Updated: Oct 9, 2022
This article first appeared in USA TODAY
Vladimir Putin’s biography makes this dictator, and the Ukraine war, especially dangerous
Putin's aggressive, Machiavellian tactics are a fresh reminder that unstable dictators with vast powers can be reckless.
Opinion contributor, USA TODAY
The 21st century is shaping up to be a new Age of Dictators. None is scarier, future history books may well judge, than Russian President Vladimir Putin. His war with Ukraine is a gambler’s war. The stakes, for him, are nothing short of an ambition to be seen as a great historical figure. Ralph Waldo Emerson once correctly said that history is biography; Putin’s biography makes this dictator, and this moment in history, especially dangerous. Putin, like other dictators, is driven by vanity, the thirst for power and the willingness to do almost anything to keep that power. But his KGB past, now coming into play, adds a scary element. As a former operative in the Soviet Union’s KGB, then head of its Russian successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), he was schooled in Machiavellian psychological games – lying, gaslighting, making false promises, bullying and more. What I and other journalists in the former Soviet Union experienced
In the run-up to the war, these dark arts have been on display as he has toyed with everyone, from French President Emmanuel Macron to his own top security officials. Macron’s negotiations with Putin were a good faith effort to stop a war, for example, but Putin was simply playing a manipulative game. At Putin’s televised speech recognizing the self-declared breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine, he publicly bullied his squirming top security officials on TV, forcing them into backing an invasion whether they agreed or not. KGB operatives played similar games with dissidents and foreigners, as I and other journalists in the former Soviet Union regularly experienced. When I reported on a confidential internal memo to Soviet editors on what stories they could and could not run, for example, I was subjected to similar tactics – including being summoned by a “concerned” friend, clearly a KGB agent, who wanted to warn me, he said conspiratorially, of moves to expel me, but offered to “help” my serious case if I took unspecified steps. I refused and was blacklisted from government-run trips. Putin had the same KGB history when he came to power 22 years ago, of course. Back then, his aims were different. He craved acceptance by the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, the World Trade Organization, other international institutions. But it gradually became clear to him that he could not get away with behaving undemocratically or cheating within them. Russia and Putin were condemned, expelled or suspended from some prestigious international clubs and events for flouting the rules. Russia was admitted to the G-7 in 1997, for example, making it the G-8, but was expelled over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. In 2019, Russia was suspended from the Olympic Gamesand other sporting events because of years of state-sponsored doping. Putin now making full use of his KGB training Such international condemnation clashed with the invincible strongman image Putin cultivated at home. Kremlin publicity photos of Putin tell that story: a shirtless Putin riding a horse in Siberia, taking an icy dip in a Russian lake in deep winter and so on. His calculation, after introducing legislation to essentially allow him to stay in power for life, is that the only way to achieve the status he craves on the international stage is to turn from supplicant to adversary. And in this he is now making full use of his KGB training. Putin also knows that his gamble puts something far larger, and epoch-making, at play. The Ukraine war, the first major conflict in Europe since World War II ended in 1945, has echoes of the 1990s wars that broke apart the former Yugoslavia. I covered those wars. The sense of "it can’t happen to us" disbelief is similar to the disbelief in Ukraine right up to the invasion. And for the same reason: a sense that the post-World War II order – embodied in the United Nations, NATO, other international organizations – guaranteed peace and stability. Of course, war did happen in the former Yugoslavia. It was a ripple effect from the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union and its dominance of Eastern Europe. The bloody Yugoslav wars were a test of the postwar alliances and the world order that largely failed. Those wars went on for too long and ended with uneasy settlements that are now falling apart. Putin’s gambit in Ukraine is a far bigger test, one he likely thinks he cannot lose. He already got away with annexing Crimea in 2014. He once again has the attention he craves on the international stage. He is making Russia and himself a force to be reckoned with and setting Western unity on a back foot. Putin also clearly hopes that in going to war, he can reverse his sliding popularityat home – even though the considerable opposition among young people could prove that a miscalculation. Because of this, there is a real possibility that future history books about this rising Age of Dictators will have a 19th and early 20th century déjà vu feel. That was a time when great powers divided the world. Putin and China’s dictatorial leader Xi Jinping are fast challenging the democratic wave that surged after the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union – and they're escaping accountability.
Dictator Xi Jinping watching closely I covered the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, for example, the first roadblock to that democratic tide: Astonishingly, most Chinese people I meet today have no knowledge of what happened that night. China has rewritten history, at least for its own people, and suffered no lasting international repercussions. Xi, for sure, is now watching Ukraine with interest. He has not endorsed Putin’s invasion, but neither has he condemned it, though he has urged negotiations. How the democratic world responds, or doesn’t, may inform Xi's ambition to seize Taiwan, for example. There is a further danger when dictators achieve unchecked power. It is one America’s Founders understood well as they wrote checks and balances into the Constitution. Putin’s wild charges and threats – claiming he wants to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, for example, making inaccurate historical claims, plus threats to use nuclear weapons– might be part propaganda to stir up support and justification. Even so, they are a fresh reminder that unstable dictators with vast powers can be reckless. Kim Jong Un, the erratic, attention-seeking leader of nuclear-powered North Korea, comes to mind. Some commentators have questioned Putin’s state of mind, particularly as he has obsessively isolated himself and appeared detached during the COVID-19 pandemic. Is there any hope here? Perhaps. The old U.S. adage that "politics stops at the water’s edge" had been eroding. But Democrats and Republicans in Congress are largely united against the Putin threat. The White House announced Saturday that the United States and its allies agreed to block select Russian banks from SWIFT, the global financial messaging system. As the next days and weeks unfold, as more difficult decisions beyond the present sanctions, including meeting force with force, may be needed, that is encouraging. For the final answer, however, check with that future history book. Louise Branson, a former USA TODAY editorial writer, was a (London) Sunday Times correspondent in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. She is a biographer of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Her latest co-authored book is "The Inconvenient Journalist," an international memoir.