The Russian leader doesn’t want war, and he won’t take on Nato, but neither will he give in to Merkel and Hollande if he thinks it’s against his country’s interests
After a period working in St Petersburg following the fall of Communism (where I first met him as a young official with a reputation for getting things done) his subsequent rise was stratospheric. It depended on two attributes which I saw in him in abundance – loyalty and ruthlessness. His close links with former KGB colleagues took him in 1997 from St Petersburg to the Kremlin. There he recommended himself to President Yeltsin both through sheer administrative competence and by bringing down a troublesome prosecutor who was after Yeltsin’s family.
And his final selection in 1999 as Yeltsin’s successor was assisted by his successful prosecution of the second Chechen war, launched in response to a series of terrorist incidents (allegedly arranged by Russian intelligence) in which hundreds of innocent Russians died.
Putin as president continues to display those same qualities which got him to the top. In a culture that prizes emotional excess, I have never seen him let himself go. He is always impeccably turned out, exudes a sort of aggressive fitness which cows the flabby middle-aged men around him, and is in impressive command of the facts of whatever he is discussing. I have seen him correct British ministers on the details of the UK gas market and stun British intelligence officials by responding to an exposition of our anti-terrorist policies with the blunt statement: “We kill them.” His annual press conferences are tours de force – three hours without notes taking questions from all-comers on all subjects. Our politicians would never attempt it.
Putin is centrally driven by his determination to restore Russia as a power to be taken seriously. He deeply mistrusts the West. But he is not a risk taker. His pride in Russia was apparent every time I saw him, from lavish Kremlin receptions to celebrate Russia’s artistic elite to his cold response at a Downing Street meeting to hearing that a gas project was going to cost Russia billions more than anticipated – eventually followed by Russian expropriation of the company concerned. His caution has been much questioned since the annexation of Crimea last year – which took virtually all observers (including me) by surprise. But the Putin I knew was a man who judged situations very carefully, was very conscious of Russia’s relative weakness vis-à-vis the West, and only took action if he was confident he had a decisive advantage, or felt himself unbearably provoked – as in Georgia in 2008. There is simply no evidence for the Western hysteria about a revanchist Russia. The Putin I know is not going to take on Nato.
None the less, getting out of the mess in Ukraine is not going to be easy. Putin has nailed his flag to the mast of protecting the East Ukrainian dissidents. Nor will he let Ukraine abandon its neutral status and join Nato. He is not going to let economic pressures, or even the supply of arms, force him to accept a deal which damages what he views as vital Russian interests. He knows the Russian elite, and people, are firmly behind him on all this.
On the other hand, he certainly doesn’t want war. And he doesn’t want to add broken-backed East Ukraine, still less other parts of the former Soviet Union, to Russia’s already substantial economic woes. Merkel and Hollande face a hideously difficult job. And Vladimir Putin is keen that it should be so. But the last thing he wants is to make it impossible.
Full article: I’ve looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes – and he won’t back down (The Telegraph)