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November 15, 2001
Putin’s Pragmatism
Russia’s leader no longer feels the need to prove himself. Christian Caryl looks at how—and why—the president has changed

By Christian Caryl

It’s probably dangerous to use body language as a barometer of international relations, but I couldn’t help being struck by Vladimir Putin’s demeanor just before he left for his U.S. summit this week.

THE RUSSIAN PRESIDENT was leaning back in his seat, one arm raised to the back of his chair. An aide placed a teacup and a plate of pastries at his elbow. Putin grabbed a snack and munched as he listened thoughtfully to a journalist’s question. Then Putin cleared his mouth and delivered one of his customarily thorough answers.

I was there as one of a small group of U.S. journalists invited to speak with Putin before his meeting with President George W. Bush. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the Russian president up close. Five months earlier, I’d been part of a similar group facing Putin at the same big circular table in the Kremlin Library. Now, the contrast couldn’t have been greater.

That time we encountered a man who clearly felt under pressure to prove himself. Formidably briefed, he nearly bowled us over with the passion of his arguments and his focused gaze. When we asked him about Russian conduct in Chechnya, he began by expressing amazement that there were people in the world who just didn’t get it; his answer, in exhaustive detail, ran for nearly half an hour. Along the way he told us, among other things, that criticism of the war was evidently part of a “campaign” designed to destabilize Russia.

This time the subject of Chechnya led to different conclusions. Putin was happy to steer us toward a discussion of the links between Islamic guerrillas there and the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. And we were happy to dwell there—rather than, say, grilling him about Russia’s disregard of its own civilians during its continuing effort to suppress the Islamist insurgency within its own borders. Chechnya just doesn’t make news now; Afghanistan does.

After listing the various ways Russia has been helping the United States in the war against terrorism (including a remarkable promise to assist in U.S. search-and-rescue operations in Afghanistan), Putin added this comment: “We are waging a ground operation against international terrorism in the territory of the North Caucasus … Various countries are providing 1,000 or 2,000 troops for ground operations [against bin Laden]. We have lost over 3,000 troops in the North Caucasus [as of] today.” Just a few months earlier, those Russian soldiers had been seen as dying in a Russian internal affair that the outside world (especially the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Union) was not entitled to criticize. Now, today, those same Russian losses had become part of Russia’s proxy sacrifice to the international community. Small wonder that Putin was feeling much more comfortable with us this time around.

Yes, relations between Russia and the United States have indeed been transformed by the events of September 11. The rhetoric of their new common cause has completely pushed into the background issues like freedom of the press—a battle that has now been so conclusively won by Putin’s Kremlin there really wasn’t much to discuss on that front, either. Criticism of the Russian president, once a national sport under Boris Yeltsin, just doesn’t happen here now, except in private conversation. That’s partly because Putin is still extraordinarily popular (75 percent approval ratings), partly because he’s doing a good job with the economy (better than it has been in years), partly because there’s no one left to do the criticizing. It’s yet another sign of the new times that Putin’s entourage during his U.S. trip includes the man who now runs NTV, the once-rambunctious private broadcaster that was taken over and tamed by a state-owned company earlier this year.

In itself, of course, friendship between Russia and the United States isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Putin has made some dramatic moves in recent weeks to underline his desire to bring Russia closer to the West, including the closure of Soviet-era bases in Cuba and Vietnam. In his interview with us, he defended Russia’s continuing involvement with rogue states like North Korea, Iraq and Iran in distinctly lukewarm terms: engagement, he argued in essence, is always better than isolation. One might have asked why, in that case, Russia hasn’t pursued a policy of engagement toward, say, the Taliban. Some of his other remarks implied an answer: Russia would pursue its “national interest” wherever it sees fit—but without the interference of “ideology,” which, as Putin argues, regrettably complicated Soviet foreign policy. During our discussion Putin even made the extraordinary claim that the Soviet Union had actually been victorious “militarily” in the course of its 10-year war in Afghanistan. It was, he said, only in the sphere of politics—the hearts-and-minds department—that the U.S.S.R. had lost the war.

Whether one agrees with that conclusion, it is clear that what really distinguishes Putin from his predecessors is his utter scorn for any kind of coherent ideology. Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to reform Russian socialism and thus make it capable of survival. Yeltsin wanted to replace socialism with some vaguely imagined liberal democracy. In contrast, Putin’s contempt for “ideology” is quite striking, and also appropriate in a country where most people got an overdose of the stuff in the course of the last century. Putin is Russia’s first postmodern president. He wants to make Russia prosperous and stable, and whatever happens after that will pretty much take care of itself. If reviving the Soviet national anthem will make people happy and resolve social tension, so be it. If getting Russia into the World Trade Organization will create more jobs, that’s fine too. Having a listening post in Cuba costs money; being friends with Iraq brings money in. Simple enough.

The other point that stood out in this conversation with Putin was the sophistication of his knowledge of international affairs, particularly when compared with many members of his domestic political establishment. Most Russian politicians still seem to believe that what’s good for Russia must be bad for the United States, or vice versa. Putin, by contrast, argued convincingly against zero-sum thinking. Many Russians boast obsessively of their country’s immense natural wealth; Putin told us that the Soviet Union’s huge oil reserves had been a decidedly mixed blessing that relieved the country’s leaders from the unpleasant necessity of reforming their economy. Yeltsin would never have expressed such discernment.

This is all encouraging enough, in its way. But even Putin’s pragmatism has its logical limits, and there are still some areas in Russian-American relations where compromise will be hard. Foremost among them: missile defense. Ironically, now that Putin has moved toward the United States on so many other fronts, his critics back at home—especially in the military—will be far less tolerant of flexibility on this front. The fact is that Russia expects the United States to stick by the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, while the White House is determined not to play along. And that may be a circle that even Russia’s formidable president may find it impossible to square.

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