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Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand, Published online: 13 Apr 2016.

“The West is at an inflection point in its relations with Russia; the stakes for having an accurate understanding of its president, Vladimir Putin, have never been higher. A misreading of this man – now one of the most consequential international political figures and challengers to the US-led world order since the end of the Cold War – could have catastrophic consequences. Russia’s 8,000 nuclear weapons (and the vehicles to deliver them to any point on the globe) underscore the huge risks of not understanding who Putin is, what he wants, how he thinks, and why. Where do his ideas and conceptions come from? How does Putin look at the outside world? Why did he annex Crimea in 2014 and intervene in Syria in 2015? What does he know about the West? What does he think about the United States? These are all critical questions. Putin’s Russia is a one-man show. Yes, Putin has around him a group of associates (“cronies” as they are often called) whose relationships extend back decades – in St. Petersburg, where Putin grew up, studied, first joined the KGB, and became deputy mayor; in Moscow, where Putin moved in 1996 and began his ascent toward the presidency; and in Dresden, in the former East Germany, where Putin was posted by the KGB in the 1980s. But this group of men (they are all men) does not represent the kind of “old-boy” network most are accustomed to. Putin’s is a “one-boy” network.” He may listen to the counsel of his friends or not. We do not actually know. The circle is extremely narrow and difficult to penetrate, even for supposed Russian political insiders. What we do know is that there is no oligarchy or separate set of economic, business, or political interests that compete with Putin. In the end, he makes the decisions. This one-man show has deep roots in Russian political culture. A small inner circle that pivots around a single leader was the central element during long periods in both prerevolutionary czarist Russia and in the Soviet system. There are other elements of historical continuity in Putin’s system. For him, the Soviet-era international paradigm has not changed so much. Yes, communism is gone, and the Soviet Union has crumbled, but from his vantage point, Russia did not go anywhere. Military might still makes right, and wars still frame the playing field. In Putin’s view, the United States made this clear with its 2003 invasion of Iraq, shortly after the 2001 American intervention in Afghanistan. Russia’s own military operations in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria brought Russia back into the age-old game. There are China and other new players to contend with, but the old adversary, the United States, has been pared down to size in relative terms, which gives Russia more opportunity to assert itself.”

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