American critics of Vladimir Putin often focus on Russia's foreign policy. Some people think he seeks to restore the former Soviet Union, reuniting the 15 separate countries once more under Russian control. As evidence, he is quoted as saying that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the Twentieth Century. However this is an incorrect translation from the original Russian. He actually said the breakup was "a major geopolitical catastrophe," not "the greatest." He could not have called it the biggest catastrophe with a straight face, given the Soviet Union's 20 million military and civilian deaths during World War II. Now that was a catastrophe!
When I Googled recently, I got 1,480 hits for the correct and 11,900 for the incorrect translation. This imbalance is not all due to intentional efforts to depict Putin negatively, since most Americans do not speak Russian, have not seen the original quote in Russian, and are just quoting other people. But some people must know better.
Putin is not an ideologue and does not appear to want to restore communist rule. He has said that, "People ...who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain."
Putin is fundamentally conservative. He experienced the huge damage done by the relatively peaceful revolution in 1992. Having lived in the Soviet Union, he was well aware that it never did recuperate fully from the disastrous revolutions that brought the Communists to power a century ago. He thinks revolutions are a very bad idea.
Putin was understandably upset when a revolution overthrew a duly elected Ukrainian president who favored good relations with Russia. Like some American experts including Andrew Bacevich, he criticizes American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya, noting that when we overthrow bad regimes their replacements are invariably worse. He plausibly argues that were the U.S. successful in overthrowing Bashar Assad it would aggravate the terrible situation in Syria and prolong the civil war.
To say that Putin is basically conservative is only an approximation, since a one-dimensional liberal-conservative continuum has limited utility. I myself do not fit anywhere on this continuum since I am substantively radical but procedurally conservative. There are many things I would like to change, but I don't think revolutionary overthrows of bad governments are how we get progress. I think Putin is procedurally conservative, though he too would like to see many changes in the world.
During the Cold War the Soviets encouraged revolutions around the world in the name of Marxist doctrine while the United States was a conservative power, opposing efforts to overthrow even very bad regimes as long as they were friendly to the U.S. Today, American and Russian postures have reversed. Now Russia, headed by Mr. Putin, opposes revolution, and the United States supports overthrowing bad regimes in the name of democracy. And Putin apparently fears that his government is an American target for overthrow. His dislike of Hillary Clinton was probably rooted in her applause for demonstrators who claimed his re-election was illegitimate.
A final assessment of Vladimir Putin would be premature. His repression of domestic critics, stirring up trouble in Ukraine, and possible involvement in the murders of journalists and opponents certainly need to be subtracted from his accomplishments before giving him a final grade. But it is not too early to recognize that he is a talented leader and serious thinker.
Like Donald Trump, Putin is a world class opportunist. Putin did not set out at a young age to become the top leader of a major world power, but when the opportunity came along he seized the ball and ran with it very effectively. Max Weber's classic essay "Politics As A Vocation" spoke of the immense challenges facing leaders who try to bring order out of disorder. Weber concluded that "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards." I think Vladimir Putin would agree.
This article is the second in a two-part series. Read part one here.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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