Putin: The Russian leader with a very particular worldview

To understand Putin's character and leadership brand, you need to delve deep into Russia's historical evolution and geography

Channelling the heavyweights of Russia's past, the current president sees it as his job to "retake" territory he deems to be Russian. It is a fundamental part of who he is.
Daniel Baxter
Channelling the heavyweights of Russia's past, the current president sees it as his job to "retake" territory he deems to be Russian. It is a fundamental part of who he is.

Putin: The Russian leader with a very particular worldview

To understand Vladimir Putin, you need to go back in time. Not to his childhood but to the early 18th century and Peter the Great.

Of course, the current Russian president’s biographical details are important—his upbringing, education, and early career in Soviet intelligence. However, to understand the essence of his character and leadership brand, you need to delve deep into Russia’s historical evolution and geography.

Since he first stepped out of the shadows and into the public arena as an assistant to St. Petersburg’s Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin has been a man on a mission.

In the shifting sands of the post-Soviet landscape, he pushed to restore Russia back to its glory days. But how he reached his position might have been unimaginable to him in the twilight of the Cold War when he was a young KGB officer stationed in Dresden, Germany.

Sobchak’s influence

As St Petersburg’s first elected mayor, author of Russia’s constitution, and mentor to two of Russia’s future presidents (Putin and Dmitri Medvedev), Sobchak should probably be better remembered than he is.

This was the post-communist chaos of the 1990s, as Putin was emerging. His boss had been a member of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Consultative Council.

At the helm of Russia's second-largest city, he championed liberal reforms in politics, media, and the economy.

Sobchak and Boris Yeltsin did not get on. Yeltsin bore a deep-seated animosity towards anyone with previous affiliations to the Soviet Communist Party. Putin seems not to have shared that disdain.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's public contributions during this time were modest. His most notable role was receiving distinguished guests, including Britain's Prince Charles and US President Bill Clinton, in the mid-90s.

In the PBS documentary series The Putin Files, former US Ambassador Strobe Talbott said Putin went to great efforts to limit any direct engagement between Clinton and the Russian public.

Clinton was "frustrated" by this. "He couldn't get out of the car, and the car would never slow down so he could wave to the people, who were delighted to see him," recalls Talbott, who was there as US Deputy Secretary of State.

Putin had effectively placed the US delegation under siege, tactics commonly associated with junior intelligence officers who are taught to isolate individuals from unfolding events and cloak proceedings in mystery and secrecy.

The roaring 90s

In the 1990s, Putin was instrumental in forming what came to be known as the "St Petersburg Circle".

This was a network of acquaintances from the former imperial capital, notably from the faculty of law at the city's university, where he was educated, and those with connections to the KGB.

This circle (or "gang," as critics of Putin call it) proved pivotal in his ascendancy to the position of prime minister and then president of Russia, helping to establish the foundation for his long tenure in the Kremlin.

Yet he was not shaped by people but by events. What happened in Russia in the turbulent 1990s profoundly affected him and shaped his worldview as the country tried to deal with the Soviet Union's dissolution.

This dismantlement of such a longstanding political framework deeply affected Russians on many psychological, behavioural, and social levels.

The transition to a market economy, characterised by an emphasis on consumerism and quick profit, was a stark departure from the previous system, the roots of which stretched back centuries.

To understand Putin's character and leadership brand, you need to delve deep into Russia's historical evolution and geography.

Defeat in Chechnya

The upheaval of the era spawned a spectrum of political, cultural, and economic ideologies ranging from extreme right-wing fascism to radical liberalism.

Under Boris Yeltsin's leadership, the viability of these diverse philosophies was tested. This created a sense of instability, and the careers of senior officials seemed as transient as the days were turbulent.

From 1998-99, Putin briefly served as director of Russia's intelligence service, the FSB, then headed the Security Council, before becoming prime minister in August 1999, then president in May 2000.

He came to power amidst a feeling of disenchantment. Russia had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the First Chechen War from 1994-96, and few Russian leaders had distinguished themselves.

Chechnya revisited

Russians questioned Yeltsin's fitness to lead amid worries about his ability to protect Russia's territorial integrity.

Therefore, one of Putin's first tasks was to mitigate the repercussions of this defeat and restore Russian pride.

The situation escalated with the incursion of Chechen militants into Dagestan, followed by a series of mysterious bombings that rocked residential buildings across various Russian cities, claiming hundreds of lives.

The Russian government blamed Chechens, but some suggested that Russian state agencies orchestrated them to justify a second war with Chechnya, one that would, this time, result in victory.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) listens to the chief of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Vladimir Putin (L), during their meeting in the government's countryside residence Gorki-9 outside Moscow, 20 November 1998.

Sure enough, Russia's new leadership suddenly saw the Chechen separatists as an existential threat amid rumours that they were receiving Western support to exacerbate Russia's internal divisions and challenge its sovereignty.

Russia's subsequent victory struck a deep chord in the Russian consciousness and proved pivotal in helping Russians move beyond the tumultuous post-Soviet years.

Re-imagining Russia

The Chechen threat had led to a re-evaluation among the country's politicians and intellectuals about Russia's survival and identity. Russia needed a reinvention, they concluded.

Various ideologies were considered, but Eurasianism, as championed by writer Alexander Dugin, came to the fore. This is the belief that Russia's identity is distinct from the West and defined by a unique cultural fabric with Orthodox Christianity at its heart, bridging the Europe-Asia gap.

Read more: Aleksandr Dugin: My Vision for the new world order

Adherents consider the Byzantine Empire to be the "Third Rome" and see Russia as a sovereign entity perennially vigilant against threats from both the West and the East.

This is, in essence, the same vision as Tsar Peter the Great's. It propelled Russia from medieval obscurity to a formidable global power, and Putin wants to recreate it.

He is not alone. Russian leaders have historically looked to the past for inspiration. Despite being a Marxist, Joseph Stalin admired Tsar Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible).

Daniel Baxter
Former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin admired Ivan the Terrible.

Stalin saw Ivan as a pivotal figure in forming the Russian state through his consolidation of power internally and victories over external adversaries, including the Tatars at Kazan.

Peter's vision

Peter saw the West as Russia's access to modern civilisation. He even founded St Petersburg on the shore of the River Neva as a "window to the West" in May 1703.

His was a transformative agenda, extending far beyond superficial changes. His vision was for the wholesale adoption of Western architectural and artistic norms. Yet this was not merely emulation.

He asserted Russia's strategic role in European geopolitics and its stance towards the Ottoman Empire, blending Westernisation with a staunch defence of Russian sovereignty.

This delicate balance between embracing Western influences while maintaining a distinct Russian identity also marked the reigns of his successors.

Notably, Catherine the Great—despite her German origins and limited fluency in Russian—was deeply swayed by Russian nationalist sentiments.

Reclaiming for Russia

History informs Putin's worldview and strategies. In June 2022, on the 350th anniversary of Peter's birth and less than four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin seemed to compare himself to Peter.

"Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, that he took something from them," he told students.

"He did not take anything from them. He returned (what was Russia's)… Narva and his first expeditions, why did he go there? He went there to take it back and strengthen it.

"Well, it seems it has fallen to us to take back and strengthen (territories), and if we take these basic values as fundamental to our existence, we will prevail in solving the issues we face."

Here is Putin's staunch defence of Russian sovereignty and his reference point (Peter) for taking territory once ruled by Russians.

Vulnerable to the west

Russia's leaders have long felt susceptible to Western military aggression, as illustrated by the invasions led by Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, both of which exploited the strategic vulnerabilities of Russia's vast Great European Steppe.

This region is devoid of natural fortifications, leaving Russia geographically exposed.

In June 2022, less than four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin seemed to compare himself to Peter the Great.

Russia's demographics add to its vulnerability. Almost all Russians live in the country's west, bordering Europe and the Caucasus.

This region is also the centre of gravity of Russian heritage, culture, and the idea of "civilisation," according to Alexander Dugin. It contrasts sharply with the sparsely populated and geographically isolated Asian Russia, which is known for its harsh climates.

European Russia is nearest to NATO, and Putin's acute response to the enlargement of the West's military defence pact is emblematic of his thinking.

NATO has now expanded to include former Soviet states in the Baltic, Sweden, and Finland in Scandinavia, all of which worries him.

Read more: Will the Baltic Sea become a new arena for confrontation between Russia and the West?

Only last week, he said Russia needed to "shore up the forces in the western strategic theatre to counteract the threat posed by NATO's eastward expansion".

For similar reasons, Putin strongly opposes Georgia's membership.

Putin and Ukraine

The ongoing war in Ukraine symbolises a personal and historical dilemma for Putin, encapsulating the intricate relationship between Russia and the former Soviet state.

Ukraine now looks to Europe for its future, but Putin believes Ukraine to be historically and culturally inseparable from Russia, having consistently challenged the idea of an independent Ukrainian identity.

He says that the concept of Ukraine as a sovereign state is a fallacy and that it is inherently a Russian territory populated by ethnic Russians who merely speak a regional dialect influenced by Polish rather than a separate language.

Putin further criticises historic decisions made by Soviet leaders, arguing that these actions improperly ceded Russian lands to Ukraine and Poland.

Amid this complex geopolitical and historical landscape, Putin positions himself as the stalwart defender of Russian sovereignty and the custodian of its traditional values.

Firmly opposing Western influence, which he sees as a source of political and moral degradation, Putin vocalises the decline of Western politics and societal norms with the proliferation of "immoral" behaviour.

This view of the West underscores Putin's belief that Russia and its allies will inevitably triumph over what its long-serving president sees firmly as Russia's enemies.

If Peter the Great could do it, so can he.

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