“Take Care of Russia”: Thomas Fasbender’s Biography of Vladimir Putin, Part 3Michael Walker
One might have expected that Western leaders were adequately forewarned that Putin’s ambition, priorities, and values were different from those of liberal globalists — that Christopher Hitchens better understood Russia’s new ruler when he dubbed him a “KGB weasel” than those who believed he would move effortlessly into the global scheme of a new world order, even should that mean weakening the identity and power of the Russian state.
Putin can obviously exercise great charm, is able to massage the vanity of interlocutors, and is sensitive to people’s emotional chords. In an act of immense symbolic weight, Putin decided that Russia should have the grand national anthem of the Soviet Union again. During the 2000 Summer Olympics, Russian participants complained that they could not sing the national anthem for the good reason that the national anthem of the Russian Federation, like the Spanish national anthem, was now wordless. Yeltsin had replaced the Soviet national anthem with Glinka’s wordless “Patrioticheskaya Pesnya.” In an act of profound symbolism, Putin replaced the optimistic and music of Glinka and returned to the old national anthem of the Soviet Union, with music composed by Alexander Alexandrov. But who would write the new words? The choice was none other than the 86-year-old Sergey Mikhalkov.
Mikhalkov had written the words for the Soviet national anthem introduced in 1944, which honored Stalin, replacing the earlier “Internationale.” The anthem was modified in 1977 to honor Communism. For the 2000 version, the lyrics honor the Russian fatherland. For Fasbender, Mikhalkov is “a model example of the ability and adaptability of poets” (p. 289). Alexandrov’s Soviet-era music combined with Mikhalkov’s new words has proved to be very popular, and not only with Russians.
Having overcome the liberals by strengthening the state apparatus and having also defeated the Communist challenge, Putin turned on the oligarchs who had helped him to power, especially but not exclusively those who had not been able to resist the temptation of becoming involved in politics. Many were imprisoned; others fled.
The following years are often seen as some kind of “lost opportunity” in which Putin tried vainly to join the West but was rebuffed. According to this interpretation, an apparently rational man begins to act increasingly irrationally. Fasbender interprets the years of the cooling of Western-Russian relations in a different way and ascribes blindness to both sides. He suggests — and this reviewer agrees — that there was a tendency outside Russia to overlook or play down what it did not want to believe about the new President: the control of the judiciary, the muzzling of the press, rumors of murder and assassination, and the brutality of the war against Chechnya, a brutality which predated Putin but which continued under his presidency in full ferocity. As for ideology, it was now the West, as Fasbender sees it, which began to seem increasingly ideological, insisting on a doctrine of extreme individualism coupled with the avuncular rule of committees and globalist institutions in which the nation-state had an ever-diminishing role to play: “The consistent, post-ideological pragmatic Russian policy underestimated the ideological character of Western values, and the Western premise according to which liberal democracy more than capitalist market economies was the victor of the Cold War found no echo in Russia” (p. 310).
Putin took steps to ensure that foreign investors would not obtain majority holdings in any important Russian assets, and notably he ensured that both George Soros and Ted Turner failed in their respective attempts to buy a stake in Russian media. This raises a question about Putin which remains open, one which Fasbender does not even pose, namely: To what extent is Putin a conscious ideological anti-globalist committed to thwarting a one-world state, and to what extent is he an anti-globalist only incidentally, a position he found himself in rather than willed, brought about indirectly by his drive to restore the Russian nation’s prestige?
Fasbender does not hide his admiration for Putin’ s shakedown of the bureaucracy and judiciary, making both considerably less cumbersome and more efficient. Efficiency, however, is not the word that springs to mind when considering military operations conducted by the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation which succeeded it. The Second Chechen War lumbered on, a succession of vainglorious and inglorious horrors. For outside observers it seemed as if the two sides were in some kind of nightmarish competition to decide who was the cruelest, the most ruthless, most pitiless, most destructive, and most indifferent to human suffering. There can be no question of what Putin thought or thinks of Islamic terrorism. His loathing of and determination to destroy it at whatever cost reveals a single-minded dedication to the cause lacking in the West. Here it seems as though Putin is the idealist, and Western leaders the cynics. Putin had already warned of the aims of fundamentalists to create a pan-national caliphate in Asia. He was determined to defeat them.
The events around the capturing of the crowded Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002, when Chechen terrorists took 850 people hostage, are well-known — a siege which ended in the deaths of all the terrorists and more than 100 hostages. Security forces pumped a poison gas, probably fentanyl, into the theater and then stormed the building. Fasbender raises again the ominous possibility of false flags and FSB agents provocateurs. Fasbender is even-handed in pointing to evidence for and against Putin’s foreknowledge of the event, but he is suspicious of the failure of the FSB to capture even one terrorist alive. On the other hand, given the deplorable record of Russian incompetence in military operations, their cavalier indifference to human life, and their staggering inefficiency, the Dubrovka Theater disaster may be a result of those failings rather than a conspiracy.
What is indisputable and not open to any obvious conspiratorial theory is the blunder of using a dosage of the synthetic opioid fentanyl — it has also been suggested it could have been an even more powerful compound than fentanyl (!) — into the building’s air circulation with apparently no knowledge of how to revive victims of the drug’s effects. Fentanyl, as even first year chemistry students know, causes hypoxia, that is to say a critical and potentially lethal deprivation of oxygen. Medical orderlies and doctors arriving at the scene unbriefed were apparently unaware that gas had been used, let alone fentanyl. They arrived expecting to deal with burn and gunshot victims and found themselves confronted by victims of gas poisoning. There are reports of unconscious and dying hostages being laid out in the snow and rain. Despite all this, the fiasco was more a public relations disaster for the cause of Islamic separatism than for Putin’s Russia. From abroad, Berezovsky’s media bluntly accused Putin of masterminding the tragedy.
In 2004 there was another hostage crisis, one even more appalling and which claimed yet more victims than the Dubriovka Theater: the Beslan school hostage disaster. A group of Islamic pro-Chechen terrorists captured a school in the little town of Beslan on its inauguration day, when the school was filled with parents and their children. 30 terrorists took a thousand hostages, including about 800 children. Fasbender asks justifiably how it could be that neither side had learned anything from the previous incident. Surely the terrorists would have known what the Kremlin’s response to this kind of blackmail would be, and surely the Kremlin had learned the risk in terms of the loss of hostages’ lives in a violent military assault? Evidently not.
Accounts of events are confused and disputed, but it is certain that, directly or indirectly as a result of an armed assault by security forces, the school’s roof collapsed. Scores of small children were burned alive. All but one of the terrorists were killed by security forces. 333 hostages died, of whom 186 were children. Many former hostages were maimed physically and/or psychologically for life. Needless to say, this bloody event was the subject of blame, claim, counter-claim, allegation, denial, and conspiracy theory. What is indisputable is that Putin used the event as a pretext to bear down harder on the press and further strengthen the powers of the Russian state to “protect citizens from terrorism.”
By 2009 the war was more or less over and won by Russia at a cost of perhaps 60,000 lives in the Second Chechen War alone, but Chechnya was firmly back in the Russian fold. There would be no independent Chechnya and no breakaway caliphate.
The hostage crisis took place at the very time that American-Russian relations were deteriorating. Fasbender describes Putin’s hope that the West would cooperate with him in eradicating Islamic fundamentalism quixotically as “the last waltz before the grey break of dawn” (p. 326).
With an arrogance, lack of psychological insight, indifference, or a combination of all of these, former Warsaw Pact countries applied to join NATO, and their applications were received favorably. Soon, NATO was welcoming a bevy of new members.
In The New York Times on May 2, 1996, former American ambassador George Kennan, then 92, referred to the proposed enlarging of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries as a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions” that would energize the already wakening nationalist, anti-Western tendencies of post-Soviet Russia and restore the atmosphere of the Cold War. Prophetic words. Not only must the expansion of NATO have been seen as an affront, one which rallied the Russians and particularly the Communists and nationalists behind Putin, it took place at the very time that the US and its British ally had begun their assault on secular Middle Eastern states hostile to Islamic fundamentalism and traditionally enjoying good relations with Russia. Putin may well have regarded the expansion of NATO and the attack on pro-Russian Islamic states as examples of Western treachery and double standards. Breaking with the alliance against Islamic fundamentalism, attacking Russia’s friends, expanding NATO — how did Western leaders think Putin would feel about this? How did they think he would react?
What followed was a continued Russian withdrawal from cooperation with Western projects, growing suspicion, and growing nationalism, as well as an increasingly proud isolationism, an increase in militarism, a return to nostalgic Soviet-style military parades, and a predictable increasingly cozy relationship with China. All of this could have been foreseen, but seems to have taken many by surprise.
Regrettably, Fasbender does not discuss Putin’s commitment or lack thereof to globalism and the aims of organizations such as Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum (WEF). Fasbender is also poor at providing the years when events take place, so the reader can easily lose a chronological overview. For example, he gives the impression that the arrest of liberal oligarch Khodorkovsky took place immediately after Putin’s return from a visit to New York in 2001, whereas a little research will show that the arrest took place in 2003. Most accounts do not mention (Fasbender does mention, but apparently sees no significance in the fact) that Mikhail Khodorkosky was arrested shortly after sharing a platform with the manager of ExxonMobil in Moscow, the platform having been organized by the WEF. Was Khodorkosky’s arrest and imprisonment only part of Putin’s campaign to destroy the oligarchs and all people of great wealth who involved themselves in politics, or was it perhaps also a symbolic gesture against a globalism represented by the policies of the WEF?
If there is one certainty which Fasbender wishes to convey in his political biography, it is that of Putin’s influence on events, and the certainty that had another man been President, Russian history over the last 20 years would have taken a very different course. But it takes two to tango, and Fasbender is well aware that it was Putin’s character and Western actors’ blindness which in tandem with each other led to the return to a new Cold War.
Apparently it was in 2000 that Putin first suggested the idea in discussion with British Prime Minister Tony Blair of building a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea and Putin succeeded in winning over the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to his scheme. The project was called North Stream and the gas pipe line, running under the Baltic for over seven hundred miles, would be the longest under sea gas pipeline in the world. The European Union smiled upon the project and objections only came from environmentalist groups and some Baltic states. Subsequently this gas pipe line became a great bone of contention and came to be seen as a symbol of mutual dependence between Russia and the West which both sides felt had gone too far.
In February 2007 Putin gave his by now famous speech in the Hotel Bayrischer Hof denouncing a “unipolar world,” an expression he had been using since 1990. In 2008 Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s choice to succeed him given his constitutional obligation to leave office after two terms, was elected President of the Russian Federation with 71% of the vote and his election confirmed by 87% of the Duma, but it was clear to the world who continued to wield power. Putin had groomed Medvedev for the post. With skillful agility and maneuvering, Putin was able to ensure that his man was elected President. Commenting on the war with Georgia in 2008, which seems to have been conceived and even directed by Putin himself, Fasbender writes: “The war gave credence to the impression present from the start of the Medvedev presidency, namely that the President was a fair weather captain, helpless without the helmsman at his back” (p. 418).
All opposition against Putin within Russia fails because of the control which the “KGB weasel” now has over all the mechanisms of power as well as the constant Putin majority, which Fasbender notes held up particularly well during the time of the 2008 financial crisis, where astute handling of the economy and the building up of reserves enabled Putin to cushion the effects of the crisis for the majority of Russians.
The United Nation Security Resolution Number 1973 aimed at the Libyan government was the kickoff for the Western assault on Libya in 2011. According to Fasbender, Putin was beside himself with rage that Medvedev had instructed the Russian delegate to withhold his vote rather than veto the resolution. Fasbender might have noted that a parallel fury was felt by German Chancellor Merkel at the decision by her Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, not to vote for the resolution. Westerwelle lost his job in 2013, was diagnosed with leukemia a year later, and finally died in 2016. He had already raised hackles by arguing the case for a referendum in Germany on the country’s European Union membership. His demise was arguably the end of the last chance of a German-Russian pact of friendship in opposition to Britain and the United States. Since that time, Germany, and consequently the EU which it more or less single-handedly finances, has been held firmly in the Western camp, just as Belarus is held firmly in the Russian camp.
Provocation against Putin continued. A group of punk singers called Pussy Riot, which bore the signs of a Western-backed propaganda action, interrupted a religious service by dancing a weird dance in which they chanted obscenities. The pornographic performers received the LennonOno Peace Prize from Amnesty International; the Hannah Arendt Prize from the City of Bremen; the iLive Krone, Germany’s biggest radio award; and the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize. If this was intended to unsettle Putin, it backfired badly. In fact, the psychology was so poor that one might be tempted to wonder if “Pussy Riot,” whose antics played into Putin’s hands, were not actually his double agents.
Fasbender comments rightly:
Everyone seeking to strengthen anti-Western feeling in Russia could not have been given anything better . . . Secularization Pussy Riot-style awoke memories: desecrated churches, excrement on altars, hanged priests, smashed crucifixes — Russia had seen it all before. And where did the ideological initiators all come from — Marx, Engels, Proudhon, Laforgue?Ex occidente oscuritas. The state saw the provocation in this light, too. Three of the young women were jailed and given prison sentences for “rowdyism linked to religious hatred.” (p. 445)
The West denounced the prison sentences as an infringement of free speech. This played into the hands of the regime, which could then claim with some plausibility that when the West preached “free speech” it meant obscenity. Fasbender does not mention the protest and condemnation from the Western media in reaction to the sentences.
Two years after this incident, there was the Maidan putsch in Kiev, and the “Heimkehr ins Reich,” as some bitter commentators in the West called it, of the Crimea to Russia. Putin was turning on the pro-Western border states, many of which had once been part of Mother Russia.
Compared to his long examination of diverse scandals, especially financial ones, Fasbender’s examination of Russian policy towards the Muslim world or towards the Ukraine is disappointingly cursory. He notes that in negotiations between the EU and the Ukraine, the gross domestic product of the latter lay behind that of Portugal, Greece, and Hungary (p. 470), without pointing out that Ukrainian GDP had all the time been soaring. The Ukraine’s long-term economic potential is way higher than that of the countries which Fasbender mentions. He does correctly see the Ukraine’s geopolitical and strategic importance. In 1997 Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that it was essential for the United States to control the Ukraine, it is the pivot of Russian power in Europe. So far as this reviewer recalls, Fasbender does not mention Zbigniew Brzezinski. So far as the reviewer recalls? A major drawback of Fasbender’s biography is that it has no index! Readers of an earlier review I wrote for Counter-Currents may recall my criticism of Alain de Benoist’s monograph on Jesus Christ for the very same reason. Is it now the fashion to provide no index to scholarly works?
Fasbender does point out that the European Union refused to include Russia in trade negotiations with the Ukraine at any stage despite the protests of the Ukrainian representative himself, Sergey Arbusov. Fasbender recalls a discussion he had with Arbusov in Moscow in 2016. Arbsuov relates that Angela Merkel said that “the Ukraine should grow up and stop calling for its Russian nanny” (p. 471). Although fully acknowledging American determination to draw the Ukraine into its orbit and that the fall of the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was thanks to a pro-American (and American-financed?) coup, Fasbender, with his laconic style, fails to signal the importance or severity of events. For Putin, the Maidan putsch must have seemed like an act of aggression aimed at Russia. Fasbender has nothing to say about the ongoing dispute concerning the alleged American financing of the Maidan uprising: A Western plot or Russian fake news?
Fasbender’s understanding of Putin as a Machiavellian regarding politics, especially foreign affairs, who sees it as a kind of elaborate game of judo, while by no means wrong, is in this reviewer’s view incomplete. It does not take account of what this reviewer considers to be Putin’s genuine distaste for Islamic fundamentalism and his fanatical love of Russia. The hostility towards Islamic fundamentalism has been characterized all the years of his rule. In contrast to the United States or the nations of the European Union, Russia has always been consistent in its attitude towards fundamentalist Islam; Soviet foreign policy consistently supported secular Arab states. The only exception is Iran, where Iran’ s own enmity to the leading pro-Western Wahhabi power, Saudi Arabia, overrides other considerations.
The West’s support of uprisings in Libya and Syria aimed at toppling anti-fundamentalist governments must have necessarily provoked Putin, and on two counts: first as disloyalty in what he considered a global alliance to defeat Islamic terrorism, and secondly as an assault on Russia through the subversion regimes in the Islamic world which were friendly towards Russia. It is puzzling that Fasbender does not acknowledge Putin’s undoubted triumph in Syria, where he successfully thwarted every Western-backed attempt at “regime change” and where it was Russia which routed ISIS and stymied the possibility of a sharia-based regime stretching across Iraq and Syria, a feat for which Russia received no acknowledgement in the Western media. (This lack of acknowledgement must have made Putin even more bitter still: ingratitude following hard upon disloyalty.)
In Fasbender’s eyes, the growing rift blurred the tolerated compromises between Russia and the West — for example, Russia’s tolerance of the Crimea being part of the Ukraine under the understanding that it was essentially in Russia, and that the people there were understood as Russian and would not be oppressed for being Russian. Proposed legislation to force the inhabitants of the Crimea and the Donbas into accepting Ukrainian as the language of schools and official life, as well as the idea being put forward that the Ukraine might one day join NATO, hardened Putin’s own attitude. For Fasbender the tragedy is that there is no longer room for compromise or for indefinite boundaries. We have reached the stage of a brutal “either/or”:
That was the tragedy of 2013. Both Russia and the West were no longer prepared to accept blurred boundaries any longer, no grey area between one and the other. The Ukraine pays the price and the German Chancellor (Merkel) did her bit to make matters worse. (p. 486)
The annexation of the Crimea, which Fasbender sees as in part revenge for the pro-Western Maidan putsch in Kiev, improved Putin’s standing at home. According to a survey in November 2013, 61% of the population were satisfied with their President. By June 2015 his approval ratings had reached 80%. Fasbender underplays somewhat the psychological as opposed to merely political impetus of Putin’s actions; the element which wounded pride and anger played in what is seen as treachery and which may serve to account for his actions.
The rift continues to grow, a development which Fasbender follows with dismay. The G8 conference planned for 2014 was cancelled by seven of its eight member states. Putin’s participation in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings could not be cancelled since invitations had already been publicized, but Putin had become, as Fasbender puts it, “toxic,” and he was ignored by the representatives of the other Allied powers — a gross affront to any head of state. Putin’s reaction geopolitically was not hard to foresee. In 2014, China and Russia signed a $400 billion gas treaty of 30 years to finance Sila Sibiri (Power of Siberia), a gas pipeline over 2,000 miles long. The Chinese were offered the gas at a considerably lower rate than Europeans were for theirs. The pipeline became operational in 2019. Fasbender writes that “for the Chinese it was a bargain; for Russia the beginning of her independence from gas exports to the West” (p. 499).
In November 2014, at the G20 conference in Brisbane, even the Chinese and Indian heads of state ignored Putin, whom Fasbender reports as being isolated at lunch: “Putin was a pariah. But fighting a lone battle does not necessarily mean you are fighting a losing one” (p. 500).
Did Putin ever seem to be on the verge of losing his silent majority? Yes, once the father of his people stumbled. Fasbender obviously feels strongly about this. Unusually for this biography, the writing then turns lyrical:
On the day of the opening of the World Cup in June 2018, the government announced that it was raising the age of retirement; for women it was raised from 55 to 63, and for men from 60 to 65. Given that the average life expectancy for Russian men at that time was 67.7 years, each male Russian could enjoy a median of 36 months of retirement before his death . . . There were loud protests, and this time the normally pro-system opposition was out on the streets too, notably the Communists and the Left-wing party Spavedlivia Russia (Fair Russia) . . . While the great majority of Russians lived on a modest salary at best, this was in part compensated for by a pleasant, peaceful retirement after their years of toil. In the garden of their little dachas, the vegetables would grow and the men would sit on the riverbanks, in winter on the ice, fishing for protein. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated throughout the land . . . Demonstrations began again in the summer of 2019. In 19 years of rule, Putin had made his first blunder vis-à-vis his majority. He had delegated the task of rental reform to slipshod civil servants with no political instincts. He had for once forgotten that he alone, the Tsar of his people, must answer for their well-being. It may well have been that social security funds had run dry, but the timing of the event by itself had put the President in a miserable light: three months after his reelection, slipped in surreptitiously under the cover of the ban on demonstrations during the time of the World Cup. The reaction was not slow to come. The President’s popularity fell to 37.9% in July 2018, an all-time low. (pp. 517-518)
After some small alterations to the retirement age for women, the reform became law at the end of September 2018 and effective from the following year. The law remained, with small changes, but Fasbender has no doubt that the reaction took Putin by surprise and shook him. This was not the reaction of the “usual suspects” of intellectuals and pro-Westerners; this was opposition from out of the ranks of the “Putin majority.”
Fasbender’s book finishes at the time that the global Covid panic was just beginning, a panic which usefully distracted from the protests against the pension reform law and provided governments all over the world with a pretext for banning public demonstrations. Fasbender reports at the end of his work of a new kind of protest in Russia, not without irony. Local movements such as Pomorje ne pomoika opposed Moscow’s use of a small part of Siberia as a massive waste dump. This and many other movements have the potential to become a new kind of opposition, not based in Moscow but rather against Moscow, reminiscent of populist protests everywhere which are usually turned against what is seen as a distant and arrogant center; a protest uniting regionalism, ecology, and even socialist demands. Regionalism in the Russian Federation, with its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, can easily morph into active opposition to the center.
Has Fasbender achieved his aim of understanding Putin? He does not seem to be sure even himself. In his concluding words he writes,
Who is Vladimir Putin? We still don’t know. He remains open to being demonized or idolized. (p. 553)
Out of this book the reader can draw some tentative conclusions about the Russian President, however. His ideal is the strong Russian state, the Gosudartso. The Russian nation and state, as Fasbender correctly underlines, is for Putin a sacred confederation. Secondly, there are certain aspects of Putin’s character which clearly play a role in the kind of politics which he pursues and which have too often been ignored: notably, resentment for past wrongs both personal and national, a loathing of religious fundamentalism, and the fixed belief that individual rights are never to be placed above the interests of the nation.
Putin’s immense success has been to weld the forces of socialism and nationalism into a kind of patriotic alliance based on what Fasbender calls the “Putin majority.” In politics Putin remains the pragmatist, the Machiavellian, and the opportunist. He is not bound by ideological constraint or rhetoric. But what role Russia will pay in the future, and how Russia will meet the challenge of globalism — whether retreating into isolation, leading a crusade against globalism, or leading the world into war — this biography makes no attempt to answer. What it does provide is a detailed and competent presentation of the background, personal psychology, and history which has brought the Russian President in his relations with the world to the point that it has in 2022.
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