Thursday, December 3, 2015

The New Tsar

The book, The New Tsar by Myers, is a well done bio of Vladimir Putin. To set my observation space regarding this work, I was in Russia from 1995 thru 2004, in Saint Petersburgh and Moscow, starting my telecommunications company, and with partners who were from the same world as Putin. These folks knew me since in the 70s I had been part of the US Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty talks and had one on one contact with various Russians. I managed a bit of Russian language, adequate to get about, and even joke after a few vodkas. Thus I had been closely aware of Russia, the Russians, and the KGB world. Unlike most Americans I had no larger company backing and I needed in country partners, many of whom are covered in Myers tale. I saw Moscow via the Metro, the streets, the stores, the homes. I saw vodka used to brush teeth because the water is so infested it is barely adequate to flush toilets. Yet the streets looked like Tokyo at night, a change which occurred in less than ten years.

Myers takes on a journey which has as its focus Putin, but for all purposes it is a journey on the change of Russia from Communism to what it is today. In a sense, the Orthodox Church has replaced the Communist Party for the masses, a milder means of establishing the mandated role of the rulers. This comes out in Myers work by the telling tale of Putin being baptized as a child. Myers did not really explore the depths of this ongoing cooperation but he does provide certain pieces. Myers follows Putin and attempts to give some depth to the many by his movement from young KGB “employee”, to the accidental head of the FSB (formerly the KGB) and then to President. In a sense Putin’s life is almost Forest Gump like, just being there when the bus went by and getting on to see where it took him next.

Unlike a Tsar, one who was born to “greatness” and knew it by birth, Putin just happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right attitude. The appointment of Putin as President by Yeltsin was a turning moment, for up until that moment he was an effective administrative functionary, but then he was thrown headlong into the top leadership slot. His KGB past was his backstop. His trusted friends, if any, were from that time and space. Key among them was Sergei Ivanov, a KGB general and longtime associate. Ivanov flows in and out of Myers book but it would have been worthwhile to have explored him in more depth.

The discussion by Myers concerning Putin and Bush is also telling. At first, after 9/11, there was a bond, but as the US managed to take its aggressive single handed approach to Iraq that bond fell apart. Putting understood Iraq, albeit from afar via Afghanistan and Russia’s disaster. Bush did not, and his team also did not. Thus, the quagmire. There is also the discussion on boundaries and NATO and Russia’s near abject terror of a NATO encroachment. Why the US never truly understood the need for Russia to have a buffer is amazing. Russia just needs neutral borders, ones not militarily aligned with the West.

Myers does a reasonable job on Putting I and Putin II. Namely Putin I is the accidental president. This is a period of his ascending to the highest rank. Much of this time he is learning and expanding. Then after his hiatus, he is now Putin II, no longer accidental, but deliberate and with a depth of team players to make him untouchable in Russia. The problem is when we see Putin II we see in many ways the old KGB tactics. Myers discusses many of the allegations of assassinations and corruption.

The book is exceptionally well written and is a major contribution to the understanding of Putin. But the book also demonstrates that Putin II is a moving target and evolving and expanding player on the world stage, a man who is much more comfortable in his new role rather than the accidental presidency that pushed him to the forefront.

If Myers’ book does anything, it should enlighten some in Washington as to whom they are dealing with. He is a Russian, has a Russian mind, and in a sense a Russian soul. One must understand Russia at least a little to understand Putin. Kennan had such an understanding. Very few have had such in the US since then.