Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Putin is the Sober, Shirtless Yeltsin

Recently my university hosted the journalist, author, and proud expellee (from Russia) David Satter, who provided his lively and engaged audience with historical perspective on the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Satter attributed Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and subsequent false-flag operations in the Donetsk region to political opportunism. Faced, Satter observed, with calls for reform in Russia, and worried about a spillover effect from the 2014 uprising in Kiev, Vladimir Putin chose to divert Russian public attention with a war, which he probably expected to prove a short and successful one like the 2008 conflict with Georgia.
In pursuing this line of policy, Putin demonstrated deep continuity between current Russian politics and those of the 1990s. In the ill-informed view of many contemporary Americans, Russia in this decade was a developing democracy under the buffoonish but harmless leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Actually, Satter reminded us, Russia in the 1990s was a grim, decrepit dystopia, still suffering the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse. GDP shrunk 50 percent, excess deaths from disease and alcoholism (among other causes) topped six million, and contract murder reached epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, a handful of old apparatchiks and Yeltsin cronies plundered the nation’s resources. By 1999, with social pathology reaching a peak, many Russians of Satter’s acquaintance speculated that Yeltsin would cancel the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, following several bombings in Russian cities, Yeltsin declared the nation under attack by Chechen terrorists, and launched a punitive war against Chechnya. This provided cover for Yeltsin to resign at the end of 1999 in favor of his prime minister, Putin, who pardoned his predecessor, ended the Chechen war, and handily won the 2000 election.

Putin had also been director of Russia's Federal Security Bureau, successor to the old KGB, and it is not entirely surprising that journalists like Satter found evidence that the FSB had set the bombs which Yeltsin blamed on Chechen terrorists. (The bureau was persuasively linked to a botched bombing attempt the same year.) That Russia has no monopoly on this kind of skullduggery is a point Mr. Satter chose not to make, but an American historian could: in the 1960s the CIA used a bombing campaign to undermine a left-wing government in Greece, and one might argue that George W. Bush used the Iraq War, and the ginned-up and misinterpreted evidence that justified it, to bolster his popular support the year before the 2004 election.

Satter concluded that Putin may have unleashed nationalist forces he cannot control, a wave of "chauvinistic euphoria" that will push him to further foreign adventurism in the Baltic states or Central Asia. For my part, I suspect Putin has become adept at managing the reactionaries in his own country, and at using Russia's armed forces to appease them by provoking (or counter-provoking) other nations but not actually starting wars with them. The campaign in Ukraine will end, I suspect, when it no longer generates political capital for the Russian regime, or when the president decides Russia's army can no longer logistically sustain it - in either case, on a timetable more of Mssr. Putin's choosing than anyone else's. 


Image One: Boris Yeltsin dancing, 1996, Associated Press: http://asapblogs.typepad.com/news/2007/04/the_dancing_yel.html
 Image Two: Yeltsin with Putin, Dec. 1999, via Kremlin.ru.

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