Saturday, November 29, 2014

What I Learned From Vladimir Putin

LONDON – Is Russian President Vladimir Putin, like most political leaders, predisposed to spinning the truth for his own benefit? Or does he go far beyond that, governing Russia and dealing with his neighbors and the rest of the world with reckless mendacity, abetted by a supine national media? Sometimes, in answering questions like this, we can draw not only on what we have heard and seen, but also on personal experience.

I first met Putin in October 1999 in Helsinki, when I was attending a European Union-Russia summit as the EU’s external affairs commissioner. President Boris Yeltsin canceled his attendance at the last moment; he was “indisposed.” In his place, Yeltsin sent the new acting prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose behavior confirmed the wisdom of the observation that you can take the man out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the man.

Preparing for the meeting in the early morning, the EU team heard that there had been an explosion in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, killing several people. When Putin arrived, we asked him about it. He claimed to know nothing, but promised to find out by lunch what had happened.

At our lunchtime discussion, he reported that the explosion had been caused by Chechen terrorists who were running their own arms bazaar. By this time, we knew that the deaths had been caused by a Russian military assault; it subsequently came to light that a wave of Russian ballistic missiles (probably Scuds) had killed more than a hundred people.

Putin had looked us in the eye and lied, almost certainly aware that we knew he was lying. The communiqué that day made no mention of Chechnya, but enunciated the usual “blah blah” about shared values, belief in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and the need for strategic cooperation.

I can recall countless instances of – how can I best put it? – Putin and his colleagues economizing with the truth on a spectacular scale. On Chechnya, they regularly reported either that they had received no complaints from the EU about humanitarian relief, or that they were complying with the United Nations code on relief efforts; they were duplicitous on both counts. Similar dissembling characterized negotiations on trade, partnership agreements, the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe, and access to Kaliningrad.

Against this background, I find it difficult to believe any of Putin’s account of what has been happening in Ukraine – a view shared by many seasoned observers in Poland and the Baltic states. Putin does not want to preside over a country with a declining population and a footprint that is largely Asian. He wishes, like a modern czar, to re-create the historic Slav state of Russia, incorporating Ukraine, and to rebuild, albeit in a different form, the Kremlin’s lost empire. The Eurasian Union – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is to be its heartland.

To this end, Putin has always resisted Ukraine’s historic turn to the West, about which the EU itself has been standoffish in the past. The EU was prepared to recognize Ukraine’s “European vocation,” but it did as little as it could to encourage this outcome.

When Ukrainians earlier this year ousted their corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, after he backed out of an association agreement with the EU, Russia set out to destabilize the country. Crimea was annexed on the spurious grounds that it had once been part of Russia – a justification that, if applied elsewhere, could underwrite the violent redrawing of boundaries in much of Europe.

Then came Russia’s fomenting of, and participation in, armed separatists’ effort to take over parts of eastern Ukraine, which led directly to the downing last month of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the death of all 298 people on board. Though likely an accident, it was an accident that happened only because of Russia’s duplicitous and lethal meddling.

So, though I am saddened by the Putin regime’s behavior, I am not surprised by it. I do hope to be surprised by the EU’s recognition that what has happened in Ukraine requires Europe to stand up for international decency and the rule of law. There should be no more happy talk about shared values. This is a time for steely principle.

That will not be welcomed by Europe’s far right, from Hungary’s Jobbik to France’s National Front. They love Putin.

But Ukraine has proved a step too far for some of his erstwhile admirers, like Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. If Farage had had some first-hand experience dealing with Putin, he might have reached an accurate assessment much sooner.

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    1. CommentedCelt Darnell

      Chris Patten another corrupt and dishonest Tory MP with all four trotters in the public trough actually has the gall to call Putin dishonest?

      LOL! Pot, meet kettle!

    2. CommentedGergely Horvath

      You produce a propaganda-type testimony on the credibility of Vladimir Putin. Your article reminds me of the statement of the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S.
      I definitely put Vladimir Putin´s words on a scale when I hear them, but even more so will I do that with your words.

    3. CommentedIv Vasev

      I have rarely read articles that are more one-sided than this one. First, if the point of the article is that Putin lied and that Patten learned he would lie over and over again, then this is wasted cyberspace. We all know that politicians lie. We learned that from Bush when he attacked Iraq. His U.N. Ambassador looked the world in their eyes and lied about the chemical weapons and look at that country today! We also learned that from Clinton and his administration when they talked about 100,000 Kosovars who were "missing" or "killed" and it turned out they were not ... and look at Kosovo today - a cradle of corruption and crime and in the midst of it EULEX and NATO forces. Congratulations. What we have learned from this article is that with a former EU commissioner for external affairs like Patten, there was no credibility in the EU foreign policy for a long time now. Sadly, the introspection has never been a stronger side of the so-called Western democracies.

    4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Lord Chris Patten, while you were EU's external affairs commissioner, you had dealt with President Putin and learned something from him. What would Europe have looked like today, had the US and Europe forged closer ties with Russia?
      A 2004 cable released by Wikileaks revealed that over a dinner, you said Putin had "killer eyes" and reminded you of his KGB career - "you can take the man out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the man". Your impression was that Putin was a completely reasonable man when discussing the Middle East or energy policy. But when the conversation shifted to Chechnya or Islamic extremism "his eyes turn to those of a killer".
      In the earlier years of his presidency Putin did reach out to EU leaders to forge closer security ties with the West as part of a global fight against terrorism. He urged for the creation of a "common European security space" and was eager to prove Moscow a staunch western ally after the 9/11 attacks. He attended the EU-Russia summit in 2001, aimed at widening cooperation with Nato and improving relations, to create "permanent consultative structures" in security isses. Russia had shown interest in the EU's common defence and security policy, which led to a joint declaration on terrorism and economic cooperation.
      Lord Patten, you even said:"Russia has impressed many by her willingness to set history aside and to align herself solidly with the international coalition against terrorism. I hope this also opens the way to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Chechnya". Do you believe Putin's pro-Western stance was a hoax? What would have happened had Russia joined the Nato?
      Then came a row between Russia and the US over Moscow's response to the Beslan tragedy when George Bush voiced concern about the way the Kremlin handled the school siege. Moscow warned Washington not to meddle in its internal affairs. Bush expressed also concern that Putin could roll back post-Soviet reform under the pretext of fighting terrorism in Chechnya.
      Bush lambasted the lack of checks and balances and the separation of power etc., when Putin abolished elections for constituency lawmakers and appointed regional governors himself. The issue was the biggest diplomatic spat between Russia and the US for four years, in which Bush and Putin had had relatively good relations. There were reports that Sergei Lavror on various occasions told Colin Powell that the US should mind its own business.
      Lord Patten, you had been more outspoken than the US in telling the European parliament that Russia needed more "far-sighted and humane policies" in the Chechen conflict. You hoped "the government of the Russian Federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin". Well, this was the beginning of Russia's resurgence.

    5. CommentedJean-Louis Piel

      His experience of Putin's behavior is the one of everybody who has worked or discussed with him. Russia is small - only 110 millions Ethnic Russians. We in the West need to fight against him, against his political regime. Churchill will have said to destroy him and his regime. We must help Ukraine by all means and be ready to make a war against this Russia if necessary. For the democratic countries it has always taken time to take such decision. It is the advantage of dictatorship as this Russian one . They could win easily at the beginning as aggressor at the beginning. Then they lose. And this Russia is surely a loser.

        CommentedCelt Darnell

        A Froggy calling for war with Russia? What, do you want them to kick your arse again like they did in 1812?

        (Shakes head)

        CommentedTim Chambers

        Putin is a war criminal, but aa long line of U.S. presidents are not? The imperial power in this world is the United States, not Russia. Russia is just a wannabe. Putin is keeping himself in power by inflaming Russian nationalism, not Russian imperialism. It is the U.S. that is the aggresssor here. The U.S. talks of peace and wages war. The Soviet Union had to abandon its Imperial ambitions. It could not afford them. The United States will collapse, too, just as the S.U. did, under the weight of militarism. When it does it will become a police state, in order to protect its gated elites from its armed but impoverished masses.

    6. CommentedHywel Morgan

      "When [I decide] it becomes serious, you have to lie" Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the European Commission

    7. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      That is a pretty one-sided commentary. Yes Putin has lied and will do so in the future. But what have western leaders done in the meantime. What about Iraq when the US leadership lied blatantly to the world without blinking either. Colin Powell showed us photos of mobile anthrax production labs, equipment for nuclear bomb material production and so on... Does that make them a dishonest clique that should be isolated from world affairs and marked as outcasts for breaking the rules of current international order (the rules are clear, a country can legally attack another one only in self-defense or under a clear UN mandate stemming from a Security Council resolution). The truth is that Putin wants to do, and is doing, only what he sees western leaders do so often, break the rules when their interest necessitate it and demand complete abidance by those same rules when it fits their goals. Let us not forget the Libyan affair either, where the agreed upon rules of engagement morphed from limited intervention to an outright regime change. You say that the annexation of Crimea executed by Putin is a dire and direct challenge to the existing world order, but in that case what about Kosovo? Let us also examine the probable results of these actions and the gravity of their potential consequences:
      1) Large scale conflict and redraw of European borders is unlikely to be triggered by Putin’s actions, aside from few cases where newly independent countries were formed as a direct result of the collapse of the Soviet Union (YES Ukraine is a newly formed country, just like Georgia, Kazakhstan, former Yugo republics….. so it is logical their borders will probably adjust here and there before things settle). The borders in Europe are stable and have been so for some time, and the interconnectedness fostered by EU integration makes unilateral moves unlikely and prohibitively costly to anyone who might dare to do so.
      2) On the other hand the US led intervention in Iraq has created the potential of upending the entire geopolitical structure that has existed in the Middle East since WWII. An Islamic Caliphate is being created in front of our eyes borders are effectively being erased and we are perhaps on the verge of large scale sectarian conflict that can potentially engulf the entire Middle East, with disastrous consequences for worldwide security and economy (the Arab states are still the primary supplier of hidrocarbons needed to power the world economy)
      I work in finance and we have a simple rule a number by itself means nothing unless you can compare it to a similar data. Your analysis of Putin’s action is just as worthless unless you compare it to the actions of western leaders (US, UK primarily), and when you do so you will see a picture emerging that deviates significantly from the black and white canvas that you drew in your article.
      An analyst, practitioner, politician and intellectual from your caliber should not produce such shoddy articles.

        CommentedCelt Darnell

        Re: Jean-Louis Piel's comment "Velho is a basic Putin's propagandist . It is so easy to recognize them."

        Almost as easy to recognize as the EU propagandists.


        Commentedolivier chapolisa

        You're saying that you work in finance and I start to understand quite well the mess whe're in ;-). Because it seems to me you don't follow your own "simple rule". For example, you speek about "Kossovo". Well, the independance of this part of the world was self declared in 2008. The war took place in 1999. 1999-2008 ! And the situation from the perspective of the international law is very different in the two cases (there's a judgement of the International Court of Justice juged only in the Kossovo's cases, but the consensus beetween lawers is quite clear). Of course you must'nt believe me on my words, but I suppose you've an internet connection and you can search on gooGle.
        For a start (and of course that's a large number of anglo-american lawers, but I'm a french one and the state of the art is quite the same) :
        And for an enlightning synthesis :
        So, I can argue that's you're wrong in your commentary on this subject.
        Of course, you can also argue that the west politicians are a bunch of hypocrits. I understand much more that point. Politicians can tell lies. Not a big deal. But I don't take you're side on systematizing such a bad behaviour on a international level (but quite understandable in our world for people in their position). May be Mr Bush used to act as bad as Mr Putin (may be). But, as a global leader, Mr Putin is not Mr Obama or Mr Hollande. And that's the only (but not tiny) advantage Mr Putin have.

    8. CommentedTim Chambers

      As my International Politics professor used to say, there are two processes you don't want to watch - sausage making and statecraft.
      When great interests come into conflict truth is the first casualty.

      Of course Putin is a liar when it serves his government's interest. So is any statesman. The questions in this case, are these. Who is making accusations before all the facts are known? And who is presenting good evidence? So far, only the Russians have presented any evidence. Why? Because they are being vilified without evidence.
      The other question is, who benefits? Hillary Clinton was on Charlie Rose the Evening of the day of the crash, before anything was known, pointing a finger at Russia and telling the Europeans they should wean themselves from Russian national gas. Not to imply the HillBilly benefits, but NATO and the US would be the clearest beneficiaries, because NATO and the US want Ukraine within the alliance.

      All politicians lie and use propaganda to cover their lies. You, sir, are a politician, too. Ipso facto, you lie.

        CommentedJean-Louis Piel

        You don't understand this brilliant article : the point is not that Putin lied, it us that Putin was acting as a war criminal - like Anna Politovskaya described it so well at the price of her life - and in the same time he was speaking about the opposite , exactly like Hitler in 1938-1939 who was speaking about peace all the time and was doing the opposite . What means Patten is that Putin wants war like Hitler and it is absolutely useless to discuss with him. Churchill understands that with Hitler'sSide : it is war and victory and nothing else. Today we the West and others countries need to have the same courage : no more discussion with Putin and his regime. It is war until victory. I have real doubt that Russia will find a lot of allies with it. Surely not the Chinese and the Indians. Surely not the Kazakstan and Belarus. Then who ? Cuba?

    9. CommentedJeff S

      Russia "set out to destabilize" Ukraine after it had suffered a coup d'état!?
      A coup which ousted a president who was democratically elected in elections deemed fair by international observers, no less.
      A coup which was succeeded by a democratic referendum in Crimea in which the overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to join Russia out of fear of the nationalist Ukrainian goverment of Victoria Nuland's "Yats". An annexation which took place without a shot fired, the wisdom of which is made evident by the violent repression of the democratic will of the eastern Ukrainian states by the Kiev regime.
      It seems you're quite the spin doctor yourself.