The Sixth Annual Ernest May Memorial Lecture

Putinism: The Backstory

Strobe Talbott
The Brookings Institution

Editor’s Note: Strobe Talbott presented the annual Ernest R. May Memorial Lecture at the Aspen Strategy Group’s August 2014 workshop in Aspen, Colorado. The following are his remarks as written for delivery. The Ernest May Memorial Lecture is named for Ernest May, an international relations historian and Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government professor, who passed away in 2009. ASG developed the lecture series to honor Professor May’s celebrated lectures.

T hanks, Joe [Nye]. You, Brent [Scrowcroft], and Nick [Burns] have come up not just with a snappy tagline for our meetings over the next few days but a very appropriate one: “Redux,” which is Latin for “lead back,” as in “lead back into the
past.” That’s what Russia’s government is doing in two respects: it’s negating and reversing the reforms of the recent past—the late 1980s and ’90s—while reinstating key attributes of the preceding old regime as defining features of an atavistic new regime.

That’s the essence of “Putinism.” As best I can tell, the term was coined by the late Bill Safire in late 2000, nine months into Putin’s first term—rather prescient on Bill’s part. But the content of Putinism, the motivation and rationale for it, and the
constituencies behind it, predate Putin’s own appearance on the scene. Those go back to nearly 30 years ago, when he was a mid-level K.G.B. officer, attached to the Second Chief Directorate, stationed in Dresden, where his job was not espionage but counterespionage: that is, identifying, thwarting, defeating, and often destroying the enemies of the Soviet state. Back in Moscow at that time, there were powerful individuals who came to see Mikhail Gorbachev as, himself, an enemy of that state.

In looking back to the twilight of the Soviet era, let’s adopt the Ernie May technique of “thinking in time”: that is, by recalling what Gorbachev wanted to do—and what he thought he was doing—when he was in the Kremlin.

Gorbachev ascended to highest office in the Soviet Union 29 years ago with what he believed was an obligation to save the country. The status quo, he was convinced, was holding the U.S.S.R. back, preventing it from competing and prospering in a globalizing world. His supporters often expressed this aspiration with a deceptively modest-sounding phrase: Russia’s need to become “a normal, modern country.” Yet normalization and modernization required a radical break with Gorbachev’s predecessors, from Lenin to Chernenko.

Take the language of reform: the vocabulary of Gorbachev’s program was, tellingly, made up of two Russian words and two borrowed from English: glasnost and perestroika, demokratizatsiya and partnyorstvo with the West. These were not just descriptors of Kremlin policy—all four were antonyms of the watchwords of the Soviet internal regime and the Soviet worldview. As such, they were anathema to some of Gorbachev’s supposed comrades.

In June of 1991, his own prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, mobilized an effort in the parliament to weaken Gorbachev’s powers as a prelude to removing him. The proximate incitement was a plan, known as “the Grand Bargain,” that Gorbachev’s advisor, Grigory Yavlinsky, and our colleague, Graham Allison, had proposed as a way of garnering Western economic aid in support of perestroika. It’s worth noting that Lt. Col. Putin’s ultimate boss in the K.G.B., Vladimir Kryuchkov, was active in this cabal. He and Pavlov saw the Grand Bargain as, and I quote, “a conspiracy to sell out the motherland to foreign interests.”

Senior officers in the Soviet military and security services had their own version of that complaint. They were infuriated by Gorbachev’s willingness to compromise, largely on American terms, in arms-control negotiations on conventional forces in
Europe, on the Zero Option for Intermediate Nuclear Forces, and, most stunningly, in Reykjavik, on Ronald Reagan’s proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. In short, on the core issues that had led to the creation of the Aspen Strategy Group 30 years ago, in 1984, and that kept quite a few of us here today busy for decades afterward.

The so-called constitutional coup of June ’91 failed, but its instigators didn’t give up. The fear that Gorbachev was selling out to the West grew stronger, leading Kryuchkov and the K.G.B. to attempt a real coup two months later, which ruined Brent’s vacation (not to mention his boss’s) at Kennebunkport in August ’91. And, even more, it put a real damper on Gorbachev’s summer holiday in Crimea.

But the putsch backfired spectacularly. It accelerated not just the terminal decline of the Soviet system, but the terminal weakening of the centripetal forces that had, for all those decades, kept the Soviet Union itself intact.

That brings us to the No. 1 terminator: Boris Yeltsin. He was a Gorbachev protégé turned rival. He was a Soviet functionary and Communist Party member who ultimately converted to an anti-Soviet, anti-Communist revolutionary.

Yeltsin was the antithesis of Pavlov and Kryuchkov. He was impatient with Gorbachev for proceeding too slowly and too timidly with perestroika, glasnost, and demokratizatsiya. In other words, Yeltsin out-Gorbacheved Gorbachev as a reformer, which made him popular with the growing number of citizens who were fed up with the system; but it also meant he out-Gorbacheved Gorbachev as a threat to the old guard. Gorbachev, seeing Yeltsin as a political liability as he tried to manage the increasingly fractious leadership, expelled him from the Politburo. Yeltsin’s reply was, in effect: “You can’t fire me—I quit!” He resigned from the Communist Party. But he didn’t stop there. Having quit, he set about liquidating the mega-firm of U.S.S.R. Inc. and making himself the C.E.O. of its largest spinoff—an independent, democratic Russian Federation.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the last thing Gorbachev wanted—and it became the wedge issue that Yeltsin used to replace Gorbachev in the Kremlin, bringing down the hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag over the Kremlin and flying in its place the Russian tricolor.

But on other issues, the transition between them was—in its essence and direction—almost seamless. Those issues included how Russia should govern itself and how it should behave beyond its borders. For Yeltsin, that meant deciding where Russia’s borders were. His decision was crucial to what happened in the years that followed—and what didn’t happen.

That decision was to maintain the inter-republic borders of the old U.S.S.R. as the international borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States. There would be no redrawing the political map to align with the ethnographic one. Yeltsin’s insistence on that point further riled his already fraught relations with the enemies he inherited from Gorbachev. For them, the most emotive bloody-flag grievance was not just the loss of territory, but the stranding of some 25 million ethnic Russians in what were now 14 neighboring states. A common phrase—mumbled, growled, and sometimes screamed—was that Yeltsin was guilty of “the mutilation of Mother Russia,” leaving her orphans outside the care of Moscow.

Much as Pavlov had turned against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s own vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, turned against him. Rutskoi had a large map of the U.S.S.R. on the wall of his office. “That’s the past,” he liked to tell visitors, “but it’s also the
future.” In other words, “We’ll be back!” The first step, he often said, would be the recovery of Crimea. The second would be Transnistria.

This aggressive nostalgia for the past and the territory that came with it rattled Yeltsin’s team, so one member decided to rattle the world. In December 1992—about the time of the post-Soviet Russia’s first anniversary—Andrei Kozyrev shook up an international conference in Stockholm by impersonating whoever might be his successor as foreign minister if Yeltsin were overthrown. He played it for real, pretending to enunciate a new set of policies, two in particular: first, Russia’s traditional and fated orientation was toward Asia, not Europe; second, Russia would use military force to compel other former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, to join a new federation with its capital in Moscow. Only at the end of Kozyrev’s speech did he say it was a bit of shock treatment to bring the world’s attention to a real danger.

And so it was. The following year—in October of 1993—a critical mass of Yeltsin’s parliamentary opponents, whose views and intentions Kozyrev had laid out in Stockholm, exploded into violent rebellion. Rutskoi and others converted the Russian White House into an armed camp that dispatched gangs to maraud around the city, firing rocket-propelled grenades at the central TV station. Yeltsin responded with lethal force to crush the uprising.

Two months later, Yeltsin’s enemies struck at him again, only this time by taking advantage of a Gorbachev reform that Yeltsin had benefited from and solidified: democratization. Russia’s first post-Soviet parliamentary election produced a big win for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalists with a strong showing by Gennady Zyuganov’s communists. The platform of their so-called “national-patriotic bloc,” color coded brown and red, included the obligation to defend the rights of the Russians in the near-abroad. Zhirinovsky vowed to regain Russia’s lost lands in Turkey, Finland, and—I’m not making this up—Alaska.

Point being: irredentism was, throughout the ’90s, at the core of the anti-Yeltsin opposition. Yeltsin’s stubborn refusal to countenance irredentism—his affirmation of the existing inter-republic borders—made possible the relatively amicable and orderly self-dismemberment of the U.S.S.R. It also facilitated the creation of the Partnership for Peace as well as other institutional arrangements that were meant to bring C.I.S. members, including Russia, plus the Baltic states, into an inclusive, integrated, post-Cold War, pan-European—to some degree even pan-Eurasian—security structure.

It’s important that we remember—and that we remind the Russians—that the integration of the C.I.S. into inclusive post-Cold War international structures wasn’t just a Western demand or aspiration that was imposed on the post-Soviet leaders. It was an aspiration of their own that we in the West responded to and supported.

Since Ernie May had a cautious respect for counterfactuals, let me pose one here. Had Yeltsin and his fellow post-Soviet leaders set off an irredentist free-for-all in the post-Soviet space, stretching across 11 times zones with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the mix, it would have been a world-threatening catastrophe. On a more specific and less apocalyptic level, it would have been impossible to persuade Ukraine to turn over its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to Russia, especially if Yeltsin’s opponents had succeeded in their demand that Ukraine turn over Crimea as well.

Throughout the ’90s, the world had in Yugoslavia an ongoing reminder of the fate that the U.S.S.R. avoided. That was the good news.

Here’s the bad news. Russia’s—and Yeltsin’s—relations with the West were still stressed almost to the breaking point by the mayhem in the Balkans, particularly during its Kosovo phase in 1999. That was for multiple reasons: NATO went to war
for the first time; it did so in disregard of Russia’s opposition; its principal target was the capital of a nation with a Slavic Orthodox majority and, therefore, with strong historical and cultural ties to Russia; and the operation’s beneficiaries were Muslim secessionists inside Serbia. That led many Russians at the time to analogize Kosovo to Chechnya. They felt they were impotent bystanders watching a preview of what NATO would someday do to dismember Russia itself. And on top of all that, at the height of the crisis, Yeltsin was in decline, physically and politically, and already pondering his own retirement.

Put that all together, and it was something of a miracle—not to mention a prodigy of political courage—that despite the flak he was taking at home, Yeltsin helped bring the war to an end on NATO’s terms. He did so by investing Viktor Chernomyrdin with plenipotentiary powers to convince Slobodan Milosevic that Russia was not going to save him from a NATO invasion. Chernomyrdin also agreed that Russian forces would participate, under NATO, in an international peace-keeping force in Kosovo. That was, from our standpoint, a vital condition to assure unity of command.

From the other side of the looking glass, however, the Russian military saw it as yet another galling, humiliating capitulation to the West. Some of the top brass in Moscow held out against the arrangement throughout the many weeks of negotiations. Their agent within Chernomyrdin’s “team” (and I use that term loosely) was a three-star general named Leonid Ivashov. Ivashov insisted that the Russian peacekeeping force in Kosovo must be independent of NATO and have responsibility for its own “sector,” which would have become a haven for diehard Serbs, who, under Russian protection, could then destabilize the rest of Kosovo and create the conditions for Russia and NATO to themselves come into conflict. Chernomyrdin repeatedly overruled Ivashov’s efforts to thwart an agreement. But Ivashov didn’t give up. That was because some of his superiors in Moscow were not giving up.

The result was an episode that a number of us here remember vividly: Toria [Nuland], Madeleine [Albright], Sandy [Berger], Jim [Steinberg], as well as Javier [Solana] and Wolfgang [Ischinger], who were crucial European colleagues throughout
the ’90s. I’m zeroing in on this one incident not because we’ve got a quorum for a reunion but because it was the moment when Vladimir Putin became a visible figure in the backstory of the “ism” that now bears his name.

In June 1999, a ceasefire was in effect on the ground and in the air over Serbia. Toria and I were in Moscow with an interagency delegation to put the finishing touches on the arrangement Chernomyrdin had endorsed. While we were there, it became clear that the deal was coming undone. Our uniformed Pentagon representatives—Generals Doc Foglesong and George Casey—met with Ivashov, who reasserted the demand for an independent Russian sector, adding the threat that if NATO didn’t back down on this point, Russia would establish one unilaterally. Meanwhile, a Russian armored unit attached to the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia suddenly pulled up stakes and set off on a mad dash eastward, presumably toward Kosovo.

I asked for an urgent meeting with Yeltsin. I was told he was “indisposed.” We knew what that meant. We settled for a meeting with his national security advisor, Putin. It was, at the time, a creepy encounter—and all the more so in retrospect. His manner was superficially cool, professional, and courteous, but iciness and controlled contempt were just under the surface. What really struck us was the aplomb, smugness, and brazenness with which he lied.

It was spectacular—and, I’d add, reckless. Although he had to know exactly what the military was up to, he assured us that the terms Chernomyrdin had agreed to were still valid and “nothing untoward” (that’s a quote) would happen to upset the
hard-won peace and the U.S.-Russian deal that made it possible. Then—gratuitously and implausibly—he told us that he’d never even heard of “this Ivashov.” That was like Sandy Berger saying he’d never heard of George Casey at a critical moment of high-stakes diplomacy in which George was a key participant.

Within hours, the Russian unit of about 250 troops was setting up a base camp at the Priština airport. Our own delegation set up a kind of base camp of our own in the Defense Ministry on Arbatskaya Square, where we pulled an all-nighter trying to defuse the crisis. While the talks were tough, they were nothing compared to the knock-down, drag-out shouting match that we witnessed among the Russians. On one side were the defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, and the foreign minister, Igor Ivanov. Squared off against them was the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, who was clearly behind the Priština end-run, and who had been backing Ivashov’s obstructionism of the Chernomyrdin mission. To make a long, bizarre, and suspenseful story short, Sergeyev ultimately prevailed over Kvashnin—but just barely, and not until Yeltsin re-emerged from his indisposition to put the original deal back in place.

Back to Putin’s apparent role: in his capacity as presidential national security advisor, Sandy’s Kremlin counterpart, Putin was either hedging his bets on how Russia’s own interagency dynamics would play out, or he was actively throwing in
his lot with Kvashnin and Ivashov—who, in turn, were defying their minister and superior officer, Sergeyev, not to mention their commander-in-chief, Yeltsin himself.

Eight weeks later, Yeltsin stunned the world by promoting Putin to prime minister
and designated successor, thus setting him up to be Bill Clinton’s Kremlin counterpart. During the interregnum, Putin did everything he could to burnish his law-and-order image, including identifying himself with Moscow’s scorched earth conduct of the war in Chechnya (“Russia’s Kosovo,” as we kept hearing).

However, with regard to relations with the outside world, Putin stuck with the soothing partnyorstvo line. I saw him just before Christmas, nine days before Yeltsin resigned. Russia, Putin said, “belongs in the West.” He wanted to show, and I quote, “our own people and the world that on the really big issues, we’re on the same side,” and he added that he had “no use” for those in his country who thought—again, his words—“isolation, retrenchment, and confrontation were an option for Russia.” While he made no reference to Yeltsin, at least he was affirming Yeltsin’s basic orientation. That was, no doubt, the message he wanted me to pass to Washington. While I did so, I remembered that this was the same guy who had assured our delegation a few months before that there was nothing to the reports we were hearing about the Russian army breaking bad over Kosovo.

So that’s the backstory.

Here we are 15 years later, living through the unfolding big story in which Putin is the protagonist and, to an increasing degree, our antagonist. He has made himself—particularly in his third term—the champion of precisely those in his country who have for a quarter of a century favored retrenchment in its domestic order. He’s rolled back democratization and enfranchisement of the regions. He’s muzzled and monopolized the media on behalf of propaganda and disinformation. He’s come up with his own highly revised vocabulary for what are essentially reinstatements of the pillars of Soviet rule: “managed democracy” and “the vertical of power.”

In foreign policy, he’s replaced partnership with competition. He’s scorned Russia’s European vocation and embraced the Eurasian option. He’s been at it for a long time. Putin’s bracing speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 echoed
Pavlov and Kryuchkov’s accusations in 1991 that Gorbachev was letting foreigners (like you, Graham) foist their interests, rules, and values on Russia.

Flash forward to this past March. In asserting the right to annex other territories inhabited by ethnic Russians, Putin gave a speech to the Duma that channeled from the past Yeltsin’s enemies, Rutskoi and Zhirinovsky, in the mid-90s. Putin gave his own version of Kozyrev’s “April Fool’s” speech of 22 years ago—only Putin isn’t fooling.

As for glasnost, it has given way to disinformation of the sort used to avoid culpability for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17: a Big Lie worthy of Mikhail Suslov, the Cold War Politburo member in charge of agitprop.

And speaking of names from the past: on ascending to the presidency, Putin kept General Kvashnin as chief of staff for another five years. Kvashnin’s subordinate in the Priština gambit, General Ivashov, is today a member of Putin’s informal brain trust and vice president of a recently formed Academy of Geopolitical Affairs. As for Yeltsin’s principal tormentors, Rutskoi remains active in Russian politics. When Zyuganov celebrated his 65th birthday, Putin attended and presented him with a first Soviet edition of the Communist Manifesto. Zhirinovsky, while largely marginalized, has had a bit of a comeback as supporter of separatists in the eastern regions of Ukraine.

And speaking of that regional conflict, there are Russian veterans of the August ’91 attempted anti-Gorbachev coup who have shown up as part—presumably in fairly senior roles—of the secessionist forces in and around Donetsk, Slavyansk, and Lukhansk.

The point here is that while Putin was a relative latecomer to the ranks of those determined to restore much of the old regime, he became their enabler. He has made it possible for them to succeed in recent years where they had failed before.

So there’s been continuity in both attitudes and personalities as Putinism establishes itself. That leads to the question of how important personality itself is in history. More specifically, how decisive and transformative has Putin himself been? Does he deserve having an “-ism” named after him? The short answer, I believe, is yes.

I acknowledge that some degree of backsliding and backlash was inevitable after the tag team of Gorbachev and Yeltsin brought down the Soviet system, given how unpopular both had become at the time of their retirements and also given external developments that had angered the political elite in Russia. I’m thinking of the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the second tranche of NATO enlargement in 2004, the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine between 2003 and 2005, the formal independence of Kosovo in 2008, and, in 2012, the Magnitsky Act and NATO’s overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Those and other episodes would have complicated U.S.-Russian relations no matter who was in the Kremlin.

But since we’re thinking in time, let’s remember that the U.S.-Russian relationship has stayed on a positive course despite serious turbulence in the past. The trust between Gorbachev and Reagan survived the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev and Bush 41 weathered the strains of the first Gulf War. And the Bill-Boris bond held through the first tranche of NATO enlargement and the Kosovo air war.

In those cases, the state-to-state relationship was highly personalized, in large measure because of a deep-seated feature of Russian political culture. No matter who’s in the Kremlin—whether czar, general secretary, or president—he wields immense personal power, not just bureaucratic power, over what Dick Pipes called a patrimonial state. There has always been a vertical of power. Whoever is at the top is hard to stop, and hard to remove. Therefore, succession in leadership is also of special importance.

So let’s recap. The sequence of Kremlin leaders over the last quarter century is an extraordinary story itself, packed with melodrama, irony, suspense, farce, and plot twists—and, of course, tragedy. It’s worthy of a Mussorgsky opera.

Act I opens in March 1985, when the Politburo convened to choose a successor to Chernenko, which invites another counterfactual that I think Ernie would permit: if any of the four or five candidates other than Gorbachev had gotten the job, we might well today, 29 years later, still have a Soviet Union, a Warsaw Pact, and a Cold War. Once Gorbachev was in the Kremlin, he had the power to begin forcing change. He elevated Yeltsin to help him do so, then cast Yeltsin into the political wilderness.

Act II: Yeltsin fights back and replaces Gorbachev, yet adheres to the key features of Gorbachev’s own reforms. Yeltsin, too, has the trump card of inhabiting the Kremlin. Despite his late-blooming democratic instincts, he was partial to the verb tsarstvovat—“to rule as czar,” which he used in the first-person singular as he asserted his power, particularly against the opposition.

But then the opera turns tragic. This democratizing czar plucks this junior operative Putin out of obscurity and anoints him as his heir. He does so for an irresponsible, ignoble reason: to protect the Yeltsin family’s physical and financial security.

In Act III, Putin is as good as his word on that personal commitment. But, in just about every other respect, he shreds Yeltsin’s political legacy. Putin becomes, himself, the anti-Yeltsin and, by extension, the anti-Gorbachev as well, thereby earning and exploiting the support of those forces and constituencies that had tried, unsuccessfully, to thwart Putin’s immediate predecessors. Moreover, Putin’s policies reflect, to a degree, a widespread public mood that includes nostalgia for Russia’s geopolitical heyday and disillusionment over the downside of reform.

Taking all that into account, it’s understandable that many commentators believe Putinism will be with us for a long time, perhaps longer than Putin himself.

Now we’re into the zone of prophecy, which Ernie May had little use for. But since others are venturing there, I’ll do so myself. I’ll bet against the staying power of Putinism—for two reasons.

The first is what is new about Putinism: his basing Russian statehood on ethnicity. He’s used that doctrine in Ukraine to expand Russian territory. But the concept is a double-edged sword. It could shrink Russian territory. Vast parts of that country are populated by non-Russian ethnic groups. A Russian chauvinist in the Kremlin who wears a crucifix when he bares his chest may be hastening the day when the Caucasus and Central Asia will be vulnerable to jihadists to the south, including those who are already talking about a caliphate in what is now the Russian Federation.

The other reason to doubt Putinism’s longevity is what’s old about it. The essence of Putinism is the essence of the regime that failed in the 20th century. It failed to modernize the Russian economy. It failed to normalize society. It failed to integrate Russia into the international community as what Bob Zoellick has called, in a different context, “a responsible stakeholder.”

Those cumulative failures explain why the Soviet system and Soviet state lasted only seven decades—three score and 10 years—the biblical span of a single mortal.

Moreover, that monstrosity was not, in the final analysis, killed by its external enemies like those Lt. Col. Putin hunted down in Dresden and those he still obsesses about in his paranoid imagination from the Kremlin. Rather, it died because of its own pathologies, its own unfitness for survival in the modern world. In short, precisely because Putinism is, as our topic puts it, redux—that is, a conscious attempt at bringing back from the past a model for Russia’s future—it’s doomed.

I’ll end by putting that point more positively. Russia—thanks in no small measure to the surviving legacies of Gorbachev and Yeltsin—is not the Soviet Union. It’s not monolithic. It’s bigger than Putinism—much bigger. It’s also, despite the retrograde policies of its current leadership, more modern and more normal. I’d submit that the prescriptive challenge for us in the coming days is to brainstorm on how to punish, isolate, and contain Putinism while maintaining engagement with Russia as a whole.

The Crisis with Russia (Policy Books)
The Aspen Institute