatened, and the people of border countries that are former Soviet republics, many of which in some way have been victimized by Russian Federation transgression, would unlikely ever think or say anything positive about the Soviet Union. The haunting spectre of the departed Soviet Union has helped to form negative impressions of the Russian Federation. Surely, one should not, using a broad brush, condemn the people of a country for the acts of their government. It was the Soviet government that ruled by fear and terror and was the anathema. As for the Soviet people, they were most often appreciated around the world. Many significant contributions were made by the Soviet people to the arts, mathematics, sciences, engineering, philosophy,  that were remarkable. Some space could reasonably be granted for former Soviet citizens wax about the loss of a homeland and those good days that existed. Still, looking at the pertinent facts, the greater realities about the Soviet Union cannot be denied.

Running through the basics of the Cold War, one would learn that in the postwar period, the Soviet Union essentially replaced Germany as occupiers large areas of Eastern Europe, to include Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In a very powerful speech in Fulton, Missouri in March 5,1946, the then former United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill would say that those countries were locked behind an “Iron Curtain.” In those countries, a process of “Sovietization” began. Soviets operatives worked behind the scenes to establish puppet governments that would serve as an extension of Moscow’s rule. These governments had the initial appearance of being democratic but in reality were not. Local Communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power, usually after coups or rigged elections. All political parties, other than the Communist Party, were dissolved. Leaders of the Soviet-dominated countries would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their societies. As a result of Soviet efforts, an “Eastern Bloc” and “Soviet Bloc” had been established. US officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “Containment” formulated by the US diplomat George Kennan. In his famous February 22, 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow outlining the policy, Kennan explained that the Soviet Union was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, the only choice for the US was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” US President Harry Truman agreed with Kennan and stated before the US  Congress on March 12,1947, “It [Containment] must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation . . . by outside pressures.” In his speech, Truman also asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey to counter Soviet meddling in those countries. The Containment Policy would shape US foreign policy for the next four decades.

Direct confrontation came when the Soviet Union cut all road and rail links to West Berlin, allegedly in response to a decision by the US, the United Kingdom, and France to merge their occupation sectors of the city. With no access to any sustenance, the US and United Kingdom flew in tons of food and supplies by air transports in what was known as the Berlin Airlift. Elsewhere in the world, North Korean forces, trained, equipped, and supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Led by the US, UN forces collectively responded. The fighting was halted on July 27, 1953. Pro-Soviet Russians, might point to the fact that actions taken by Russia in the period capsulated here were the result of Stalin, who many Russians decry as a corrupt despot who sullied the grand ideals of the revolution. However, in the years that followed his death in 1953, the commitment of Moscow to the revolutionary and expansionist paradigm continued. Under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union, despite calls for peaceful coexistence and desire to reopen ties with the West, firmed the Soviet Union’s grip over its empire and increased its support of Third World Communist movements. On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union and seven of its European satellites sign a treaty establishing the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense organization that put the Soviets in command of the armed forces of the member states. The military alliance was named the Warsaw Pact because the treaty was signed in Warsaw. Warsaw Pact countries included the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria as members. Similar to NATO, by treaty, Warsaw Pact members were required to come to the defense of any member attacked by an outside force. The force was initially set up a unified military command under Soviet Army Marshal Ivan Konev.

Soviet efforts to maintain a tight grip over its empire were highlighted by the quelling of protests against Communist rule in 1956 culminating with Soviet tanks successfully taking control of Budapest on November 10, 1956. On August 15, 1961, the Soviet Union initiated the construction of a wall between East Berlin under Soviet control and West Berlin under US, United Kingdom, and French control. The border between East and West Germany were also sealed by fencing. A decision by Khrushchev to construct a Soviet intermediate range nuclear armed missile base in Cuba, led to a blockade of the island country and strenuous demands from US President John Kennedy that the missile be removed. As the US prepared to invade Cuba, negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy, initially through back channels, led to an October 28, 1962 agreement to remove the weapons.

Khrushchev legacy was not one of diplomacy, but rather brinkmanship the nearly led more than once to nuclear war. On October 15, 1964, Khrushchev was removed from office. His successor Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. Brezhnev also wanted to launch a new era of negotiation with the West, labeled détente by US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the administration of US President Richard Nixon. However, under his leadership, the Soviet Union never ceased its military buildup and pressed its efforts to expand Communism into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From July 1965 to April 1975, the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam with everything from rifles to fighter jets in war against the South Vietnamese government which the US and its Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies supported with troops and materiél. The result was the intensification of fighting and prolonging the wreckage of human lives. On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed efforts by Czech President Alexander Dubcek to initiate reform programs, known as the “Prague Spring”. Dubcek was arrested when he refused to halt his efforts. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. On December 30, 1980, the Solidarność (Solidarity) Movement in Poland was crushed with the imposition of Martial Law. It was finally under Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who in attempting to reform the Soviet Union under perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), destabilized it to the point of collapse.

For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. Its defense against those Soviet ideals was simply referred to as anti-Communism. Societies in the West were somewhat disparate, with loosely associated forms of freedom, and democracy in most of its countries must have appeared disorderly from the East, with up roars over government decisions and actions, demands for justice and social progress, and political rivalries that played out publicly. Yet, they still took on an amiable form. Moreover, it was well-accepted by those in the West that their world and way of life was worthy of protecting. Militarily, the means was collective defense. Those who were part of that struggle, using the white hat black hat symbolism of the Western film genre of the 20th century, saw themselves as the white hats representing all that was good, admirable, and honorable and viewed the Soviet and Soviet Bloc operators as the black hats, the villains. One was either on the right side or the wrong side. Using familiar terms of today concerning human interactions in societies to explain Communism, it posed a threat to individual freedom, inclusiveness, and tolerance. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West’s moral superiority was always emphasized, but it never needed to be presented in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West when occasional newmedia stories told what was happening there, really spoke for itself. US President Ronald Reagan, getting to the root of the differences between East and West in his renowned June 12, 1987 “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” explained: “The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship and affront.” (Attempting to boil down to the bones the Cold War to provide an accurate, comprehensive summary of ideas and events felt a bit Sisyphean. Too much occurred. There were too many episodes, too many flaps of diplomacy and periods of aggression and war, to synthesize. If a sense for the monumental geopolitical struggle was created, this synopsis has served its purpose. Hopefully, the information has also provided some factual counterbalance to pro-Soviet statements recounted here.)

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Russians have never seen the coming of a new day, but rather an ongoing dark night, a black void they have stared into for decades.

What Has Putin Established in Russia?

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens countrywide. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Indeed, it would not be out of court to say that despite what one might perceive at first blush, Putin seems, in practice, oblivious to the economic realities those conversations revealed. If the Russian people were to take a careful look over their shoulders today, they undoubtedly might recognize that nothing spectacular has been accomplished at home on their behalf by his government. There is no interest in disparaging any of Putin’s exertions, but many Western analysts and other observers would agree that Russians never seen the coming of a new day in their country, but rather just the ongoing dark night, a black void which they have stared into for decades. It might be stated with confidence that in a general sense they are not content. The reality that their lives have hovered in an endless limbo seems to be suppressed by most.

It may very well be that by the time Putin reached the top of the power pyramid, such people skills, his ability to understand others he is not associated with became a bit seared. Perhaps proper focus has not been placed on the people’s thinking and the ability to perceive their needs. Even his intuition regarding experiences of other Russians and where many were at a given moment seem darkened from disuse. A gentleman must always adapt to his circumstances. To a great degree, what has emerged in the Russian Federation is indeed Putin’s version of the Soviet Union. Although the struggle to establish global Communism is absent, Putin certainly has included imagery from the Soviet Union in his new Russia. It would seem that some methods well-used during the Soviet era to maintain social order and population control, were implemented by Putin in response to the fragility of the society and that the Russian Federation remains vulnerable to collapse. It is also assured that many of Putin’s former KGB colleagues would find ample opportunities to make use of their dark and unusual skill sets.

Once again, the old adage “go with what you know” seems to fit well, in this case with the Putin’s thinking. Of course, such explanations do not provide an excuse or a defense for his actions. The following list includes only a few of those elements: utilization of prison camps, “gulags”, in Eastern Russia, to detain reactionaries and other undesirable elements; the suppression of political opposition; assassinations of political opposition leaders; assassinations of journalists; the padlocking of media houses, newspapers the broadcast, publish, and post stories exposing what they perceive as questionable or even corrupt activities of Putin’s administration; and, the expulsion of “undesirable organizations” such as foreign and international religious, human rights, and civil society organizations and termination of their programs. There are also: massive military parades before the Russian Federation’s leadership; fiery anti-Western speeches at rallies; military deployments into other countries (e.g., Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus) the occupation and annexation of the territories of sovereign neighboring countries; the sudden death, murders, suicides of senior diplomats, senior military officers, senior intelligence officials, senior law enforcement officials, and senior officials of other security related services; the arrest and prosecution of Russians who are international business elites, known better as oligarchs, who have fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin; regularly renaming and repeating policy conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions of technology created to highlight Russian intellect, ingenuity, and advancements; the hosting international amateur sporting tournaments in Russia as a means to showcase the country; and, reported violations by Russian Federation national sports teams of rules and regulations of international sporting associations, including the International Olympic Committee. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has doubtlessly been a considerable psychic drain along with the stresses and anxieties of other matters in which he has been engaged daily. He may never have publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live, yet as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Putin Knows How Much Progress Is Really Possible in the Russian Federation

There is rarely a single reason for anything, and that certainly applies to Putin’s claims about the Soviet Union. With no intention of being whimsical, it might be worthwhile to consider that theories on what may have influenced Putin other than his KGB background, can also be joined by others built on his additional dimensions. It should not be thought that analysis from another direction might even compromise theories already proffered on Putin’s pro-Soviet comments. After all, the hope and primary goal of this examination remains reaching the actual state of the matter. Putin may not necessarily be so dedicated to other foreign and domestic matters that he has not tried to develop a clearer vision for Russia and has not sought to respond at all to the echoes of those suffering economically in his country. It might be reasonable to doubt that Putin would be completely unable to see the world through the prism of average Russians. That would run counter to expectations of what should be among the suite of skills possessed by a KGB officer in the field. Interestingly, in Part 3, “The University Student”, a close friend notes that he once asked Putin about his work in the KGB. Putin cleverly replied, “I’m a specialist in human relations.”

Putin might very likely reject the idea that being in the intelligence service of the KGB seared his conscience and left him indifferent toward the situation of fellow Russians or cause him to disregard their well-known plight. Moreover, he would most likely reject the idea that members of the KGB thought to help the Soviet government subject the Russian people to “unappealing conditions.” It may very well be that a heartbreaking value judgment was made. Putin may have viewed it as unconstructive to turn his attention fully in the direction of the troubled state of affairs of the Russian people because his ability to be fruitful has been simply too limited. From the start, he knew that the job of Russian Federation President involved achieving monumental tasks. So much wrong had to be made right. Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness of leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union at this point might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has been beyond peradventure a considerable psychic drain in tandem with the stresses and anxieties caused by other matters in which he has been engaged daily. Psychologically, the aggregate disappointment and agony could have become so magnified in his mind and everything would become unmanageable. Being the true professional that he is, Putin knows that he needs to stay focused on the larger picture. He must avoid losing himself in the labyrinth. He must not allow himself to be over matched by difficulties. He has never publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live. However, as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them

The Russian Federation government’s limited capabilities and capacity to resolve those domestic problems for some time, in fact, is not necessarily the result of Putin’s leadership being remiss. Certain inadequacies that have harmed output, seem to be intrinsic to the Russian system. Among them are included: unreliable governance at the republic, krai, and oblast levels, poor execution economic policies, banking and financial disarray, low moral in the workplace, alcoholism, drug abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and criminality. With focus has been placed on Putin’s efforts to extol cherry picked “virtues” of the Soviet Union, little attention is given to other comments that he made during his first months of service as a national leader. He often spoke the truth about the ills of collapsed superpower, and often explained that lingering problems from the Soviet era made getting the Russian Federation moving forward very difficult, if not impossible. A statement to this effect from Putin can also be found in his December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”. He stated: “We had to pay for the Soviet economy’s excessive focus on the development of the raw materials and defence industries, which negatively affected the development of consumer production and services. We are paying for the Soviet neglect of such key sectors as information science, electronics and communications. We are paying for the absence of competition between producers and industries, which hindered scientific and technological progress and prevented the Russian economy from being competitive in the world markets. This is the cost of the brakes and the bans put on Russian initiatives and enterprises and their personnel. Today we are reaping the bitter fruit, both material and mental, of the past decades.” It is hypothesized in a January 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One”, that the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, and may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put the Russian Federation on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him.

Even militarily, Russian Federation efforts to create an aura of technological modernity have fallen short. Its latest high tech, 5th generation fighters and hypersonic missile reflect the measure up only to the latest developments in the West nearly two decades past. The US move to lasers, 6th generation fighters that hardly resemble anything the world has seen before, and hypersonic systems that it has already has been developing almost the point of deployment, ensure that the Russian arsenal will pale in comparison with the US for some time to come.

Given all of that, it is very likely that Putin arrived at the conclusion that he had little choice but to simply do things as he saw fit with available resources to create the best circumstances possible. Unable to move steadily and safely in a new direction, Putin apparently saw the best option as creating a copy old order with all of its power and prestige. As aforementioned, sustainability was not at issue. He likely took this step originally as a temporary measure, to allow him time to chisel something better. That would certainly be in following with Putin’s modus operandi. However, in the end, in spite of many improvements, the country moved so much in the direction of the old order, the familiar for the Russian people, that it became figuratively “heavier” and more difficult way of being to transition from. If Putin learned anything from his KGB work, it was that sacrifice is required in nearly every endeavor. Many Russians have failed to benefit from his efforts. Indeed, there is a tendency for some to suffer while others benefit. Yet, those who continually fail to benefit have unlikely been forgotten. Imputing the best intentions on Putin, he will eventually use his full powers as president to make amends to them at some point, if time and opportunity will allow. Though the people may very well be uplifted at that point in the future, until then, they will be left twisting in the wind. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

US President Donald Trump (left) and Putin (right) in Helsinki, July 16, 2018. The vengeful thinking which prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration likely initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation had clearly changed. Trump explained that he wanted to work with Putin to achieve things globally that could best be done jointly. In response, Putin has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US mirroring the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. He has promoted what greatcharlie has labeled un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration.

Troubling Manifestations

It is important here to point out a unique aspect of Putin’s KGB world. Enlarging on a point made earlier about Chekists, they share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Fully xenophobe and suspicious, Putin was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he saw as enemies that might weaken it. In many respects, Putin has conformed to what might be expected of a Chekist. Although he would seem to be much more than average, he appeared to have been poured into same mold as all the others. Putin has actually stated publicly that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. While on his way to the top of the political heap in the new Russian Federation, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.”

Some Have Said Putin’s US Policy Manifests His Revanchist Mindset

When character and behavior are brought together, one uncovers motivation. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions, to include election meddling, indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries reportedly allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for instance, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, and potentially weaken, European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries.

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

Putin did not stand by while the EU and NATO expanded. One might agree with the supposition that Putin has a revanchist mindset, his decision to attempt to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit would surely support that idea. To accomplish that, Putin had to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually began with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin gains a base from which he can exert his influence in that country.

A greater part of the foreign policy matters upon which Putin, seemingly in revanchist mode, felt cause to be laser focused was the geostrategic competition with the US. By the time his third term as Russian Federation President began, Putin left little doubt that the Russian Federation would assert itself in the world and he would ensure that Russia would never fall victim to business and financial experts and multinational corporations. Hostile feelings toward the US seemingly came to a head during the administration of US President Barack Obama. The details that contentious period are too sizable to unpack here (The most recent posts in which greatcharlie has outlined those many episodes in detail include: “Commentary: Trump and Putin: A Brief Look at the Relationship after Two Years”; Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage; “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him”; and “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”.) Crimea was likely just the first step among what would likely have been far worse actions leading even to war had the interregnum between Democrat and Republican administrations had not occurred in 2016.

Un Grand Défi

One might theorize that the sort of vengeful thinking which prevailed during the Russian Federation’s struggles with the Obama administration, initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation clearly changed with the arrival of the Trump administration. Putin and his aides and advisers should have recognized that. It was never the stated intention of the Trump administration to engage in a protracted, geostrategic competition with Russia. That is still the case despite the entreaties of some advisers. It was the expressed intention of candidate Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign to improve relations with Russia. As US President, Trump made it clear that he wanted to try to work with Putin and achieve things globally that could best be accomplished jointly. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them.

Clearly, the Russian Federation has not been threatened by any unprovoked aggressive or outright hostile offensive actions on the geostrategic landscape by the Trump administration. In reality, with the current political environment in the US, sounding the alarm over what might be identified as revanchist behavior by Putin might have served Trump well in at least an attempt to mollify critics and detractors. Nonetheless, without such provocation, Putin, has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US that would mirror the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he has propagated what greatcharlie is labeling un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration. The benefit from un grand défi that Putin stands to gain is that it helps him create the appearance that the Russia Federation is a world leader and superpower. Indeed, despite all of Putin’s other maneuverings, the Russian Federation is only able to seen as a superpower when it is interacting with the US or measured against it. Correspondingly, as long as the Russian Federation is competing geostrategically in a discernable form of rivalry with the US, it can retain a strong place for itself at the grand table of military superpowers, although it stands a far off second to the US. Further, from what is detectable, that military tie in Putin’s mind also allows the Russian Federation, by a slender thread, to set a place for itself among the world’s economic powers, although it is not one. (As a measure of goodwill from the West, Russia was once welcomed on the G7. Putin wrecked that by conquering Crimea.) Alas, any unvarnished assessment would confirm that without tying itself to the US, any claims by Moscow of being a true world leader would simply appear self-styled, and could not be substantiated. Unless there is something or someone who could change Putin’s mind otherwise, doubtlessly as a matter of policy, he will continue to create a competitive environment with the US, leaving US Presidents with little choice but to meet any challenges posed by the Russian Federation. Curiously, it may very well be that Putin, living the Judo Ichidai, likely appreciates being in a “struggle” with the US. Odimus accipitrem quia semper vivit in armis. (We hate the hawk because he always lives in arms.)

Thus far, Putin has shown himself to be very intelligent man. All of the factors pulling him away from positive relations with the US seem to have caused Putin to metaphorically miss his exit along the road of diplomacy. The truth about the Trump administration and its good intentions should have reached Putin and made an impression, if only subconsciously. It is difficult to believe that Putin genuinely does not understand what Trump has been doing and that he does not recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia do some good in the world. By now it should be clear to Putin that Trump will not rise to grab the bait and begun some contentious back and forth between Washington and Moscow. As a consequence of  un grand défi he purposefully designed and promoted to compete as a soi-disant “superpower” with the Trump administration, Putin must contend with the missed opportunities for progress and advancement of the Russian people by insisting the two countries remain essentially divorced from each other. Those realities seemingly make Putin’s own effort at keeping Russia on top both counterintuitive and somewhat Quixotic.

It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image.

The Way Forward

By approaching the matter of Putin’s nostalgia romanticising of the Soviet era from a couple different directions and arguing matters from varied angles, it is hoped that the undergraduates who contacted greatcharlie, it has provided an edifying journey of exploration on their inquiry. It is also hoped that this essay was also satisfying for greatcharlie’s other regular readers. The purpose of greatcharlie’s examination was to simply consider Putin’s reiterative statements of praise for the Soviet Union. It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image. Patriotism, national identity, national pride, history, and culture are powerful ideas to organize a country’s population around. Focus upon them, often allows tricky leaders to distract from the internal with external The argument is made that the cause of Russia’s problems is the outside world, not internal difficulties, lack of capabilities, mismanagement, corruption, criminality, and so on. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit. (Of mortal men, none is wise at all times.)

For the past two decades, great wells of anger have stored up among Putin and senior Kremlin officials toward the US for a variety of reasons. That has made finding a moderate path more difficult.  At the same time, as a practical matter, the Russian Federation’s contentious interactions with the US create a tie to it that could imaginably support the claim that a superpower competition exists. As greatcharlie posits here, without interacting with the US or being measured against it on a geopolitical matter for example, the Russian Federation would simply appear as a self-styled superpower, unable to substantiate the title in any way except by ostensibly harkening back to historical examples of the superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Russian Federation can only steal a modicum of the “superpower light” radiating from the US. It has precious little ability to generate any light of its own in that respect. Thereby, negative interactions need to be regularized and promoted by Putin. Under such circumstances, engaging positive interactions with the Russian Federation will prove very difficult for the Trump administration. However, Putin should not believe that he has found some sweet spot from which he can take on the US without any real consequences. There are also inherent dangers that stem from un grand défi Putin has inflicted upon the US. It could very well open the door to unmanageable disagreements and potential clashes. Fortunately, the Trump administration has shown little interest in rising to take Putin’s unappetizing bait. Whenever Trump feels he needs to act in response to Putin’s moves, it will be at a time, at a place, in a manner of his choosing, most likely with some degree of impunity, and when necessary covertly with plausible deniability. In that respect, although he has promoted un grand défi, Putin has in reality only established pas de problème, or no problem at all.

Things could certainly be better for the Russian people. The “golden mean”, a middle way, could very likely be found to create positive relations with the US that would bring real benefits to the Russian Federation. Moving in that direction would certainly mean doing more than just putting a toe in the water. Still, as long as the Russian people are satisfied, as a few polls and studies indicate, attempting to judge from the outside what would be best for them seems unmerited. Putin’s actions appear to illicit some uniquely Russian reactions. Putin does not need to turn back the clock and resurrect the Soviet Union because it has not really moved too far away from what was in a functional sense. Actions that have resulted in economic sanctions and have prevented the Russian economy from participating in competitive world markets, attendantly hinder genuine scientific and technological progress. The potential of Russian enterprises and people consequently remains locked in. It is almost assured that bitter fruit will be reaped in the future by moving forward in such a troubled way. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)

The Putin-Kim Summit: An Uneasy Episode in Kim’s Introduction to a Brave New World

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un (left). During his summit meeting with Kim on April 25, 2019, in Vladivostok, Russia, Putin had the opportunity to resolve some matters with regard to relations between their countries. Russia and North Korea are more than just friends; they are allies. In Washington, a reasonable concern would be that Putin used the meeting in part to mangle inroads made by US President Donald Trump with Kim, and spun up the young leader enough to cause him to drift back into a posture of belligerence. In reality, he may have unwittingly done the opposite.

The fate of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), good or bad, will likely be decided at this moment in time. Hopefully, what is negative, wrong, and evil, will not walk upon the scene. The potential source of those ills could possibly be Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. During his summit meeting with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un on April 25, 2019, in Vladivostok, Russia, Putin had the opportunity to resolve some matters with regard to relations between their countries. Russia and North Korea are more than just friends; they are allies. Presumably, an item for discussion during the meeting was the diplomatic process on denuclearization in which Kim has been engaged with US President Donald Trump for more than a year.

Kim’s vist to Vladivostok was actually a two-day affair. Beginning on April 24, 2019, there were compliments and toasts offered with affectation, and the photo opportunities swollen with the pretension of a great friendship between the two leaders. Yet, despite all of that, beneath the surface, where mostly those obsessed with scrutinizing such events closely might look, Putin’s approach to Kim was not tender, but rather rough edged and, to a degree, domineering. Some analysts and scholars who study the Russian leader and, to the extent possible, understand his idiosyncrasies and the nuances of his facial expressions and body language, chalked it all up to Putin just being Putin. It was perceived by others as a display of Soviet-style formality. The suggestion being that not much should be put into Putin’s behavior at Vladivostok. However, the results of the meeting bare out the idea that Putin, to put it plainly, was not very nice to Kim. Consider that Putin did nothing special to help him. If he did, it was so subtle that it could not to be seen. Putin certainly did nothing publicly to convince anyone that he was Kim’s benefactor or protector. If he did, giving notice to the world of such a pledge is the usual way to ensure other countries would pay heed. Alas, he did not do that. Kim apparently failed to correctly parse out Putin’s agenda, moreover his concept and intent, with regard to North Korea before he arrived. Kim likely came to Vladivostok comforted by the thought that the Russian relationship has been long-term, beneficial, and historically speaking, reliable. He perhaps thought he might be able to eek out some type of additional assistance from Russia, in some form or another. If Kim truly came to Vladivostok with that purpose, his was truly an anemic effort. That approach may have left him open to the measures of the artful Putin.

A reasonable concern over Vladivostok in Washington would be that Putin used the meeting in part to mangle the inroads achieved by Trump with Kim, and that he may have successfully spun up the young North Korean leader enough to cause him to drift back into a posture of belligerence. Throw on top of that reports in the US news media indicating that even before Kim left for Vladivostok, there was intelligence apparently collected by the US on activity taking place at facilities related to North Korea’s supposedly dormant nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. That would present the possibility that Kim wants to have the capability to leap back into developing systems that will allow him the launch a nuclear strike against the mainland US. Such would be an act of daylight madness by Kim. To intuit that the diplomatic effort at this point is still somewhat fragile surely would not be out of court. However, as result of his relatively lukewarm reception of the young North Korean leader, Putin may have actually given that diplomatic process a boost by bumping Kim in the direction of Trump. So different are the approaches and opportunities presented respectively by Trump and Putin, that Kim’s choice of whom to travel North Korea’s path into the future is essentially black and white. There is no equivalence, no shared attitude toward people, no mutual conduct displayed, no matching diplomatic techniques, for Kim to find comparison between the two leaders. Through the next set of communications and via a third summit, Trump may have the opportunity to capitalize on Putin’s shrewd, but barbed and unconventional moves. Si computes annos, exiguum tempus, si vices rerum, aevum putes. (If you compute the years in which all this has happened, it is but a little while; if you number the vicissitudes, it seems an age.)

There were compliments and toasts offered with affectation, and the photo opportunities swollen with the pretension of a great friendship between the two leaders during Kim’s visit. Yet, despite all of that, beneath the surface, perhaps where mainly those obsessed with scrutinizing such events closely might look, Putin’s approach to Kim was rough edged and, to a degree, domineering. Some analysts and scholars who study the Russian leader chalked it all up to Putin just being Putin. However, the results of the meeting bare out the idea that Putin, to put it plainly, was not very nice to Kim.

A Reality Check for Kim

Kim seemingly came to Vladivostok bearing all of Pyongyang’s vulnerabilities and anxieties on his sleeve. The Achilles Heel of North Korea is its economy. That economy has been in an absolute shambles for many decades. Through the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign targeted at North Korea’s economy, the country has been slowly strangled to death. Kim may have been desperate to maintain or increase Russia’s economic munificence in talks with Putin. As for his country’s anxieties, Kim, from the start of the Trump administration, boasted about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and burgeoning capability to reach the US with them. However, the US has the actual capability and capacity to attack and destroy North Korea. Away from the rallies and loudspeakers in his country through which he has convinced his people that their country is part of a larger bulwark of anti-US countries in Northeast Asia, there is the reality that Pyongyang’s allies in Moscow and Beijing would never put their countries’ well-being at risk for North Korea. There is the additional reality that North Korea was more of a financial strain and psychic drain on Russia and China than a useful and valued asset as a buffer against the US and its allies in the region. It is likely that Putin, to some extent, saw the meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate that what Russia thinks and says has relevance with regard to Northeast Asia, a region in which its territory resides. Putin had been unsuccessful in finding the angle to latch on and carve out an influential role for Russia in the Trump-Kim Talks. Putin surely knows why Trump was not so eager to offer him a place in the diplomatic process.  He was already on fairly shaky ground with the US President over Russian efforts to interfere in US elections as well as Russian misdeeds in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and other points around the world.

Perhaps it was thought in Moscow and Pyongyang prior to the actual meeting that Vladivostok had the potential to become a public relations triumph. However, the world appeared to take only a moderate interest in events there. Public relations-wise, Trump had already made an authentic splash with his first meeting with Kim on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. His second meeting from February 27, 2019 to February 28, 2019 in Hanoi also drew quite a bit of attention. After Kim met with Trump in Singapore and Hanoi, there was a real sense that a new energy, new hope for peace and progress in Northeast Asia had been created. Kim was brought out the hermit kingdom to discover a brave new world, a world from which his people still remain isolated. For introducing him to that world, Kim really has much to thank Trump for. Any luster was left to glean from a Kim meeting was exploited by Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met from March 25, 2018 to March 28, 2018 and January 7, 2019 to January 10, 2019. Indeed, by the time Kim met with Putin in Vladivostok, he was no longer the mystifying, obscure young leader in Pyongyang.

In the search for indicia that there was plenty of goodwill between the Russian and North Korean leaders and the meeting served to advance their relationship, much has been made of the fact that Putin was reportedly thirty minutes early for the April 25th meeting and waited for Kim. That fact takes on greater significance given Putin’s well-known history for arriving late for meetings with world leaders. He was nearly one hour late for his Helsinki Meeting with Trump in July 2018, four hours and fifteen minutes late for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014, fifty minutes late for a meeting with Pope Francis in 2015, and a tame fourteen minutes late for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. Yet perhaps conversely to creating a positive atmosphere around which the Russian-North Korean relationship could be viewed internationally, Putin was of the mind to set a sort of trap for Kim. The goal of which most likely was to suss Kim out and, at the right time, take the opportunity to establish the nature of their relationship as leaders. As a result of that effort, the entire visit had a strange feel. Everything seemed a bit off kilter, a little grayish. Certainly, Putin and Kim were never too chummy publicly. Putin’s personal approach and demeanor toward Kim did not mirror that of the avuncular Trump. Rather, he behaved nearly in the manner of a cold-hearted, Ian Fleming’s James Bond sort of “gangster as spy” of whom Trump’s critics and detractors inappropriately claim the US President faced in Hamburg, Da Nang, Helsinki, and Buenos Aires. He did not! Putin handled Kim much as a bewildered target for recruitment. As it was previously discussed in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin prepares for his meetings or any other forms of contact with another national leader or senior foreign diplomatic official, in advance, by mining all available information and by considering all possible angles of how an interlocutor might challenge him and how he would explain himself in a plausible, satisfying way. Being engaged in an exceptionally devious sort of manipulation of Kim, one could be certain that every little move made in Vladivostok was performed with purpose. To that extent, even the anomaly of Putin’s punctuality was a calculated step.

Putin (right) and Kim (left) on escalator in Vladivostok. Taking cues from how the two men appeared standing together, Putin clearly was the leader and Kim was the follower. Perhaps in the confidential one on one meeting between them, Putin also sought to establish his position as “the boss” with Kim. Intriguingly, at Vladivostok, Putin was practically every bit the Ian Fleming’s James Bond sort of cold-hearted, gangster as spy about which critics and detractors of Trump have endlessly waxed and have inappropriately claimed the US President faced in Hamburg, Da Nang, Helsinki, and Buenos Aires.

Attempting to reach into Kim’s head concerning the visit, Putin probably calculated that he would be very optimistic over the outcome of his visit. Putin may have also parsed out that Kim believed that there was virtually an organic affinity between them given the long relationship Russia has had with North Korea. That affinity would be primarily founded on the notion that Putin was raised and served for years as an officer of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known as the KGB in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was the original, unholy bastion of Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism, which form the political underpinnings of North Korea today. Russia, a former Soviet republic, was at the center of the collapsed superpower. Moscow was the Soviet capital. Further, in support of his grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung, the Soviet Union provided not only weapons, equipment and training for North Korean forces during the Korean War, but covertly provided Soviet soldiers and airmen to to engage covertly in combat operations. (China’s commitment to its North Korean ally during the war was even greater.) Thus, Putin would be reasonably assured that drawing Kim in would not pose difficulties. Ensuring that he would be able to exert influence on Kim would be his main task. Putin’s effort to miniaturize Kim was almost heartbreaking to watch. Yet, few would shed tears for the despotic North Korean leader under the thumb of the ex-Soviet spy. He exploited every opportunity to publicly demonstrate that he was dominant. On each occasion that he did so, he had the look of a cat among pigeons. This is how it looks when expediency and outcomes are given primacy before method. Taking cues from how the two men appeared standing together, Putin clearly was the leader and Kim was the follower. Perhaps in the confidential one on one meeting between them, Putin also sought to establish his position as “the boss” with Kim.

Psychologically, Putin may never have been disposed to even pretend that he was on level terms with Kim. Putin has never spoken of any meeting with another national leader as a “meeting of equals”. Putin has never hesitated to take the “Alpha-male” position with leaders of other countries and let them know his intentions. In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.” (This reality makes Putin’s attitude and behavior with Trump even more intriguing. One can clearly observe a certain grace and sangfroid displayed by the Russian leader. He has never appeared jagged or, even more, threatening in the slightest degree toward Trump at any moment in which they were together publicly.) Among the North Korean people, Kim is the “Alpha-male”, who rules with an iron fist. He is the country’s supreme leader, its champion, its top man above all, deified, never to be second-guessed, never to be challenged. That side of Kim was not present in Vladivostok. There was no swagger, no expressions of conceit from Kim.

Putin may never have been disposed to even pretend that he was on level terms with Kim. He has never spoken of any meeting with another national leader as a “meeting of equals”. He has never hesitated to take the “Alpha-male” position with leaders of other countries and let them know his intentions. In Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, author Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.”

Something that one might also consider is that in adherence to the principles of Korean culture, a world that he understands well, Kim likely sought to show a degree of deference to Putin as a part of his responsibilities as a guest. He likely believed his host would display an equal degree of authentic respect and graciousness toward him and the North Korean delegation. In that way, the kibun (mood or inner feelings) of both visitors and hosts would remain balanced in a harmonious environment. Kim encountered that sort of experience in Singapore, Hanoi, and Beijing. In Vladivostok, Kim was figuratively moving blindly in “the real” new world outside of North Korea. He seemed confused by the web Putin had spun for him. Indeed, seeing the footage revealed to the public of Kim’s expressions, gestures, and positions in Vladivostok, one might have trouble believing Kim was sure of anything while there. No one could show Kim the way while in Russia. Lucky enough for him, he maintained his balance, saw his way through, and made his way home. For Kim, it was doubtlessly an embarrassing chain of events. If those in Pyongyang who might read this would pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, Kim appeared to be caught completely off guard by Putin and stumbling around with his pants at his ankles in Vladivostok.

The Putin-Kim meeting most assuredly was not an inflexion point in Russian North Korean relations. Beyond Putin’s use of the meeting to remind Kim of the nature of their relationship, it is difficult to discern, with certitude, what was accomplished in Vladivostok. Urgent and important matters specific to their countries underpinning the meeting, at least officially, were not sufficiently enumerated publicly. From what was witnessed, no significant change in the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia or relations in general among countries in the region that resulted from the meeting. As for dealing with the US as a threat, Kim did not appear to have been given the assurance of support from his country’s longtime “ally” that he wanted receive. It could be imagined that instead of promising to provide a type of nuclear umbrella for North Korea that the US provides for its allies in the region, Putin, in a hollow gesture, likely praised Kim’s willingness to take on the US and found his devotion and heroic disregard for death admirable. Concerning the denuclearization diplomacy with the US, it would be difficult to believe that Kim was given, at any point while meeting with Putin, solid, hopeful advice. Putin most likely acted in the manner of a dark muse for Kim on the matter.

Given that economic conditions of both countries have been greatly harmed by US sanctions and both leaders have publicly indicated that they would like to have all international trade sanctions removed, one might extrapolate that the matter of business, relations, business activities, between the two countries were broached. Russian-North Korean business ties are divided between a modicum of legitimate and substantial illicit activity. Legitimate trade was limited to $34 million in 2018 due mainly to sanctions against North Korea. Statistics on gains from illicit activity are not available here but reportedly clandestine sanctions busting efforts are ongoing and apparently profitable enough to be worth the risk. It would not be a matter too trite to be managed by the two leaders as detection by the international community of any clandestine business activities, disallowed by sanctions, would mean grave consequences for both countries via sanctions. Through the process of monitoring their business activities, the international community has learned that transport agents in the Russian Federation have prepared documents for North Korean vessels. The government has not denied that. However, certain actions  have also been taken to help North Korea evade sanctions. Port services have allegedly been provided to North Korean-flagged ships. North Korean vessels have been fueled in Russia. The sale of that fuel to them by representatives of certain firms has been ignored. No interest is given to whomever might be selling cargo and oil products to the North Koreans. Further, a blind eye is turn toward whomever may be loading North Korean vessels. Vasili Kolchanov, head of the Russian Federation port services agency involved, explained to Reuters: “It’s not our concern who fuels the vessels, who sells that fuel, who they buy the cargo and oil products from.” He further stated: “We do not load vessels. As an agent, I only need to check that they have permission from customs.”

The type of business Putin would like Russia to develop with North Korea concerns mineral resources, including rare metals. Kim would like access to Russian electricity supplies. While Moscow generally views North Korea as a poor investment, Kim would like Russia to invest in the modernization of Soviet-built industrial plants, railways and other infrastructure. Nevertheless, as long as sanctions remain in place, none of that will come to fruition.

Image of an illegal cargo transfer to a North Korea vessel on the open sea. (above). Economic conditions of Russia and North Korea have been greatly harmed by US and UN trade sanctions. One might extrapolate that business activities between the two countries was a key issue in the Putin-Kim talks. Russian-North Korean business ties are divided between the legitimate and illicit. Detection by the international community of any clandestine business activities disallowed by sanctions would mean grave consequences for both countries.

Kim’s Health

Taking a look at Putin’s bearing in Vladivostok, the Russian leader made a proper showing of himself as the usual sharp, strapping Russian leader. It was the loose, athletic, macho Putin, who in meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business. Taking a comparable look at Kim’s bearing, one could reasonably state that he appeared to be having health problems. Being most apparently somewhat outside of his appropriate weight range and being a smoker, it could be expected that Kim would be dealing with dome underlying health issues. However, in Vladivostok, Kim simply looked unhealthy. Kim breathed laboriously as if he had anything from a very bad cold, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia, to something much worse, such as a pulmonary edema, a pulmonary embolism, or some other pulmonary episode. A far lesser possibility now, but one worthy of consideration at the time of the Vladivostok meeting is that Kim was suffering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) of a Type 2 diabetic, slowly dying in discomfort, without appropriate care.

In every video clip made public of the North Korean leader in Vladivostok, Kim appeared pale, shuddering, breathless. At times he additionally appeared disoriented, uncertain, uncomfortable, anxious, even jumpy. This uneasy behavior was not observed in Kim in Singapore, Hanoi, or Beijing. Thinking in a way similar to greatcharlie, Eric Talmadge of the Associated Press, stated in his article published in Time magazine on April 26, 2019: “What caught the attention of many outside observers Thursday wasn’t the scene, but the sound — of Kim’s loud breathing. Clips of the introductory encounter were quickly tweeted around the world, many with comments about the leader’s audible breathlessness. South Korea’s media, meanwhile, speculated that it could be a sign of Kim’s poor health. He is, after all, overweight and a notoriously heavy smoker.” According to Talmadge, Kim has evinced similar health problems at previous high-level meetings. Some may recall that in April 2018, on the occasion of his first summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he looked out of breath as he signed a guestbook following a short walk.

The following link, https://youtu.be/40M-cfOhqxQ, provides a short video clip of one of several occasions at the Putin-Kim summit during which Kim’s labored breathing can be seen. Please focus on the region of the thorax between the neck and diaphragm in the front of Kim’s body or stated more plainly, his chest. On medical matters, greatcharlie is somewhat out of its province. Nonetheless, it seems fitting in this case, no matter how clumsy it may seem, for it to engage in an unlicensed, uncertified foray as an apothecary, to better understand Kim’s behavior. If Putin noticed Kim’s condition, odd behavior, in response, he showed him no quarter, no sympathy.

Kim takes cigarette break in China while en route to Hanoi Summit (above). In Vladivostok, Kim looked unhealthy. He breathed laboriously as if he had anything from a very bad cold, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia, to something much worse, such as a pulmonary edema, a pulmonary embolism, or some other pulmonary episode. A far lesser possibility now, but one worthy of consideration at the time in Vladivostok was that Kim may have been suffering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) of a Type 2 diabetic, slowly dying in discomfort. If Putin noticed Kim’s condition, he showed him no sympathy.

In addition to directing attention at Kim’s difficulty breathing, the international news media noted what was generally described as an awkward gift exchange. Kim gave Putin a sword. Interestingly, among Russians, presenting swords and knives is considered sign of bad omen that could lead to disagreements and confrontations. Kim may have been aware of that superstition when decided to present Putin with a sword. After all, Russians and North Koreans are certainly not strangers to one another. Both Putin and Kim have sufficient, well-qualified experts to inform them of the nuances of gift giving in the respective cultures. Still, Kim presented it anyway, perhaps believing that Putin would be impressed with its size and value. Putin’s gift to Kim was even more intriguing. He gave Kim a coin. Video of the gift exchange made public show Kim completely befuddled in response. He seemed disappointed, closely eyeing the coin, clearly fazed by its diminutive size and relatively low value.

One might attempt to airbrush the episode by suggesting that Putin meant well when he gave Kim the coin, but that is unlikely. Putin was surely well-aware of Kim’s tastes and what would please him when deciding upon a gift for him. Gifting Kim with a coin may have been an atrocious display of Kremlin wit. Indeed, there is the real possibly that the coin presentation served as a banal amusement devised by Putin and his circle of mostly male acolytes. They may have wanted to witness an “entertaining”, stunned reaction from Kim. Even worse, a darker meaning of the gift could have been to create the impression that Putin was giving coin to a beggar. Along with their boss, the boys’ club in the Kremlin’s Senate building, who most likely in private mock and lampoon foreign leaders, have too often allowed such predictable, over-rehearsed, bad behavior, insinuate itself in important matters. Recently, it has been a persistent, distasteful theme in Russian diplomatic behavior that analysts and scholars have either missed or ignored. Indeed, Putin has been engaging in rather curious form of gift giving. Notable was his public presentation of a soccer ball to Trump in Helsinki. In response, Trump looked at the ball with a smirk, stated that he would give it to his son Darren, palmed it with his large right hand, and then casually tossed it one-handed to the First Lady, Melania Trump.

Despite the many problems associated with their interactions, Kim seemed to speak in harmony with Putin after the summit, and adhered to an anti-US line. It is unclear whether Kim simply wanted to oblige Putin just for old times’ sake or create the impression that he achieved some success in Russia. It may also be that he was left with little choice but to acquiesce to Putin’s position. At a post summit press conference, Putin, projecting a sense of accomplishment, stated that the North Korea’s denuclearization was necessary, but he insisted that North Korean sovereignty must be recognized and that security guarantees must be provided to Pyongyang. For Putin, security guarantees is a alternative way of stating the US must retreat from Northeast Asia, abandoning its longtime allies, and most importantly, remove the nuclear umbrella that shields those allies from a nuclear threat, not just from the North Korea, but also Russia and China as that umbrella was originally designed. Over the years, those capitals have been satisfied to see US military resources, psychic energy, and ire, directed at North Korea. By encouraging North Korea to seek steps that would to improve its security situation by reducing, even weakening the defensive posture of the US and allies in Northeast Asia, Russia would consequently serve its own security needs by invariably weakening the security of the US and its allies versus it, too.

Something that one might also consider is that in adherence to the principles of Korean culture, a world that he understands well, Kim likely sought to show a degree of deference to Putin as a part of his responsibilities as a guest. He likely believed his host would display a similar degree of authentic respect and graciousness toward him and the North Korean delegation. In this way, the kibun (mood or inner feelings) of both visitors and hosts would remain balanced in a harmonious environment. Kim encountered that sort of experience in Singapore, Hanoi, and Beijing. In Vladivostok, Kim was figuratively moving blindly in “the real” new world outside of North Korea. He seemed confused by the web Putin had spun for him.

Wake Up Kim!

Qui non proficit, deficit. (Who does not advance, recedes.) Ideally, for Trump, Kim would come to a third summit strangling at the leash, anxious to get going. It would be counterintuitive for Kim to come into a third round of negotiations with well made plans to melt away sanctions without offering necessary progress on denuclearization. He may very well retreat intellectually and be satisfied to accept advice from the North Korean intelligence services, crafted with an intelligence bigotry of military and security service elites founded on conspiracy theories about Trump and US actions and intentions. Particularly at this cut bait or fish stage, there is the potential for North Korean intelligence services, expert at whipping up scenarios and hypotheticals to expediently conjure up reports that provide support for the politicized or even hysterical views of consumers. (This is a disturbing reality that intelligence services almost everywhere face: hiring in error, individuals without honor, unfit to meet the moral obligations of the job.) The minstrels for the occasional exaggerated, distracting flashes of a belligerent posture to the US have been North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. To promote peace, and being the responsible party, the Trump administration listens to those expressions, but does not react emotionally to them.

As greatcharlie has noted in previous posts, there is an endless sense of distrust within North Korea toward the West that always comes into play in diplomacy. Further, given what is known about Kim’s psychological disposition, success with him in diplomatic effort was never assured. With Kim, one must take into consideration his selective welcome toward outsiders, pretension exhibited in public displays of affection for his people, reported lurid acts of self-indulgence, irate outbursts, outright cruelty, violent actions towards the people, associates, and family, and murder, Kim has not been popularly described as an up and down, manic depressive. These attitudes and behaviors have been chalked up as the stuff that defines tyrants and despots.

To enlarge on that, one must remember that prior to all of the niceties that followed the Singapore and Hanoi meetings and the many kind letters exchanged between Trump and Kim, the US President accurately assessed in his September 2017 remarks at the UN, that the North Korean leader’s regime was extraordinarily violent. Some expert observers of Kim might call the young leader essentially a sadist who is intoxicated by violence. The March 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled “Commentary: Trump-Kim Talks: Will Desire Obey Reason or Will Force Be Used to Overcome Force?” discusses a Yonhap article on an examination made by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (Gukga Jeongbowon) of Kim’s behavior. Trump is well-aware of such reports about Kim. Yet, in the greater cause of denuclearization, international peace and stability, and the betterment of conditions for the people of North Korea, it is expedient to put all of that aside. The focus must be on what is positive, to ensure the diplomatic process is fruitful. If Kim goes down the wrong road, observers should expect to see him figuratively shoot the soccer ball far off to the wrong side of the aluminium goal post at the next summit with Trump. Perhaps Moscow and Beijing, in order to promote their own respective geostrategic goals versus the US, may very well be trying to undermine Trump’s diplomatic efforts with Kim at the moment. Even more, they may be nefariously encouraging him to behave in ways contrary to advancing that diplomacy.

Trump has kept a positive front, projecting optimism with regard to the antithetical attitudes and behavior of the leaders of both Russia and China. He has likely kept in mind that a delicate symmetry does exist among their three countries from which any good basis for a positive interaction now and the future might be founded. Yet, there can be no doubt that Trump is well-aware of their unseemly ways. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scheduled a visit to Moscow on April 14, 2019, in order to express US concerns over Russian “aggressive and destabilizing actions.” Doubtlessly, Putin’s meeting with Kim in Vladivostok qualified to be an agenda item of the in camera Moscow meetings. In further response to the strategic goals and thinking of its soi-disant friends in Moscow and Beijing, Washington has nourished the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies in Northeast Asia. Those ties that bind the US and its allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with Russia and China.

Kim must decide what his priorities are. Though, the choice for Kim, through the use of reason and wisdom alone, seems obvious. Trump offers the best solution for Kim and the North Korean people. North Korea has nothing to gain long-term from Russia and its stumbling economy, made all the worst by Western sanctions leveled upon it. Perhaps just a bit more time is needed before the economic well-being and the geo-strategic position of North Korea genuinely becomes paramount in Kim’s mind. To encourage Kim, Trump has practically indicated that he already has the US checkbook out. He has regularly expressed hope publicly, that Kim will do the best thing and make the right choice.

Trump (right) and Kim (left) in Singapore. Trump offers the best solution for Kim and the North Korean people. North Korea has nothing to gain long-term from Russia and its stumbling economy, made all the worst by Western sanctions leveled upon it. Perhaps just a bit more time is needed before the economic well-being and the geo-strategic position of North Korea genuinely becomes paramount in Kim’s mind. To encourage Kim, Trump has essentially announced that he has the US checkbook out. He has regularly expressed hope publicly, that Kim will do the best thing, make the right choice.

Trump to the Rescue?

Maybe if everything had been going perfectly on the denuclearization front, a third round of summit talks would be an opportunity to put the finishing touches on a deal. Meetings between US and North Korean business, financial, and development experts as well as meetings of international experts forms in various committees ostensibly would have come next in order to get cracking on North Korea sanctions economic rejuvenation. Surely, there is still time for that. At the moment, things are perhaps moving more gradually than initially expected. Yet, optimistically, everyone and everything will eventually arrive at the same place. To that extent, Trump continues to do the best things even in arguably unappealing circumstances with the hope of avoiding a calamitous situation in Northeast Asia. Trump sees no need for scare tactics. At the same time, Trump has kept his weapon, the armed forces of the US and its allies, figuratively cleaned and his sight zeroed. Cito rumpes arum, semper si tensum, habueris, at si laxans, quum voles, erit utilis. (A bow kept taut will quickly break, but kept loosely strung, it will serve you when you need it.)

In April and May of 2019, Kim launched missiles into the Sea of Japan. It may very well be that Kim believed the April 18, 2019 test of North Korea’s new “tactical guided weapon” and its May 4, 2019 “strike drills” using short-range, multiple launch rocket systems, fell well outside of the parameters of his promise to Trump not to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Both weapons systems, fired off North Korea’s west coast, fell into the Sea of Japan, and did not intrude into Japanese or South Korean waters. As a result of the launches, Kim’s intent concerning denuclearization and halting missile development was placed into doubt among most US analysts and scholars. Some went as far as to assess that Trump should have taken a harder line with Kim on the matter. True, no matter how one might look at Kim’s mens rea, his missile launches were unquestionably displays of ill-advised audacity. Yet, Trump felt the tests were not of sufficient order of concern to derail the diplomatic process. He determined that the tests did not constitute, by performance or in spirit, a breach of Kim’s promise concerning weapons testing. His statement in response reflected that thinking. His response was in line with his concept of pitting hope against despondency in the diplomatic process on denuclearization. On May 4, 2019, using his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, Trump explained: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong-un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise me. Deal will happen!” Hopefully, Kim will not push such injudicious activity alongside the borderline on which Trump would not be able to countenance it.

To a larger extent, Trump would hardly believe that Kim thought for a moment that the launches would in any way improve his tactical position against the US. North Korea was never in great shape tactically versus the US, and will never be allowed the opportunity to be so. Trump would hardly imagine Kim thought the launches could somehow strengthen Pyongyang’s hand in the diplomatic process or pull him closer to Pyongyang’s negotiation position. On a more basic level, Trump is aware that many individuals develop and express impressions of decisions and actions of foreign leaders without attempting to detect internal matters that might be driving events. Homosum: humani nil a me alienum puto. (I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me.)

When Kim launched missiles into the Sea of Japan on April and May of 2019, Kim’s intent concerning denuclearization and halting missile development was placed into doubt among most US analysts and scholars. No matter how one might look at Kim’s mens rea, his missile launches were  unquestionably displays of ill-advised audacity. Some analysts and scholars went as far as to assess that Trump should have taken a harder line with Kim on the matter. Trump, however, determined the tests did not constitute, by performance or in spirit, a breach of Kim’s promise not to conduct tests.

A dimension of North Korea that one on the US side must lose sight of is that it remains a totalitarian tyranny, with power elites stratified in neat rows. To maintain his grip on the ranks of the military and security services in the midst of his denuclearization diplomacy, Kim may have decided to demonstrate his control and interest in the activities and developments within their organizations. It has been best for him to act in this way before even sensing any issues trouble in the ranks, Kim, to some degree, must also be responsive to Workers’ Party of Korea elites and senior leaders of North Korea’s now a tad more significant, forward-thinking, business leaders. North Korean military and security service elites, in particular, might have the sense that denuclearization will have the impact of discrediting and disenfranchising them. They would ostensibly be stripped of a considerable degree of real and psychic power. There would also more than likely be a loss of pride, prestige, and a certain emotional satisfaction. In any actions that he might take, Kim must be certain to avoid precipitating grumblings from them. By the same token, Kim would certainly be intolerant of the slightest scent of fragmentation within the Workers’ Party of Korea as a result of his diplomatic initiative with the US. Rather than avoid or preempt problems in the ranks, Kim might simply punish and obliterate suspected reactionaries and potential ones. Perhaps recent shifts made within the party’s senior leadership reflect his sensitivity to potential dangers.

Among the thoughts of those other than Trump in Washington, a greater concern might be that although Kim has metaphorically boarded the elevator and is riding it up, he does seem willing to travel to the top floor. He appears to be willing to get off several floors beneath it, just short of a grand prize for himself and North Korea. Perhaps when meditating alone over committing fully to a path toward denuclearization and working with the US, Kim may now and then feel slightly unclean in mind and body. Indeed, a turn toward denuclearization would surely require Kim to go against instinct. (In a way, that makes the mere fact that he is very openly considering it an extraordinarily step.) Alternatively, Kim might fear that Trump’s proposal is a cruel hoax, all too good to be true. Fool’s gold offered by a false heart. Considering such thoughts, one would not be on a slender thread to speculate that a real obstacle to working with Kim on denuclearization, may not be external manipulation or domestic concerns at all. There is the possibility that Kim, himself, remains the greatest restrictor to forward movement on a deal. However, in the diplomatic process, Kim is not being asked to bow down to US pressure, its desires, or accept something ephemeral. Putin would not ask for anything less from him. It cannot be stated enough that through Trump, Kim is being presented the opportunity to choose a better future for his people over the misfortune that they are coping with today.

Inter cetera mala, hoc qunque habet stultitia proprium, semper incipit vivere. (Among other evils, folly has also this characteristic, it is always beginning to live.) A potential pitfall for Kim would be failing to realize during a third meeting that Trump will be able to almost immediately read the writing on the wall as to where everything is headed. Indeed, if Kim’s efforts have not been legitimate, Trump will be fairly certain as to the Communist leader’s intentions once he leaves the table. As the erstwhile businessman, Trump will have a contingency plan for bad news. He calls such plans “alternatives.” Those alternatives surely include inflicting an unimaginable tragedy upon North Korea at best through ratcheting up the ongoing maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and at worst via a war fraught with the wreckage of innocent lives. It is also very possible that a prospective war might be fought with nuclear weapons.

In the diplomatic process of denuclearization, Kim is not being asked to bow down the US pressure, its desires. Putin would not ask for anything less from him. Through Trump, Kim is being presented the opportunity to choose a better future for his people. A potential pitfall for Kim is failing to realize during a third meeting that Trump will be able to almost immediately read the writing on the wall as to where everything is headed. Indeed, if Kim’s efforts have not been legitimate, Trump will be certain as to his intentions once he leaves the table. Trump will have a contingency plan. He calls such plans “alternatives.”

When one’s brain is functioning at such a high speed as Trump’s does, it regularly searches into the abstract. With the imagination serving as guide through the obscurity, his mind discriminates, vets, facts and ideas it has both recently encountered and has collected over time. His mind grasps for those most relevant to matter being focused upon. Those separate, yet correlative, facts and ideas are associated and via an even deeper analysis, are given higher meaning. As a result, an impression is formed which Trump’s mind constantly challenges with new information that is introduced to it. Having the ability to think in this way truly places Trump in a different category. (Note: There is no intent here to link Trump’s way of thinking to transcendentalism.)

Despite everything Kim has done so far, Trump, more so than anyone, appears to view him as a national leader, who has albeit made mistakes, but still has promise and is a work in progress. Trump does not believe Kim has limited faculties to improve his mind. Having worked with, coached, and mentored a number of young men and women during his business career as a land developer and builder, Trump has seen many evolve into very capable executives who went on to make the most of opportunities placed before them. Throughout the denuclearization diplomatic process, Trump has taken into account Kim’s emotional response to the process, its meaning, and enormity. Such empathy was likely difficult to muster given the singularity of Kim’s emotional responses. The very type of stresses that Trump wanted to keep out of his denuclearization diplomacy with Kim appeared to weigh heavy on the North Korean leader while he was with the Putin. Trump doubtlessly discerned that something was bringing him down, and seemingly burning him out. To steal a phrase from Trump, Kim “was low energy.”

Hopefully, Kim is self-aware enough to recognize that since June 2018 his relationship with Trump and his sense for what could be accomplished has been moving through a process of maturation. As part of that maturation, Kim must recognize that there needs to be a mutual exchange of inspiration between Trump and himself. If Kim is truly able to apply the discipline of accuracy, think with precision, accept the truth, and discern how beneficial everything Trump has proposed would be for North Korea, he will recognize that Trump has offered the best path possible, and all will be well. Interestingly, Kim, both keeps his hair cut and most often dresses in suits tailored in ways similar to those of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. He has also fashioned his leadership style in his image. However, Kim, as with most humans, may aspire to advance to some greater form of himself. To that extent, there is the real possibility that he will want to take both his people and country to a far higher level from where they stand today.

The Way Forward

In Act III, scene i of William Shakespeare’s The Third Part of Henry VI, King Henry is being held captive by two armed keepers in a forest north of London. Stirring a discussion with his two captors, King Henry discusses his responsibilities as king. He explains that as king he serves for the purpose of his people, not for his own benefit. He states that every king must settle in to that idea. They must accept that is what it means to be a leader. Henry says in that moment: “My crown is in my heart, not on my head; / Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, / Nor to be seen: my crown is called content: / A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.” When Putin and Kim met in Vladivostok, everything was seemingly done under the pretense that all was well between the two countries. Still, there was a palpable sense while observing events in Vladivostok that Putin does not want North Korea to advance. He wants to  pull Kim and North Korea backward in time, backward to a circumstance in which North Korea could only define itself as subordinate to Russia and obedient to its whims. It may very well be Putin’s standard behavior with leaders of “lesser countries” and nothing extraordinary. Perhaps Putin, before and after the meeting, viewed Kim as being naive and that he could easily have him eating out of his hand. It has been considered in previous posts by greatcharlie that Trump, being different in his approach, may be able to do things that others cannot. Kim left Vladivostok appearing uncertain of how to respond to what he observed and heard from the Russian Federation President. As aforementioned here, in a scenario favorable for Washington, Kim, having met with Putin, may now be better aware of the stark differences between the respective futures that the Russian and US leaders offer North Korea. Putin met Kim figuratively empty handed as opposed to Trump who offered a golden future for his country. To the extent that Russia can exert influence in the world, particularly its large stake in the energy field, its attention is sought after by some. Whatever influence it may have internationally, it pales in comparison with that of the US.

If Trump had been even a bit iffy about the prospects for his denuclearization diplomacy to succeed, he would not have been able to move forward with it. Still, it is not Trump’s responsibility to be the sole engine behind denuclearization and the legitimate push to advance North Korea economically. If and when he meets with Trump for a third summit, it would behoove Kim to show how he is moving North Korea in that direction. It must be reflected in his proposals, his language, and his demeanor at the negotiation table and away from it. If Kim is unable to recognize the real value in what Trump is offering, at best, he will essentially condemn North Korea to a grey economy of black market and questionable bootleg products of all types, reliant on back alley deals with organized crime and corrupt foreign government officials, cash influx from North Korean guests workers abroad with limited to no access to substantial salaries and remain present in foreign countries at the whim of their governments. Throw on top of that nuclear weapons and long-range missile program that the US fully intends to eliminate if not through diplomacy, through devastating military strikes.

In all likelihood, Kim, would be incensed over failing to remove painful sanctions and end the maximum pressure campaign; impress his people by scoring a diplomatic victory over their US foe by removing sanctions while retaining the DPRK’s nuclear program; and, losing time on developing more nuclear weapons and perfecting their ability to reach the Continental US. If the denuclearization process fails, that will be a tough ticket for Trump to swallow. Yet, rather than being angered, he would likely be saddened over failing to reach the young North Korean leader, to establish a friendship with him, or embrace him as neighbor in this small world; and, to prevent the great potential of the North Korean people from being wasted. Hopefully, none of that will be the case. Nunquam sero te venisse putabo, si salvus veneris. (I shall never think you are late arriving as long as you come safely.)

Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him

US President Donald Trump (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Trump is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger that contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely on nodding terms with Putin by the end of his administration. Trump hoped to move to a higher level of understanding with Putin at Helsinki. He has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that would knock everything with Putin in the right direction.

One of the main pitfalls US President Donald Trump has faced while serving as president is that he must operate from Washington, which could be sardonically called occupied territory given the many power circles arrayed against him there. Indeed, Trump and members of his administration have been afflicted by hostile opposition and persecution. A very raw and destructive claim has been repeated by many elements of the US news media and certainly by critics and detractors among the pundits, that Trump is incompetent and there is no pattern or direction to action for the country from his administration. In terms of foreign policy, the administration characterized as being adrift. Perhaps “krise” is the word that would best describe the situation as depicted. The dislike of Trump is so intense in many media circles that it would not be melodramatic to assert that the ultimate goal of reporting has not been to correct Trump or improve his policy decisions, but rather to cause him to falter. Even many policy experts who would normally take a serious analytical approach to their critiques of Trump more often do less to inform in a balanced way, and rather, set out to tear him down. Such was the case concerning the July 16, 2018 Helsinki Summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Discussion of summit even before it began was rarely described other than harshly. Critics and detractors indicated that in order for Trump to impress them, which is not his job, they would expect to see nothing less from him at Helsinki than to approach Putin with a gritty teeth attitude, making bold accusations and great demands. Predictions made of Trump’s likely performance in the US news media were decidedly negative. After the summit, those same observers insisted that their ideas were confirmed. They characterized Trump as being subordinated by Putin.

There is always the danger of theorizing before facts are actually available. However, critics and detractors whose views were published in newspapers and magazines, broadcast on television, and posted online, were unconcerned with facts as pilloried Trump with their vitriol. Yet, in taking that approach, those observers of Trump made some pretty big wrong turns in their analyses Trump’s efforts in Helsinki. It might be worthwhile for them and all interested in Helsinki to take a step back, and look afresh at the matter, considering all facts, not just those that conveniently lend albeit tenuous support to a negative view. While what is offered here by greatcharlie may only be a worm’s eye view of an enormous matter and may not be able to change the perspectives of many. However, the purpose is provide an outside the box analysis of the meeting that may help contribute to the policy debate of US-Russia relations and stimulate fresh ideas. A number of aspects of the meeting that have not received much attention are examined. Some insights into how relations between Trump and Putin are evolving are also offered. For intelligence services worldwide, understanding the inner thinking of national leaders and their coteries of advisers, can be both a joy and a torment. For greatcharlie, examining the matter remains intriguing and has practically become a daily obsession. Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. (It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.)

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men.

Matters Covered by Trump and Putin in Helsinki

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men. The Helsinki Summit began with a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin. Except for translators, no other advisers or aides were present. It was followed by a bilateral meeting with advisers and aides included. On the heels of those meetings, a joint press conference was held.  When it began, Trump spoke first, then graciously deferred to Putin by allowing him to provide a list of issues covered in their meeting.  For Trump, this was certainly a rational choice, reinforcing goodwill and strengthening his evolving rapport with Putin. Trump’s moderation was put on full display for the world to see. Moreover, Trump most likely wanted to avoid getting into a meaningless and unconstructive chicken-and-egg debate on whether a Russian report on what transpired during the summit was heard before the US presented its version.

The US news media made inquiries into why list came only from Putin and whether Trump agreed with the list. Some characterized Trump as being mysterious about what was discussed. Critics and detractors immediately claimed that their first blush impression that Putin would dominate Trump at the summit and run the meeting were confirmed. Rather than viewing what Putin offered as a manifest of topics covered, it was panned by reporters as a list of spoils that Putin took from the meeting. The general approach to US news media reporting of the meeting was negative. Moreover, only a modicum of fact was used to portray a maximum of knowledge, which ultimately revealed a lack of awareness among the reporters and no real ability to discern what happening before them. Their negative perspectives were reinforced when they were commingled with the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and reports of continued Russian efforts to interfere with the US election system and democratic process. Insubstantial interconnections between Trump and Russia prior to the 2016 election were reported  once again and incredulously characterized as indicia of wrongdoing. Attempting one more time to ameliorate concerns on the election interference front, Trump acknowledge that issues concerning election interference were broached and addressed, but his desire was to move past what was done to what can be done immediately. For the US news media as well as critics and detractors, the immediate impression was that Trump’s statements were not solid enough, and simply interpreted his words negatively.

When Trump went on to make gracious statements to Putin, he was seen as again being reluctant to use the opportunity of these US-Russia meetings to criticize Putin for additional ills that go beyond election interference. Statements Trump made concerning Putin’s response clearly evinced a desire to move forward, however, by his own admission, he would recognized that he may have said what he did not want to say. Indeed, two days later, on July 18, 2018 at the White House, he admitted that he misspoke amidst his comments concerning Russian interference. Trump explained that he was moved by the spirit of the moment and insisted that it was not his intention to declare everything as being hunky dory.

The US news media also found Trump’s politeness toward Putin very disconcerting. Many observers still wonder whether it was simply politeness. Some critics and detractors found it nothing less than obsequious and alleged that it was due to timidity. Over the top theories in the US that Putin possesses some derogatory, even threatening information on Trump, kompromat, were written and spoken once more. Surely, if Trump had found it prudent, he would have had little problem in meeting the wishes of critics by admonishing Putin once again over election interference in furtive one-on-one session, the bilateral meeting, or publicly at the press conference. However, life experience had surely taught Trump that aggressively reproaching Putin at Helsinki would not bring satisfaction, not even for the short-term. Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections, but what was done is done. Trump can respond by taking punitive economic measures, sanctions, and expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officials from the US, and padlocking Russian government facilities in the US. However, he also knows that Putin to the best of his ability has thought through, “gamed”, the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. It appears that he stands ready to take his medicine and he is not overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against the interests of Russia and its allies. What might be wise for Trump to do beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, is close the door on future Russian activities against the US and as best as possible, build a positive relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump certainly has some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from acting in a measured way. What critics and detractors have been demanding from Trump, to repeatedly confront Putin, is most telling of their own flawed understanding of the situation. Aggressively reproaching Putin would never be an effective plan for dealing with the Russian leader if positive results are desired. 

Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits in the US have done a good amount of creative thinking on Putin. A persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, and television programs about espionage.

Trump also likely recognizes just how devastating the outcome of the wrongful Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election was for Putin. Putin does not have too much to gloat about. Not only was the covert operation discovered, but a great number of those involved in it from the Russian intelligence and security services have been identified. Ironically, as Putin approved the effort to exploit gaps in the security of the US election system that would allow foreign penetration, he learned at the same time as the rest of the world that the US had broken into the systems of the Russian intelligence and security services to the extent that they could provide profiles of those involved beyond name, rank, and serial number. The whole world was fascinated by the fact that the US could detail the exact role that officers from Russia’s intelligence and security services each played in the operation. One could even surmise sardonically that the US had the ability to determine “when those officers were home and when they were not.” Indeed, it was Putin’s own intelligence and security services that had been successfully penetrated. While his intelligence and security services may very well be continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections, he may be on the verge of recognizing that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. 

To better understand what in part guides Trump’s thinking on foreign policy, one must keep in mind that in his “previous life”, he was foremost a land developer, a builder. To build a building one must have a design and plans from architects and engineers. However, the most important initial action must be to ensure that the structure will be stable will last by creating a strong foundation. That is a requirement that will never change. Those builders who have failed to recognize this have met with disaster. Now Trump, in his own way, is building a new foundation for US role in world. Trump was initially accused of thinking of Utopian possibilities on foreign policy: revising trade agreements; terminating long-standing but nonviable treaties; and, making better deals for the national interest and for US firms. Trump has sought to create an environment for peace, with the support of allies and through an authentic rapport with competitors and adversaries. To accomplish this, strategic concept on US foreign policy and diplomacy includes seeking open dialogue with decision makers from around the world, including those who may hold different views than his on how to approach issues but also place great value in the rule of law, democratic government, human rights, freedom of speech and free enterprise that underpin human progress.  He supports a rules-based international system and closer cooperation across borders to address geopolitical, economic and social challenges. So far, things that once seemed so impossible, now appear so simple and natural when handled by Trump. “Das Wunder Trump!” Trump’s foreign and national security policy efforts represent an invasion of new ideas, new approaches the political circles in the US have not been easily accepted, but one way or the other must submit to. Trump’s optimism, his nature as an “imagineer”, has driven him to at least take a crack at making things better.

With Putin, Trump is certainly not staring at his shoe laces. He is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely in nodding terms with Putin. Trump has expressed the nice idea that the US and Russia could accomplish so much more positive things in the world if they could find a way to work together on issues in the transnational interest. With an optimism spurred by having found some areas of agreement and given the degree of mutual respect between Putin and himself, Trump hopes to move to a higher level of understanding with him at Helsinki. Trump has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that he could put on the situation that would knock everything in the right direction.

A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he has a self-enchantment with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin even before Helsinki were decried by critics and detractors, and as well by many in the US news media, as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous, particularly in light of reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump dismisses the obloquy of critics. In fact, rather than finding Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about him having had a number of disappointing experiences with him in the past year. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed Russian moves such as continued interference in the US election system and the election systems of US allies and partners, Russian efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the tightening of Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass.

In the one-on-one session, Trump and Putin undoubtedly sought to present every issue discussed from the best advantage of their respective countries. Trump certainly understood that it had to be done without compromising conditions for finding agreement or resolution on them. Each issue needed to be presented with a certain amount of emphasis and pressure. Yet, nothing would be allowed to deviate far from Trump’s vision of what the US needed. After the one-on-one session, Trump surely better understood Putin’s thinking and intentions.

Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in his 2000 memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000). It would serve as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others.

What Trump Knows about  Putin

It may very well be that following Helsinki, Putin surmised the Russian government was magnified in the eyes of its people and the world. He may have returned to Moscow and “tripped the light fantastic” over the way things turned out with Trump. That behavior would fit the US media version of Putin: an icy, former KGB officer who views the US, the West, and especially Trump with disdain. Undoubtedly, Putin is a shrewd, experienced operator, who always acts with purpose, remain focused on his intention, and has applied as much pressure necessary to maintain his grip on power in Russia. The manner in which Putin does his homework for meetings with other national leaders, such the summit with Trump in Helsinki, was previously explained in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,”

For decades, Hollywood has presented spying as a tough, violent business, with a thousands twists everyday. However, while some intelligence officers may have exceptionally exciting careers, for the most part, life in the intelligence world is humdrum and far from that conjured in the minds of creative screenwriters. Inured with the imaginary version from feature films and television, it is perhaps difficult for outside observers to accept that reality. It is a reality that is unappealing, unappetizing for pundits for it spoils the fantasy the excitement, and fascination. Except for certain parts of his 2000 memoir, First Person, An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his intelligence career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits have done their own share creative thinking on Putin. In this way, a persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, television program about spying, that the pundits can understand.

In an almost amorous way, they ogle over Putin, as everything a KGB officer would be serving as the point of the spear of the ideological face-iff between East and West. They oddly insist that Putin is an amoral spy, a master of his craft always operating, making use of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of that job. A vision of Putin is very often created for readers and viewers by reporters as the officer still in the field, developing agents, tracking down intercepting, neutralizing and recruiting foreign spies, and engaging in “wet work”, assassinating the foes of the Soviet Union. Left alone in your den, he would very likely attempt to read your mail. One could easily be convinced by it all that Putin is still on the beat and that he never really left the service. By breathing so much of their own imaginations into their depictions of Putin, pundits and reporters also create a type of Walter Mitty experience for themselves, finding excitement in interviewing him, and even just covering him. Pundits and reporters may insist that there is nothing sporting, nothing good about Putin, but their depictions of him are often so passionate that they seemingly evince many are oddly enamored by him. When reporters as well as critics and detractors match “their Putin” against Trump, there is no contest. Putin wins hands down.

Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.) As opposed to wrongly characterizing Trump’s politeness to Putin as obsequiousness or subordination, it should have been given far higher meaning. It was clearly an exhibition of a higher order of social grace, his mastery of good manners and etiquette, should have been discerned as such. As mentioned, Trump came office with the intention of cauterizing long standing tensions, exacerbated by the previous administration’s mishandling of US Russia relations, and finding a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between the two leaders and two nations. It has been a bedeviling process. What observers were seeing was a truly inventive approach to Putin, which seems to have yielded some positive results.

In his own appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that he was somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they feel they deserve. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.” From what Putin wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel that he is important. Slights can have dangerous consequences. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way.

Trump’s Appraisal of Putin

Usus, magister egregius. (Experience, that excellent master.) Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood notions Putin the former KGB officer or any fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand Putin, the individual, in the rough. Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in First Person It indeed serves as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others. In its review of First Person, greatcharlie recounts the segment in Part 4 of the book in which Putin outlines his recruitment into the KGB and the initial activities in which he was engaged for the service. Putin admits that during all his years in university, he actually waited for the man at the KGB office to contact him. He was beginning to feel discouraged. As Putin says he reasoned at the time: “It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would have thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn’t like people to show their own initiative, so I didn’t make myself known. I kept quiet. Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor’s office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.” However, when he was in his fourth year of university, a man came and asked Putin to meet with him. Putin said the man did not say who he was, but he immediately figured it out, because he said “I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn’t like to specify what it is yet.” Putin said he reasoned at the time: “If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”  Putin’s story about his recruitment goes on: “We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or someone was playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. Putin notes that he liked that.” Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya, there is still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?” Putin interestingly remarked: “I didn’t tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn’t tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: ‘We don’t take people who come in on their own initiative.’” Despite what was said that day in the vestibule, Putin heard nothing more. The man disappeared. Then, there was the odd day when Putin received a phone call; an invitation to the university’s personnel department. However, when Putin arrived at the employment commission there was some confusion. Putin explains that when reached his name, a representative from the department of law said, “Yes, we’re taking him into the bar.” Then an agent sitting in a corner of the room who was monitoring the students’ assignments suddenly awoke and said, “Oh, no.”  He went on to say: “That question has already been decided. We’re hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB.”  Putin claims the agent said it out loud in front of the jobs assignment commission. Nevertheless, days later Putin was completing several application forms and papers.

In his appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that the Russian President is somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they deserve. That vulnerability points towards insecurity. Although one may not admit to having a fragile ego, it becomes apparent when ones sense of self is easily damaged. Often that vulnerability is caused by a basic sense of separateness and incompleteness. Somewhere along the path of life, one began viewing themselves as insignificant.  This may not exactly be the case for Putin, however, it would seem from what he wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel he is important. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.”  To go further, slights can harm one egos, make one feel belittled. They uncover ones latent sense of insignificance. Ultimately, slights of all kind can be reduced to the same basic feeling of being devalued or disrespected. Slights can have dangerous consequences. They can play on an individual’s’ mind for days, opening psychic wounds that are not easy to heal. The slight may be repeated in the mind. The hurt and humiliation may have a corrosive effect internally. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way: return the slight to the perpetrator other even violence.

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and needlessly, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be.

Recall What Occurred before Trump Took Office

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and without need, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be. Once the slights were made, there was always a follow-on effort to feign if there was surprise over his attitude and actions against US interests. Indeed, the Obama administration went out of its way to figuratively “poke the bear.” When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Perhaps Obama administration foreign policy advisers and experts did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and EU and NATO expansion in Europe just as the administration of US President George W. Bush, his predecessor had. The administration referred to its effort to transform US-Russian relations and achieve further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort.”

A succession of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. Obama decided not to attend the Olympics and would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The event, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries were important now and a greater matter than their personal issues. Obama’s absence that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, did damage that was nearly impossible to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking US political groups in the 2016 election. All of this and more made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel with Putin.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the president of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the President of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do. To the extent that Trump sought a better way to interact with Putin in a graceful, subtle, yet deliberate way that would signal respect and understanding to a cautious, sensitive, and vulnerable Putin, he appears to have found the answer in Japanese culture.

How people interact with each other and display respect is a form of etiquette in the Japanese status system known as “kata”. It originates from ancient Japanese system. Kata rituals are not a suite of meaningless actions. The proper performance of kata provides observers with an indication of ones professional qualifications. People who use kata well are thought as people who can be trusted to understand their roles and function well within an organization or in the society. Direction and guidance in kata begins at grade school in Japan. Early on, students study “kanji” and must learn the exact stroke order for characters. If students do not write characters in the set way, regardless of whether there are easier ways to write them, they will not receive good grades on tests. Kata can be seen everywhere in Japanese society. The ritualistic exchange of business cards that businessmen visiting Japan wonder about and often worry about performing properly, is a form of kata. When shopping, store staff will wrap ones purchase neatly. That practice of careful wrapping is a type of ”kata” that demonstrates to the customer how important the purchase is to the store. If the purchase is a gift, the quality of wrapping indicate to the recipient that the gift comes from the heart. The sincerity of the giver is also placed on full display. In following with kata, the recipient would not open the gift with the presence of the giver. Rather, the recipient express his appreciation humbly and politely, setting the gift aside in a show of respect.

As a long shot, one might surmise that using a simulacrum of kata could have be helpful as a correlative benefit of his interactions with his close friend, the shrewd and adept Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe. On each occasion that Trump met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he became aware that through kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded. Abe has already helped Trump by deciphering written responses from DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and who could share the benefit of his own interactions with Putin on trade, security, and the disputed Kuril Islands or Northern Territories.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (left) and Trump (right). On each occasion that Trump has met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he perhaps became aware that through a simulacrum of kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded.

Putin indicated in First Person that his involvement in the martial arts had a direct impact on his lifestyle. While admitting that prior to studying judo he tried smoking a couple of times, but “ruled it out” when once he became engaged in sports. Putin says that he initially worked out every other day, then every day.  He says he soon had no time available for anything else. Regarding his thinking at the time, he explains: “I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something for myself. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Putin immersed himself in the judo, and the culture from which it emanated. Putin, who today is a very experienced judoka and one very familiar with Japanese martial culture. It would have undoubtedly been hoped that he would pick up on Trump’s effort and that he would respond by being a tad more open with the Trump than he might be with other foreign leaders and certainly previous US presidents with whom he has met.

Additionally, with regard to Japan, Trump may have recalled his own complex business interactions in that country beginning in the late 1980s. Indeed, when Trump sought to reach to deals with Japanese firms, he found it all very ticklish. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explained: “I have great respect for what the Japanese have done with their economy, but for my money they are often very difficult to do business with. For starters, they come in to see you in groups of six or eight or even twelve, and so you’ve got to convince all of them to make any given deal. You may succeed with one or two or three, but it’s far harder to convince all twelve.” Trump fully understands that although Putin is the main authority in Russia, he must still respond to multifaceted influences.

Putin’s disposition at the start of the Helsinki Summit was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from the usual sharp, strapping deportment of the Russian leader. After all, he had come to Helsinki to meet a big broth of a man as Trump and surely wanted to make a proper showing of himself. Sitting in the chair at the Finnish Presidential Palace was not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business.

At the start of the Helsinki Summit, Putin was visibly not himself. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health as he sat with Trump for the cameras. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, there appeared to be considerable strain on Putin’s face, was not an act, an effort to relax Trump or illicit some reaction from him such as over reach, sensing that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions. Further, there was a tightness in his face, while at the same time, his face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat.

What may have caused the apparent degradation in Putin health was the fact that just the day before, Putin was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick. Nevertheless, if, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity drops and one can become more susceptible to illness, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity.

Medical researchers have explained that laymen are usually able to recognize signs that another individual is acutely unwell. Some obvious signs of illness such as sneezing and coughing are easy to spot, but more subtle cues such as pale lips or droopy eyelids may help humans to tell when another person is sick. That appears to be the case even hours after an infection begins. John Axelsson is the co-author of a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that highlights the ways in which humans might use a host of early signals to avoid contracting infection from others. According to Axelsson, “We use a number of facial cues from other people and we probably judge the health in other people all the time.” The ability in humans to use a host of early signals to recognize sickness in other has apparently been developed to help them avoid contracting infection from others.

Putin was visibly not himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, it was not an act or some trick to relax Trump and illicit some reaction from him such as over reaching because he sensed that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions.

What may have caused the degradation of Putin’s health was that just the day before, he was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick, calling it myth. However, they also explain that this is a common belief because when individuals get caught in the rain, often the body temperature drops and that may cause temporary sniffles, which is an immune system response. The only way the rain can almost assuredly make one sick is if the rain water contains germs that you swallow or fall into your eyes. If, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity might drop and one could become more susceptible to illness. Thus, the rain may aggravate ones immune system, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity. There is a lot on this subject, and all of it cannot be unpacked here.

There was a tightness in Putin face as he sat with Trump for the cameras in Helsinki. His face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, infinitely less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat. It appeared as if he were attempting to steady himself, trying to maintain control.

Putin’s disposition was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from his usual sharp, strapping deportment. He had come to Helsinki to meet Trump, a big broth of a man, and surely he wanted to make a proper showing of himself. This was certainly not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business. Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Putin has never hesitated to take the “alpha male” role with leaders of other states and let them know his intentions either. In her excellent book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.”

Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Having formulated a theory about Putin’s health given evidence of his apparent struggle with discomfort at the start of the summit, it must also be made clear that there was no evidence that he was planning to fall apart no matter how he might have felt. Putin will never shrink in the face of adversity.He hardened himself and likely hoped for the best. For Trump, thoroughly familiar with the fight game, Putin must have looked shockingly to him much as a boxer on the ropes and the one-on-one had not even begun. In some business situation, perhaps moving in to find some big advantage would have been the right call. However, this was a summit with Putin. Too much was a stake. He wanted reach agreements that Putin would adhere to and not disregard afterward. He wanted reach understandings with Putin that he would not later walk back from. He wanted to hear Putin to work with those understandings firmly in mind in the follow-on bilateral meeting and publicly adhere to those understandings in their joint press conference  Plus, as mentioned, a main focus of Trump’s intention was to develop a rapport with the Russian leader and tidy up relations Russia. That would not be accomplished by making slick moves that may satisfy ones ego but have a corrosive effect in the end. By end of meeting there was an obvious transformation in Putin’s condition.

Medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or Tylenol can help the symptoms of colds, relieve the pain and can reduce the fever. For some individuals, there can be additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough such as antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition. Any treatments likely had their effect as the summit moved on. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized.

Medicines that can help the symptoms of colds are those that relieve the pain and can reduce the fever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and Tylenol. For some individuals, there can be some additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough. Those medicines include antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition before the summit. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized, even satisfied. He was able to shake his discomfort.

Trump’s goal with Putin was to be unmistakably powerful, yet elegant in his approach. He would use just the right amount of muscle when necessary when broached issues with Putin. At the same time, he sought to find ways to connect with Russian leader, pave inroads into him, create a unique connection, find a chemistry between them. Despite his efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a negative message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”

Putin and the Football: A Faux Pas?

Vita hominum altos recessus magnasque latebras habet. (Character lies more concealed, and out of the reach of common observation.) Trump has taken a huge step diplomatically with Putin by very publicly showing that he is willing to take time with Putin. He is giving him a chance to come around his way, hoping things will work out. There was no easy way to repair the relationship. He knew that it would definitely be a long row to hoe.

Trump wants something more than a cosmetic tie between himself and his Russian counterpart. In a media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any national leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel will only signal his or her insecurity to the Kremlin. Trump’s goal with Putin was to be elegant in his approach, yet unmistakably powerful. His aim was likely to use just the right amount of muscle on any tough or even contentious issues that he broached with Putin. It would surely surprise critics and detractors if they were to discover there were times when Putin felt a bit stretched by Trump. Still, for Trump, the focus of the summit was not confrontation, as much finding ways to connect with Putin, pave inroads into him, create a unique positive connection, find a chemistry between them.

Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a very disconcerting message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”” Trump stated that he would give the present from Putin to his son Darren, and  tossed the ball to the First Lady, Melania Trump.

Although benign intent can be posited to Putin in presenting the ball to Trump, it could also be said that he displayed a lack of concern as to what would anger him. The ball presentation could be seen as evincing his willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Observing closely, the ball presentation appeared off-putting to Trump. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin.

It is impossible to truly know the reasoning behind Putin’s action with the ball. That is known only in the mind of Putin. As explained by greatcharlie in its February 18, 2018 post, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin can display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles. Putin undoubtedly understands the importance of having a sense of humor despite any difficulties he may face. Humor is beneficial for ones physical and emotional health. It reinforces ones relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Physically, laughter can improve resistance to diseases by declining the stress hormones and increasing infection-fighting antibodies in the human body according to some research. Laughter can ease physical tension­ and help muscles relax. Emotionally, humor helps you to release stress and to keep an optimistic attitude. When one feels anxious or sad, a good laugh can lighten ones mood. The positive feelings emitted when one laughs will increase energy for the brain and body. That allows for greater focus and will allow one to look at the problems from less frightening perspectives. Humor helps one remain optimistic and humor communication boosts the emotional connection that will bring people closer together and increases happiness as well. Sharing a good-hearted laugh may serve in part to smooth out rough times. When Putin tells one of his many jokes, his sense of humor is evinced.

Although benign intent can be posited to what Putin did, there is also the possibility that in presenting the ball to Trump, a negative side of Putin was put on full display. Trump may of had that latter sense of it all. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may not only have been negative act but it may also have revealed extraordinary lack of concern on Putin’s part as to what would anger Trump and evinced as willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Critics and detractors of Putin would explain that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President.

Along with wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, everything that Trump learned about Putin at Helsinki will be used in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, the Arctic, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the US public is depending upon him to handle matters in their best interest, just as he has promised.

The Way Forward

In Act III, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Duke, the leader of Vienna, feigns leaving town on business in order to pose as a friar to observe goings-on in his absence. Lord Angelo, the temporary leader of Vienna, takes it upon himself to rid the city of brothels and unlawful sexual activity, believing there is too much freedom in Vienna.Through interviews and firsthand observations, the Duke discovered Angelo’s strict handling of matters, particularly the cases concerning two clowns, Elbow and Pompey, Isabella, Claudio and Juliet, Escalus and Mistress Overdone. Resolved to punish Angelo for his behavior, at this point in the play, The Duke offers a soliloquy on how he will use trickery to make Angelo pay for his sins. He states: “He who the sword of heaven will bear/ Should be as holy as severe;/ Pattern in himself to know,/ Grace to stand, and virtue go;/ More nor less to others paying/ Than by self-offences weighing./ Shame to him whose cruel striking/ Kills for faults of his own liking!/ Twice treble shame on Angelo,/ To weed my vice and let his grow!/ O, what may man within him hide,/ Though angel on the outward side!/ How may likeness made in crimes,/ Making practise on the times,/ To draw with idle spiders’ strings/ Most ponderous and substantial things!/ Craft against vice I must apply:/ With Angelo to-night shall lie/ His old betrothed but despised;/ So disguise shall, by the disguised,/ Pay with falsehood false exacting,/ And perform an old contracting.”  Putin has a tendency to behave in ways to convince that in his heart “he deviseth to do evil.” The presentation of the World Cup football was a bad idea. Hopefully, he is aware that Trump will not simply forget the matter and push the incident down. Trump may not have been able to figuratively stop that bird, that incident from flying over his head, but he can prevent that same bird from creating a nest in his hair. Putin hopefully learned quickly at Helsinki to refrain from pulling such stunts in the future, no matter how “well-intentioned.” Putin should also understand after the Helsinki Summit that Trump will never react well to bad ideas or ultimatums cloaked as proposals. Everything that Trump has learned about Putin with regard to Helsinki will be of great value to him. Along with the wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, the information will be used appropriately in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. For now, it apparently remains a goal of the US President. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the country is depending upon him to handle matters in its best interest, just as he has promised. He will keep “America First”. Ornat haec magnitudo animi, quae nihil ad ostentationem, omnia ad conscientiam refert recteque facti non ex populi sermone mercedem, sed ex facto petit. (To all this, his illustrious mind reflects the noblest ornament; he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applauses of the world, but in the action itself.)

Book Review: Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014)

In writing Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha provides a wake-up call for those who have failed to recognize Putin’s Russia for what it has become. She concludes Russia is a deeply corrupt country led by a “thieving regime,” veiling its actions with the half-truth of attempting to restore Russia to greatness. She supports her view with a very detailed, weighty analysis.

Many have tried to peer into the life Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to gain insight into his actions. Much of the new information that emerges is more often gossip and speculation. For example, recently there were reports of a study done by a lead researcher at the US Naval War College in 2008 that concluded Putin had Asperger’s Syndrome, basing on an analysis that linked his movements on videos to his state of mind. After avoiding the spotlight for ten days, Putin appeared on television, laughing off rumors that suggested he had health problems, he had been subject to a coup, and that his 31-year-old girlfriend had given birth in Switzerland. In June 2001, President George W. Bush stated about Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.” Yet, despite such publicly reported misunderstandings and even academic analyses that viewed Putin as forging democracy in Russia, occasionally studies are produced that offer real insight and new information on the Russian president. Putin’s Kleptocracy is the latter.

In her book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Karen Dawisha discusses how Putin, who has wielded national power in Russia since 2000, has been conscientious about his work, not only in governance but in amassing fortunes for himself and his circle. In writing Putin’s Kleptocracy, Dawisha ostensibly provides a wake-up call for those who have failed to recognize Putin’s Russia for what it has become. She concludes Russia is a deeply corrupt country led by a thieving regime, veiling its actions with the half-truth of attempting to restore Russia to greatness. She supports her view with a very detailed, weighty analysis.

Dawisha is the Walter B. Havinghurst Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the director of the Havinghurst Center for Russian and Post Soviet Studies. She was an adviser to the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, she was a member of the Policy Planning Staff and the Bureau of Political Military Affairs at the US State Department. Dawisha also served as a Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and had served as the Director of its Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies. From 1979 to the present, she has written five previous books, written numerous journal articles, and edited eight volumes on Russian, Post-Soviet, and Soviet politics.

Dawisha tells the reader about a sullied and corrupted Russia that is in agony and suffering. It is a Russia that is rotting politically, economically, morally. However, while her discussion of the spoliation of Russia is trenchant, it is also quite riveting. Reaching as far as she could with the sources available, Dawisha, with great detail, painstakingly enumerates the lies, deceptions, and activities of Putin and his associates as they amassed huge fortunes cleaning out the coffers of the Russian government and strong-arming oligarchs (a few ultra-wealthy business leaders) for “donations.” Readers will need to decide for themselves whether her argument is convincing. Dawisha does not approach her book with an open and balanced perspective on the subject matter. If Dawisha were Russian, she would certainly be firmly ensconced in the opposition movement. One learns about Putin as Russian oppositionists would want the world to know about him.

Dawisha paints a picture in Putin’s Kleptocracy of Putin and his circle living in opulence, as average citizens live in a Russia where houses and apartments are shabby, streets look like an amusement park the morning after the night before. The reader can visualize Putin and his circle cleaning out Russia’s coffers, while closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly, and speech.

To write Putin’s Kleptocracy, Dawisha spent almost eight years studying archival sources, the accounts of Russian insiders, the results of investigative journalism in the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, France, and Italy, and all of this was backed by extensive interviews with Western officials who served in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were consulted on background. Dawisha consulted with and used many accounts by opposition figures, Russian analysts, and exiled figures who used to be part of the Kremlin elite. Dawisha also relied on the work of Russian journalists who many of whom she says have died for this story. Dawisha tells readers how their work has largely been scrubbed from the Internet, or infected with viruses attached to online documents, leading to computers crashes. Whole runs of critical Russian newspapers have disappeared from Russian libraries. Dawisha also made use of the dump of non-redacted cables from WikiLeaks which she calls “a very regrettable but also a completely fascinating source of information.” Sapiens nihil affirmat quod non probat. (A wise man states as true nothing he does not prove.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the authentic face of the Russian government has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin restored order in Russia after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. His style of management was undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer from 1975 to 1991 in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. However, his style was not shaped in terms of his use of KGB tradecraft. (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.) It was shaped as a result of his continued close association with a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career, particularly a few who served in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) with him. These men are known as siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. At the pinnacle are men among them who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. These men come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was raised in the Chekisty (Chekist) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended.

It was in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dimitry Medvedev.) Putin rose to deputy-mayor, but his work in St. Petersburg was halted after six years when his boss lost his bid for reelection. In the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President.

Much was said about reestablishing Russia as a Great Power and passing and upholding new laws for the Russian people when Putin became Russian Federation President in 2000. However, Dawisha is convinced that from the beginning, the goal of Putin and his circle of former KGB colleagues was to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded plans, interests, and capabilities.

Putin brought his circle of Chekists with him to the presidency. Putin declared that he was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He would not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence are restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union are brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence. Putin did not hesitate to let the leaders of those states know his intentions either. Dawisha recounts the story of when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.” Dawisha would not deny that returning Russia to Great Power (if not superpower) status was a goal of Putin and his circle. She points out that Putin and his circle also promised to pass and uphold laws to protect, promote, cement, and sustain democratic institutions. However, Dawisha insists that the goal of Putin and his circle was to acquire large amountd of money. She is convinced that their goal from the start was to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded plans, interests, and capabilities. She goes as far as to state democracy was used as decoration rather than direction. Dawisha explains Putin and his circle managed to establish what they internally call a sistema that serves the purpose of creating a unified and stable authoritarian state that allows individuals close to Putin and his associates to benefit personally from the unparalleled plundering of Russia’s vast natural resources. Political leaders close to Putin have become multimillionaires, and oligarchs around them have become billionaires. Their power and wealth can be maintained as long as they do not challenge Putin politically. The state absorbs the risk, provides state funds for investment, and gives Putin and those close to him massive monetary rewards. However, Putin stands at the top of the heap. Dawisha says he has acquired over twenty official residences, fifty-eight planes, and four yachts, and $700,000 in wrist watches. She estimates Putin’s holdings in the commodity-trading firm, Gunvot, at $40 billion. Having acquired so much, Dawisha explains Putin and his circle have never sought to use any of it to assist ordinary Russians. Even money earmarked for the Sochi Olympics was diverted to the pockets of the bureaucratic and political elite. Russia’s elites continue to maximize their gains by keeping domestic markets open for their predation while minimizing their own personal risk by depositing profits in secure Western bank accounts. By 2013, the gap between Russia’s rich and poor was larger than in any other major country, and twice that of Western Europe. Radix malorum est cupiditas! (Greed is the root of evils!)

Dawisha paints a picture in Putin’s Kleptocracy of Putin and his cronies living in opulence, as average citizens live in a Russia where houses and apartments are shabby, streets look like an amusement park the morning after the night before. The reader can visualize Putin and his circle cleaning out the coffers, while closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly, and speech. Dawisha says, in Putin’s Russia, the law has lost its meaning. True, he has built a legalistic system. Yet, that system serves to control, channel, and coerce the middle class and the broader elite while at the same time allowing his inner core of friends and associates in various positions along what has been called Putin’s “vertical of power” to act with impunity. It is all in following with the adage, “For my friends anything, for my enemies, the law!”

To deal with the perspectives of Russian people, Putin engaged in what Dawisha calls a charm offensive. She points to the success he had using “gimmicks” such as the election of Dimitry Medvedev as Russian President. Putin presents himself as Russia’s “strong man.” having the ability to take on the country’s burdens and dominate situations. The state’s near control over the entire media space facilitates getting out that narrative.

Dawisha suggests that from the moment Putin took power in 2000, Russia ceased to be a place where democratic dreamers could flourish, and provides a record that shows Putin governed with little regard for human and political rights. Dawisha claims there has been targeted repression, with nonviolent demonstrators being sentenced to either prison or indefinite psychiatric treatment. Despite the best efforts of Putin’s political opponents, journalists, and activists and NGOs, to the average Russian, oppositionists represent chaos, disorder, not reform or progress. Perhaps it is easy for the slothful human nature to take what is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. To deal with the perspectives of Russian people as all this has been happening, Putin from the beginning engaged in what Dawisha calls a charm offensive. Dawisha leaves no doubt that she feels those willing to believe that Putin could provide a road to democracy in Russia had really been left in the cradle intellectually. She points to the success he had using “gimmicks” such as the election of Dimitry Medvedev as Russian President. She proffers that was a “public relations maneuver” to create the illusion that Russia remained a burgeoning democracy despite all the behavior of Putin and his circle indicated the contrary. So comfortable was US President Barack Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. (Some of Putin’s smaller gimmicks such as using the Ketchum public relations firm, which the Russian government already allegedly had an estimated $1.935 contract, to place an Op-Ed in the New York Times to impact US public opinion on Syria, Russia, and Obama, failed miserably.) Putin depicts himself as Russia’s “strong man,” having the ability to take on Russia’s burdens and dominate situations on behalf of the Russian people. The state’s near control over the entire media space facilitates getting that narrative out. Yet, Dawisha certainly recognizes that Putin has been bolstered not only by illusions he has helped to create about himself, but goes a step further to say he is also supported by the internal logic of the system.. Manual control trumps institutions; instructions and understandings are greater than law; and, money is above everything. This system has satisfied the wealthy, the business community (energy sector), the military, and the other security services. It has strengthened Putin’s power over those who contest him politically. When Putin faces disapproval internationally for his actions, the impression is created that he is acting on behalf of Russia in the face of condemnation from overseas.

Although Dawisha focuses more directly on Putin’s rise financially, through her discussion, a picture emerges of Putin from the abstract as an individual with significant capabilities. Great guile is displayed in his maneuvers to attain political power and a vast fortune. When moral good is not part of the calculus, Putin’s accomplishments appear very impressive. Through Dawisha’s close examination of Putin’s activities, one can discern both a simplicity and complexity about him. The simplest shape in geometry is the circle. Yet, when one tries to duplicate it, great difficulty is usually encountered. The circle’s complexity is revealed. Publicly, Putin may very well be all things negative that Dawisha says he is. Beyond Dawisha’s discussion of Putin’s avarice, malfeasance, and aggressive actions, one gets a sense of his human side from the book. There is a state generated image of Putin and an authentic Putin, who appears humble in private. His humility may be one of the secrets to his success. Humble men are honest about themselves. The humble recognize their failings, but capitalizes on their talents. Those who are proud build themselves up as false Gods. They will always have an eye on what others think of them. The humble have disdain for the opinions of others. For this reason, it is unlikely Putin lamented over what Dawisha has written about him. Putin is well-aware that he has “very often” been taken by the “lesser angels of his nature.” Knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, and capabilities and the possibilities for their success in an endeavor, the humble can accomplish great things. Putin keeps what is personal close to himself. When speaking about what is important to him, Putin does not use throw away lines. He is straight forward and to the point. Dawisha recounts the evening when he was declared the winner of the 2012 Russian Federation Presidential Election and Putin publicly wept. It is impossible to know what was happening inside Putin to bring that on, but his emotional expression was clearly genuine. Dawisha believes Putin and his circle could never have imagined amassing so much success and power. However, Putin undoubtedly knows how big he really is and what his rise has cost him, personally. While Dawisha believes there will be no end to Putin’s appetite for money and power, Putin likely knows exactly how far he can go. Veritas vos liberabit. (The truth shall make you free.)

Although Dawisha focuses more directly on Putin’s rise financially, from her discussion, a picture emerges of Putin as an individual with significant capabilities. Great guile is displayed in his maneuvers to attain political power and a vast fortune. When moral good is not part of the calculus, Putin’s accomplishments appear very impressive.

Throughout the remainder of Putin’s Kleptocracy, further evidence is provided by Dawisha on bribe taking from Russian and foreign companies seeking business deals and permits; rigged privatization deals designed to enrich associates who would later serve as money sources for Putin and his circle; stories of payoffs from inflated no-bid contracts for state projects; illicit exports of raw materials purchased at state-subsidized prices and sold for far lower prices; money laundering; election fixing; the intimidation, and alleged elimination of potential whistle-blowers and a lot more. Dawisha puts faces on those who allegedly engaged in such illicit activities, along with naming firms involved, and the amounts pilfered. There absolutely more than enough to satisfy those interested in news about Putin’s Russia.

There is also much to that can be learned from Putin’s Kleptocracy given what it provides on Putin and current political environment in Russia, and the economic, political, and social histories of Russia and the Soviet Union. Dawisha’s book is a real page turner, and one that will be difficult to pull away from. Its countless stories of illicit activities are incredibly intriguing. Putin’s Russia has been the subject of many greatcharlie.com posts. It is a pleasure to be able to introduce many our readers to a truly well-written, well-researched book on the subject. Without hesitation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Putin’s Kleptocracy to its readers. They are guaranteed to read it more than once. For some practicioners, Putin’s Kleptocracy may even serve as a reference. It is a book greatcharlie.com readers, regardless of their degree of interest in the subject, will greatly appreciate acquiring.

By Mark Edmond Clark