Putin’s real long game

Molly K. McKew writes: Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. This freed the Russian security state from its last constraints. In 1991, there were around 800,000 official KGB agents in Russia. They spent a decade reorganizing themselves into the newly-minted FSB, expanding and absorbing other instruments of power, including criminal networks, other security services, economic interests, and parts of the political elite. They rejected the liberal, democratic Russia that President Boris Yeltsin was trying to build.

Following the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that the FSB almost certainly planned, former FSB director Vladimir Putin was installed as President. We should not ignore the significance of these events. An internal operation planned by the security services killed hundreds of Russian citizens. It was used as the pretext to re-launch a bloody, devastating internal war led by emergent strongman Putin. Tens of thousands of Chechen civilians and fighters and Russian conscripts died. The narrative was controlled to make the enemy clear and Putin victorious. This information environment forced a specific political objective: Yeltsin resigned and handed power to Putin on New Year’s Eve 1999.

From beginning to end, the operation took three months. This is how the Russian security state shook off the controls of political councils or representative democracy. This is how it thinks and how it acts — then, and now. Blood or war might be required, but controlling information and the national response to that information is what matters. Many Russians, scarred by the unrelenting economic, social, and security hardship of the 1990s, welcomed the rise of the security state, and still widely support it, even as it has hollowed out the Russian economy and civic institutions. Today, as a result, Russia is little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy — and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Even Russian policy hands, raised on the Western understanding of traditional power dynamics, find the implications of this hard to understand. This Russia does not aspire to be like us, or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West — and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy. [Continue reading…]

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