I did not expect Putin to return for a third term and on August 2011 I said he would not. In September (that’s fast!!) I had to eat my words. But I wasn’t happy to: while I thought Putin was a pretty effective leader – maybe the best Russia has ever had, in the last thousand years, anyway – every leader (and everything else) has a “best before” date. There’s a time when a leader runs out of ideas and creativity, a time when the sycophants figure out what buttons to push (“I know you don’t like flattery boss; that’s one of the things I admire about you”), a time when subordinates start plotting, a time when the Old Guy’s past it and it’s time to think about our futures and so on. Putin’s not there by a long shot, but it will come one day. Better to leave at the top of your game.
And, I have to admit, there was some personal embarrassment on my part – a US Congressman was ranting to me about how Putin was just power-hungry and I stopped him by saying: then why isn’t he president right now? Well, the last laugh’s on me, isn’t it? He’s president again and maybe he never really stopped being the real boss.
So why did he come back? Why does he risk becoming the Turkmenbashi of Russia?
I prefer to think that he’s not just the power-crazed dictator that the US Congressman thinks he is. And so fearlessly risking another episode of logophagy, I offer another theory which allows me to preserve my August 2011 idea and pretend to have been right all along while actually having been wrong. (A bit like being an op-ed writer, in fact. It’s nice to have a rolling memory that forgets when you were wrong. Take, for example, Der Spiegel, which now blames Merkel for the whole sorry mess in Ukraine without ever admitting its own responsibility for whipping up the hysteria. But I, unlike Official Journalists©, know that the Internet Never Forgets.)
So, why did Putin not take my advice and return to the presidency?
Libya, in a word. Consumers of Western media outlets who can still remember the dim, distant days of March 2011 will recall that Qaddafi “was bombing his own people”. First appearing, I think, on Al Jazeera, the story spread everywhere and was amplified by the West’s pet “human rights” N”G”Os. There doesn’t appear to have been any evidence that he was – and a later report concluded that he wasn’t – but this was the mantra. And, it’s important to remember, “humanitarian bombing” episodes are always preceded by unanimity in the media; we’ve seen it in Kosovo and Syria and more recently in Ukraine – every news outlet saying exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.
“Bombing your own people” is a terrible, terrible thing and “something must be done”. (or, rather, it was then: not so important today in Ukraine). The US and its allies went to the UN and secured a resolution to create a “no fly zone” so as to stop Libyan government aircraft from “bombing his own people”. Russia (and China) abstained rather than veto.
To make a long story short, NATO paid no attention to the text of the resolution. They bombed everything, then they supplied weapons, then special forces trainers, then forward air controllers. At the end, after seven (seven!) months, Qaddafi was run to ground and brutally killed. Hillary Clinton’s cackle should not be forgotten.
All appearances suggest that Washington and those NATO members who participated lied from start to finish: they never meant the “no fly zone” stuff and they always intended to overthrow Qaddafi. They played Moscow and Beijing for suckers.
Well, my guess is that Putin is tired of Russia being played for a sucker, tired of Washington & Co bombing everyone it wants to whatever pretext it invents (is Russia on the list?). My guess is that President Xi agrees with him (could China be on the list?) In fact he/they is/are thinking some unthinkable thoughts. I suspect they may be entertaining the notions that, under present management:
- Washington is a force for chaos in the world.
- Washington cannot be trusted.
- Agreements with Washington are worthless.
- Washington cannot be dealt with.
There is no honour, no consistency, nothing to be trusted in Washington. And, worst of all, pace Palmerston, they don’t even know their own interests (Stupidity is very frightening when combined with Washington’s military power).
Washington is, and will be, Russia’s (and China’s) enemy.
And that is why I think he came back. He foresaw, thanks to the US/NATO deception on Libya, that hard times were coming for Russia. Only he had the necessary muscle to both over-awe the contending factions in Russia and, at the same time, stand tough against the threats.
And the Ukraine nightmare has shown he was right. In the eleven month period from delaying the EU agreement (v2013) to delaying the EU agreement (v2014), Russia has been ceaselessly calumniated and provoked. Putin, leading and controlling his team, has proved cooler, calmer and cleverer than his enemies.
There is nothing about US actions in Syria that will make him think differently.
What did we hear in his 2014 address to the Russian parliament? – a speech, you may be sure, in which every word is tried out, tested and tasted.
Back then, we realised that the more ground we give and the more excuses we make, the more our opponents become brazen and the more cynical and aggressive their demeanour becomes.
Could anything be plainer than that? We tried, they rejected us; we tried again, they spat again. One last attempt… That’s it. It’s over. He’s come to the end, past the end, of the rope. So, altogether, Putin read the tea leaves and I did not.