First there was Ivan the Terrible, then there was Ivan/Peter the Great, and now, original to La Russophobe, according to the brilliant Russia commentator Jeremy Putley we have Putin the Banal. LR is delighted to welcome Mr. Putley to the blog for what she hopes will be a protracted writing engagement, and will feature a second column (on the Lugovoi imbroglio) in tomorrow's edition.
by Jeremy Putley
Original to La Russophobe
Evil comes in many forms. Only rarely is it in the persona of an insanely criminal monster such as those who disfigured the twentieth century. More often the perpetrators of great wrongs are comparatively insignificant men. One such is the incumbent President of Russia.
When President George W Bush greets the Russian President on Sunday, at his family home at Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sunday, they will shake hands, and perhaps embrace. The Russian President, aptly named Akaky Akakievich Putin by the late Anna Politkovskaya, is a man of insignificant personality. In consequence, it seems, it is difficult for the US leadership to understand or recognize the extent of the crimes for which he is personally responsible.
The criminal character of the Russian hierarchy, by the way, has been in evidence for many years, going back to the brutal conduct of the second Chechnya war at its commencement, and the multiple war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the Russian armed forces against a civilian population. Russia is now again a country with political prisoners, a country where those who have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights have been murdered by the armed forces or by the FSB, and in which the rule of law is effectively in abeyance. Torture of prisoners in the custody of the authorities is endemic in the Russian Federation under President Putin – a fact of which he must be well aware. “Disappearances” in Chechnya have been condemned by Human Rights Watch as a crime against humanity. Journalists are murdered and there is suspicion that agents of the government are involved. Dissidents living abroad are murdered. Russia is a misruled country.
Putin’s upbringing and experience in the KGB, an institution which often operated supra-legally in accordance with orders from the political leadership, instilled in a notoriously vindictive man an amoral belief system: operational necessity justifies all methods – the end justifies any means. That is the present misfortune of Russia under Vladimir Putin, as his second term draws to an end and he prepares to nominate his successor.
When the history of Vladimir Putin’s presidency comes to be written the final judgements on him as a man and as a national leader will require a proper assessment of his character. The question which is sometimes asked is whether the evil things that Putin has done are the result of impotence, weakness or incompetence – an inability to act properly due to incomprehension, or structural weakness in the way Russian government functions – or criminality. Joseph Stalin, it is accepted by historians, was criminal by nature. There is evidence that Putin as President has displayed, from time to time, both incompetence and criminality. It is really a question of which is the preponderant feature of his makeup. To the victims, of course, it makes no difference – the consequences, just as under Stalin, have been the same.
When President Bush looked at President Putin and saw what he wanted to see, that was a worthless assessment, based as it was on nothing more than first impressions, or maybe just wishful thinking. More revealing was what happened at Beslan. That was a true test of character, and it revealed much about the character of the Russian President. In September 2004 at Beslan, in southern Russia, 330 people were killed including 317 hostages, of whom 186 were children. When the storming of the school buildings began, in an effort to bring the hostage-taking to an end, the use of flamethrowers and tanks in the assault, carried out while the hostages were still present in the gymnasium, resulted in the collapse of the roof onto the hostages below, killing 160 of them.
The most important question about this disastrous assault on the school is, who ordered it? There is no information on this. Putin himself kept a very low profile during the three days of the siege, but there can be no serious doubt that he was in close touch with the situation, and would have been consulted on the decision to carry out the storming of the building. Without his authority the decision could not have been made. But if it was his decision, or with his authority, the blame for the disastrous outcome of the storming of the school while it was still full of hostages falls squarely on Vladimir Putin.
It is useless to point out that the honourable thing to have done, in the face of such a catastrophic failure, was for Putin to resign. This is a western concept, and Russian leaders have not, historically, taken such ideas into account – it is apparently not a practical or sensible attitude to take. Similarly a western national leader would have gone to Beslan immediately the school siege began, and would have done all things possible to save the hostages. There would have been negotiations. But Putin’s way is never to negotiate.
Why did the Russian President allow the assault on the school to begin? There must have been a calculation, and a conclusion that hostage deaths were acceptable. The storm was necessary because the alternatives involved a loss of face – from entering into negotiations with the hostage-takers, or acceding to their demands, or showing weakness in some other way. The decision resulted in death and disaster. Was the decision criminal, or was this incompetence? As evidence it must be recalled that after the siege Putin declared on television, “We exhibited weakness, and the weak are beaten.” The hostages who died were sacrificed because the President feared to appear weak. Negotiations were possible, but were never tried. Whether the President was demonstrating a dreadful incompetence by refusing to negotiate for the hostages’ lives, or ordered the assault on the school knowing that hostage deaths would be certain to result, either way this was criminally culpable.
But in the end, the question of whether President Putin is knowingly responsible for his crimes, or thinks he is doing a good job but – in Rumsfeldian language – “stuff happens”, is not really important. To his victims it does not make any difference. World opinion, and the US President, remain largely indifferent to the question. There will be no real accounting any time soon, because when all is said and done the Putin presidency has been an interlude of considerable banality.