Vladimir Putin: Who is He?


By Dale Herspring

Some have suggested that Putin is “crazy, out of his mind.” Having followed Putin and written about him since 1998, I beg to differ.

He is certainly making decisions that are immoral by almost any standard as we understand the term, and his actions may be self-defeating in the end, but he is a very calculating and logical individual. He has also changed from the man he appeared to be when he came to power in 2000 to the man he is today.

When he assumed power, Putin was relatively naive about how to exercise it at that level despite having been a KGB officer for most of his life and having run the organization for a short time. This was especially true of his relationship with the military in which he had not served, and did not understand, but which he revered and devoted much of his time as president to reviving and rebuilding.

It is important to understand that Putin is a man of two seasons. 

Yes, he has lived through the post-Soviet period when he first gave the impression that he was a somewhat more modern, liberalizing leader, permitting Russians to enjoy relative freedom at the local level.     However, as time progressed, that man has increasingly reverted to attitudes from an earlier an earlier time-period, especially when it concerns military matters, which has become his main interest and concern.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind, that Putin had a rough life growing up and resorted to force when necessary. He went through many years in the KGB, the most important of which were spent in the former German Democratic Republic, not an especially liberalizing experience.

Unhappy over the deep splits within the military, in 2001 Putin appointed Sergei Ivanov, the former head of the KGB, to run the military. Ivanov proceeded to further disrupt civil-military relations to such an extent that Putin grew disenchanted with him. If nothing else, Ivanov demonstrated that his KGB background was of little or no use in attempting to understand and relate to the armed forces. The military and the KGB are very different organizations.

This situation lasted until 2007, when Putin decided that it was time for a new leadership for the military.

He wanted someone who would shake up the “old military.” The new civilian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukkov did exactly that, but by 2012 he had run out of steam, and Putin found a duo to advance reform. Sergei Shougu and General Valery Gerasimov were appointed defense minister and chief of staff respectively. Putin and the two men worked well together, with Gerasimov in charge of the day-to-day work of reforming the military, while Shougu protected him from attacks by other segments of the military who saw their bureaucratic fiefdoms being restructured.

They have remained a troika in charge of everything but leaving the running of the military to the others. Shoigu runs the Defense Ministry, while General Gerasimov has been in charge of day-to-day operations. On the surface, all appeared to be going relatively well.

Gerasimov restructured the Army into smaller battalion tactical groups (BTGs). Each has about 600-800 officers and soldiers, although only about 200 are infantrymen. These units were supposed to be staffed by contract (non-conscript volunteers), but unfortunately for Moscow, Gerasimov’s efforts to modernize the military ran into two major obstacles; first, the budget, which Putin increased, but not enough, and second the lack of fit 18-year-old males to fill the ranks of the combat Army.  Convincing young men to sign up for the military has proved not only to be exceedingly challenging, but not of the quality and size Gerasimov would have preferred.

Indeed, the Army is now required to depend to a far higher degree on poorly trained conscripts but as the military expression goes, “you go to war with the army you have.”

As Putin drew closer to his 70th birthday and as the former countries of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic Republics became members of NATO, Putin decided that it was time to act: The Russia he knew and loved was fast going down the drain.

In this regard, it is important to keep in mind, that if Putin has an obsession, it is with Russian history in general, but especially Russian military history. Looking at Russia today, he is constantly reminded of what “it should be.” At the heart of “his Russia” is Ukraine with its capital Kiev or Kyiv in Ukrainian. In his mind, it rightly belongs to Russia.

To make matters worse, however, he feared, NATO countries would not only be up to his very borders, but the Alliance would soon include Ukraine; a “clear and present danger” insofar as Putin is concerned.

Putin was convinced that something had to be done. 

Besides he had his legacy to consider. He had toiled endlessly to try to rebuild the country and its military from the mess both were in when he took over from Yeltsin. He was not about to permit the size of the territory over which Russian exercised dominance to further diminish. He had worked too hard over the past twenty odd years he has been in power to let that happen.

Putin, therefore, decided to act.   

He assumed that the military that General Gerasimov had reformed would sweep over Ukraine with minimal resistance.

However, as recent events have demonstrated, he could not have been more mistaken.

Gerasimov’s plan was to create two Armies especially designated to defending against a threat to Russia. One is currently deployed in Syria. The other was stationed in the Far East and was moved to threaten and fight in Ukraine.

As Ukrainian forces have provided some unexpected, and in some places successful resistance, Moscow has found it necessary to pull units from all over Russia into the campaign in Ukraine.

So, what is Putin’s plan? 

He has offered the Ukrainians the option of surrendering. However, it is important to keep that he is determined to make the latter a component part of Russia under Moscow’s rule, which includes the acceptance of Russian norms and standards — as Putin defines them.

His alternative if they refused, as they have, is the adoption of what might be defined as an older, Soviet-type approach: slowly increase military pressure using what most of the world would define as terror tactics, but an approach that Stalin himself would approve of.

If civilians are supporting insurgents and creating a situation that makes problems for Russian forces, the answer is simple: “annihilate them.” At some point they will either surrender or the country will be so depopulated and so destroyed that opposition to Russian forces will be negligible.

If the occupied country seriously lacks population, simply send in more politically reliable folks from Russia.

This is not a pretty picture, in fact, a morally devastating one from the American point of view, but one unfortunately shared by many other leaders and societies in this brutal world.

At this point, the larger question is whether any victory Putin’s Army might achieve in Ukraine will more than a pyrrhic victory?

Has he bitten off more than he can chew in terms of a new guerrilla conflict?

Current signs are that he may have.

As noted above, the Russian Army is not the highly proficient force that many in the West had assumed.

For example, there are signs of unreliability among the Russian troops, and the Ukrainians appear determined to fight on.

Given this indeterminate situation, one can only wonder what the leadership back in Moscow is thinking about the situation Putin has created, and its inevitable impact on Russia’s international reputation.

To return to Putin. The key factor about Putin to keep in mind, is that this man “marches to a different drummer” than those of us in the West.

In his mind, he is on a “holy crusade” to bring back Russia and is not about to give up in his effort to subdue Ukraine. Domestically, he has attempted to sell the war as a campaign against “evil Ukrainian Nazis, backed by American multi-national corporations.

It is important to reiterate: Putin is a very calculating individual. 

If one approach does not work, he will move to another generally more destructive one — whatever it takes to get the job done!  While he is clearly very frustrated, I believe those who assume he has gone over the deep end into the world of insanity are making a mistake.

As far as Putin’s future is concerned, the Russians have a saying that is very appropriate, “Tylko bog znaet!” (Only God knows!)

Dale Herspring, a retired Foreign Service Officer and Navy Captain, is  also a University Distinguished Professor, and the author of many articles and books primarily on civil-military relations in Russia, Poland , Germany, Canada and the US.  He is now working on a book on civil-military relations in Ireland.

Featured Photo: Photo 58667012 / Putin Ukraine War © Palinchak | Dreamstime.com

Editor’s Note: I have had the privilege to work with Dale in the past and we wrote a book together on the Soviet Union and strategic arms negotiations with the United States. Dale has an impressive record over the years as the go to expert on the Russian and Warsaw Pact civil-military relations and in an era where escalation management skills are in short supply, relearning how politicians and military leaders interact and create options in authoritarian societies is a critical skill set. And reading Dale’s work over the years is a very good place to start.