LONDON – In novelist Victor Pelevin’s pungent satire on contemporary Russia, “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf,” its narrator, a 2,000-year-old shape-shifter, kisses Alexander, a brutish but alluring officer with the FSB, the Russian security service — who is a werewolf, like all his colleagues. In doing so, she unwittingly transforms his inner animal from that of a sleek grey wolf into a black dog that is at first rejected by, and then finally returns to, his former FSB employers.
As an invocation of post-Soviet Russia under the heirs of Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin in particular, it is a necessary text in understanding both Putin and Russia today. The world Pelevin describes is one where there are no absolutes of truth or even reality — only what people say is true. The country’s new wealth is summoned as if by magic out of the soil by the howling servants of the state. Historic continuity with the Soviet past is visible in the expressions of Alexander and his colleagues: “Faces that used to be around a lot in the old days.”
It speaks to — and of — a deep uncertainty. For while Russia may not be the military power it once was at the height of the Cold War — the once sharp-toothed grey wolf — it still harbors a lingering nostalgia for that time. The black dog still hankers to be lupine. All of which has underpinned Putin’s slick maneuvers over the last week that have left U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy looking leaden and wrong-footed.
Also, perhaps the White House and State Department in their clumsy and literal interpretation of Putin’s motives have fallen for the conjuror’s old trick of misdirection. They have taken the Kremlin’s interest in Damascus at face value, rather than understanding it for what it is — an expression of Putin’s notion of Russia’s place in the world.
And so, over the last six months and more, Putin, the former KGB officer, has been a step ahead of Obama, the former constitutional lawyer with his penchant for thinking out loud. First, Putin tweaked Obama’s nose with the granting of “temporary asylum” to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Now, with the offer to deliver the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons in response to an apparently off-the-cuff suggestion by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, he appears to have wrong-footed the White House again.
The fact that Putin appears to enjoy a more astute understanding than Obama of what the U.S. public wants to hear right now is a reminder of the credo of another of Pelevin’s cynical creations, the Russian adman from the novel “Homo Zapiens.” He declares: “First you try to understand what people will like and then you hand it to them in the form of a lie.”
And that, by and large, is what Putin pulled off last week in his Op-Ed for the New York Times, brokered by his U.S. PR firm Ketchum, with an appeal made directly to the American people’s desire to avoid another Middle East military entanglement.
Its cleverness was that it dressed up a self-interested and sometimes credibility-stretching argument, not least over the continuing claims that Syrian rebels were behind the gas attack in Ghouta on Aug. 21, with enough legitimate criticism of U.S. policy to provide a veneer of credibility. What is surprising in all this is not only the enthusiasm for the Putin initiative from some quarters, but also that it’s not very hard to divine what Putin really wants on the world stage.
In February this year, he made the Putin doctrine explicit, presenting the Russian Federation’s new foreign policy framework to his security council. Rejecting the efforts seen during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency for greater integration with the West, Putin’s emphasis is both more local, eyeing his immediate backyard, and more assertive internationally.
If there is a striking difference between Putin and Obama, it is that the former appears to understand both the limits of post-Russian power and the tools available to him, while the Obama administration, and the U.S. more widely, has failed to internalize its relative decline in power and influence over the last decade.
Putin’s assessment of the “polycentric” nature of the global landscape, for now at least, seems the more astute, not least in his bet that the West will no longer be able to “dominate in the world economy and politics.”
Putin’s Op-Ed for the New York Times was scathing about the notion of U.S. “exceptionalism” as the indispensable nation. However, to a Russian audience, he is happy to claim the same mantle of “uniqueness” when it comes to seeing Moscow’s role — not least on the U.N. Security Council — as a counterweight to U.S. ambitions.
For Putin, the front line in this struggle is not the fate of Syria or even the risk of instability in wider Middle East, but resisting “implementation of policies aimed at overthrowing lawful governments,” not least through the auspices of the U.N. and through U.S.-democracy promotion.
As the author and analyst David Rohde argued last week in an opinion piece for Reuters: “There is nothing complicated or altruistic about Putin’s strategy in Syria. He is defending Assad in order to preserve his key ally in the Middle East and his own rule in Russia.” Rohde added that Putin sees Syria as the sort of American intervention that has unseated rulers. “Dismissing protests against himself and other autocrats as CIA plots, he probably fears he may be next.”
While Putin has been mocked for some of his pretensions, not least his penchant for being photographed in the midst of “manly” pursuits, that is seriously to underestimate his nous. This is particularly true when he is speaking to his constituency, an alliance of nationalists, conservatives and a vast, sprawling middle ground. According to Clifford Gaddy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Putin interposed himself as a key political fixer under the patronage of Yeltsin-era figure Anatoly Chubais in the mid-1990s. Putin, he says, “understood the principles of the British intelligence chief John Masterman’s double-cross system: Don’t destroy your enemies. Manipulate them and use them for your own goals.”
Putin did, and continues to do, precisely that. He has targeted the oligarchs whose secrets he captured in his rise to power, first as the prime minister, under whose auspices the brutal second Chechen war was prosecuted. He has broken those who have stepped out of line.
The manipulation is done, as David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, remarked two years ago, with a disarming cynicism. Remnick described an encounter with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, as indicative of the house style. “When [Peskov] lies, he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know. The smile is also meant to convey another message to foreign visitors: so, we’re cynical. And you’re not?”
And while Putin’s popularity has certainly declined, not least in large parts of the country’s better educated middle class, he has been clever enough to cement his position.
Last week, amid the thumb-sucking in large parts of the U.S. commentariat over whether Putin had thrown a hapless Obama a “lifeline” over the Syrian crisis, it took Human Rights Watch’s Anna Neistat to point out the Russian president’s multiple evasions, including the transfer of arms to Assad.
She noted: “From the very start of this conflict, Russia has vetoed or blocked any Security Council action that may bring relief to Syria’s civilians or bring perpetrators of abuses in Syria to account.”
She also underlined how difficult it is to take seriously talk about “democratic values and international law” when his government at home “continues to throw activists in jail, threatens to close non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and rubber-stamps Draconian and discriminatory laws.”
The reality is that Putin has won this latest round. He has narrowed the terms of the present debate on the war he is arming — which has claimed 100,000 lives and displaced 6.5 million — to the narrow question of disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons, a task that would be difficult enough to accomplish in peacetime. Already, it is clear, not least from the comments of Assad on Russian television, that the negotiation over the details of that disarmament will be spun out.
In the meantime, the horror of the war in Syria will drag on and on. On the question of red lines, Obama’s has been crossed to no effect, while Putin’s red line on Western intervention has been defended at the cost of yet more Syrian lives on both sides of the war and no real prospect of a negotiated peace.
Somewhere, a black dog is smiling a wolfish grin.
The life and times of Russia’s latest strongman
Born: Leningrad, in October 1952, six months before the death of Stalin. Mother Maria Ivanovna Putina was a factory worker and father Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin was conscripted into the Soviet Navy before also working in a factory. Divorced from Lyudmila, whom he married in 1983. Two daughters.
Best of times: Becoming Russian president in 2000 after being hand-picked by former President Boris Yeltsin as his successor.
Worst of times: In terms of popularity at home, very few. Being booed after he stepped into the ring at the end of a martial arts fight between Russian fighter Fedor Emelianenko and his American opponent, Jeff Monson, in 2011. It marked the first time that public discontent with his rule broke out into the open.
What he says: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
What others say: “He ain’t exceptional. He’s just one more in a long tradition of dictators and thugs.” — Newt Gingrich