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In 1223, Genghis Khan’s army invaded the territory of the Kievan Rus. They established the Khanate of the Golden Horde and most of eastern Europe fell under Mongol control. It was under this oppressive regime that one principality rose to unite the people of Eastern Europe against Mongol rule.
Ivan III joined the various princes together and they overthrew the Khanate. He went on to triple the size of his territory, creating an empire. When Ivan married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, he established his new territory as the successor state of the Roman Empire. His main city, Moscow, was nicknamed the “Third Rome.” Ivan the Great and his two successors, his son Vasili, and his grandson Ivan the Terrible, expanded Russian territory and centralized power as an authoritarian ruler. Since then Russia has been a land of conquest, corruption, and control. It took just three generations to create the Russian Empire under the rule of the all-powerful tsar, and 500 years later we’re still dealing with the consequences.
Tired of hearing about Russia in the news everyday? Sorry, I can’t help you there. But if you vaguely know that you’re supposed to hate Russia and think Putin is bad, but you aren’t completely sure why – then I got you. Today we’re looking at Russia since the end of the Cold War. Sorry – no Rocky references in this episode, but I will reference Putin shirtless no less than twice.
Welcome to Season 2 of Anti-Social Studies. I’m calling it Historical Context and it’s my opportunity to talk about whatever I feel like talking about, thank you very much. I’ll pick out a new topic each week and give you the backstory. Maybe you’ll understand the world today. At the very least, I hope you’ll be able to pepper your cocktail party conversations with facts that trick people into thinking you know what you’re talking about. That’s the key, kids.
Today’s episode is “Russia, or ‘What the Helsinki?!’” This is Anti-Social Studies. I’m Emily Glankler. Settle in and let’s get some historical context.
Act 1: 1990s Russia
I joke that the 90s in U.S. History should be called “The Seinfeld Years” because they were sort of about nothing. In Russia, the 90s should be called “The Daria Years” because things were bleak, y’all.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the territory that had taken 500 years to build up dissolved into 15 countries. The largest country that was created is the Russian Federation (what we just call “Russia”). But there are many Russian-speaking people living in the newly independent states and a lot of people in Russia who see that land as rightfully theirs. But when has nationalism and border problems ever caused a problem, right?
Russia came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in a terrible economic situation. Price controls led to massive shortages of essential products and major cities had to introduce rationing for the first time since World War II.
The president of Russia was a reformer named Boris Yeltsin. His idea was that the Russian economy needed “shock therapy” – rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak. He abruptly ended all price controls, cut government spending, and opened up foreign trade. All of this had the immediate effect of devastating the standard of living for most of the Russian population. The ensuing depression was at least on level, if not worse than, the Great Depression in the U.S. and the terrible hyperinflation in Germany before Hitler rose to power. So, not good.
The most important aspect for our purposes of this new economy was rapid privatization – or selling off state-owned businesses to the highest bidder. They quickly sold off 45,000 government-owned businesses – lucrative industries like energy, mining, and communication. What they ended up with was a new oligarchy (or rule by a small group of people) of insanely rich tycoons who owned the majority of Russian business. And they were (still are) backed by criminal mafias or Western investors.
Let me be more specific here: 46% of Russia’s GDP was controlled by companies that were owned by just 8 families. 8 men owned half of Russia’s wealth. These are “the Oligarchs” and they have enormous influence in the Russian government.
These are the people you might have been hearing about in relation to the investigation into the Trump campaign and its possible ties to Russia. People close to the Trump campaign have met in the past with Russian oligarchs but it’s difficult to know if they were colluding on behalf of the government or just doing some business on the side. It makes it really hard to investigate the Russian government because they have so many informal advocates and middlemen. The oligarchs almost never have an official government position but they have so much influence that it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking with them without feeling like they are basically speaking to an official representative of Russia.
For example, 11 days before Trump’s inauguration, his personal lawyer and human punching bag Michael Cohen met with a Russian oligarch at Trump Tower. According to video footage and another person at the meeting, they discussed their mutual desire to improve U.S.-Russian relations. Just a few weeks later, the Russian oligarch’s American investor awarded Cohen with a $1 million consulting contract. What is he consulting them on? Maybe the oligarch has some personal matters that need to be attended to, a la Stormy Daniels. But the FBI is concerned that “consulting” really just means speaking informally as a backchannel on behalf of the Trump Administration. But this is the point: it’s done in such a circuitous way that we may never know. The oligarch is not technically a Russian government official and he didn’t actually hire Michael Cohen – his American friend who invests money on his behalf did. It’s a mess. Anyway, back to the early 90s.
Politically, the Russian legislature was disjointed and incoherent. They opposed Yeltsin and he responded by, you know, calling up the military. Tanks shelled the Russian White House – that’s actually what it’s called – and then he adopted a new constitution in 1993 that gave way more power to the executive branch.
Let’s talk about this for a second because it’s important. The Russian government is, in many ways, set up very similar to our own. They have three branches of government, a president who is elected by the people, a legislature made up of two houses that enact laws, etc. etc. Just watch Schoolhouse Rock.
But, here’s the thing: in the U.S. the president is the head of just the executive branch – the other two branches are separate and act as a check on his power. But the head of the executive branch in Russia is actually the prime minister – he’s deals with the day-to-day BS of running a government while the president dictates overall policy. This is because the president in Russia is actually above all three branches of government. It would be as if Trump were the head of the executive, legislative, and judicial branch. Whoa.
So in addition to the traditional executive powers of a president, the Russian president can also do a few other things. His appointed prime minister forms a government in his name, which means that whoever is in charge wields a ton of informal power. People who want jobs definitely want to be on his good side. And the president also has power over the legislature. He can dissolve the Duma – the lower house, call for new elections, and submit a referendum – or public vote – directly to the people. Imagine if our president could just dissolve the House of Representatives and call for a new election whenever he wanted. Congressmen would want to stay on his good side so that they could keep their job.
On the Kremlin’s website it describes the president as an overall “coordinator” of the three branches of government who is “distanced by law” from each branch. (The Kremlin is the general nickname for the Russian government – it’s like when Americans say “Washington” when they mean the whole political system.) The president’s job, according to the Kremlin, is to make sure each branch is doing their job and, if not, redirect them. It’s an enormous amount of power, especially when it’s wielded by someone who is politically savvy and not above using less-than-ethical methods to maintain that power. But we’ll get to Putin in a second.
Throughout the 1990s, Russia was in the depths of an economic crisis that was only made worse by the Russian financial crisis of 1998. At this point, the Russian Central Bank had to default on its debt. Inequality was skyrocketing in the late 90s and the once-proud Soviet Union was struggling to stay afloat. Also, since the breakup of the USSR, regions that Russia had viewed as part of their territory had broken off to form their own self-determined nation-states, taking with them Soviet resources, weapons, and sometimes a rather large population of ethnic Russians.
Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin was unpopular with a lot of Russians because he worked so closely with the West – remember, the Russians had seen us as the evil enemy for 50 years. Just imagine how we would react if all of a sudden our president was super chummy with our old Cold War nemesis. Well, I guess you don’t have to imagine it. We don’t like it very much.
Also, it didn’t help that their president, Yeltsin, seemed to have some difficulty staying sober. On a 1995 visit to Washington D.C., Yeltsin was found in the middle of the night out on Pennsylvania Avenue in his underwear, trying to get a cab to go get pizza. I mean, we’ve all been there. We just weren’t the president of Russia at the time, thank god.
All of this is to say that when Boris Yeltsin announced he was resigning in 1999, his replacement stepped into a position of enormous power in a country living through the wake of a massive military defeat and humiliation, while experiencing an economic and national identity crisis. Sound familiar? 1930s Germany, anyone?
But I’m sure it will be fine.
Act 2: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
It’s hard for me to imagine that Putin was ever a child. He strikes me more as the never-aging vampire sort of guy – and not in a sparkly Edward way. You should look up images of him as a child – he looks exactly the same and it is both hilarious and creepy.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He had an incredibly difficult childhood – as many people growing up in the Soviet Union did. Both of his older brothers died before he was born – one in infancy and the other of diphtheria during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. His mother was a factory worker and his father was drafted to a submarine fleet in the Soviet Navy, during which he was severely wounded. His grandmother was killed by Germans occupying part of eastern Europe in 1941 and two of his uncles disappeared at the war front, presumed dead but never found. It was bleak.
Growing up in poverty, it was Putin’s dream to be like the Russian spies he saw in movies. He became a master at the sport of sambo and a black belt in judo and he learned to speak fluent German. After graduating from law school he joined the KGB. He eventually served in East Germany in the 1980s undercover as a translator. I want this part of his life to be more exciting, but he basically had a low-level desk job. He collected newspaper clippings that probably just went into a pile somewhere back in the motherland.
What is important about this time in his life is the type of power he witnessed growing up in the Soviet Union. There was no democracy and no constraints on the power of Soviet leaders. There was also a lot of corruption – to get ahead you had to make connections and know people. Growing up poor, he was highly motivated to pull himself into the upper echelons of Russian society and bring his friends, mostly from the KGB, with him. When the USSR fell there were still these traditions of corruption, absolute power, and rule by a few, but the ideology of communism that held up these ideas into a structure were gone. How can you justify this now if you don’t have some noble cause to pursue? In the 1990s, the ideology of communism was replaced by a mad race for power and money – and Putin won.
After the Soviet Union fell apart he got a job working for the Mayor of St. Petersburg, his hometown. With his KGB connections, Putin served as the strong man who kept the city in check. He used his position as Deputy Mayor to rig the system in favor of his friends in business and criminal organizations. This makes him really popular with the oligarchs who are going to support his unexpected rise to the presidency.
By 1996 he was working for President Yeltsin. He was quiet, smart, and kept a low profile. As others around him opposed the president or tried to grab power in a more obvious way, Putin was always there waiting. According to friends, Putin never had any real aspirations of political power – he wanted to make money. But after he was named Prime Minister under Yeltsin, he realized that maybe he could both.
When Putin was named prime minister – head of the executive branch – most people in Russia were like, “Who?” He was completely unknown until he took on Chechnya.
Chechnya was a territory that had informally seceded from Russia in the 90s. Side note: Chechnya has been resisting Russian conquest since 1785 so they’re getting pretty fed up. They developed terrorist organizations and rebels that pushed into Russia and attacked the border. In 1999 deadly bombings killed 300+ Russians and Prime Minister Putin blamed Chechen separatists. He went on TV constantly to blame Chechnya and rally support for a military response. His approval ratings shot up from 2% to 45%. That same year, Russia invades Chechnya and reconquers it as a subject state. Here’s the kicker: there is some evidence that suggests that the Russian government actually committed the bombings, knowing that it would unite the nation behind a strong central leader like Putin.
There were other more obvious successors to Yeltsin, but many of them had been critical of some of his policies. Also, the oligarchs viewed Putin as a prime candidate to manipulate and gain more wealth and power, based on his experience as Deputy Mayor in St. Petersburg. To the public, Yeltsin was old, sick, and talked a lot while Putin was young, athletic, reserved, and incredibly sharp. Worrying that Putin might not be elected by the general public since he was still so relatively unknown, Yeltsin stepped down and named Putin “acting president” in 2000.
Note: the Russian Constitution says that the president is cannot serve more than two consecutive 4-year terms. But it doesn’t limit how many non-consecutive terms someone can serve. So Putin was president of Russia from 2000 to 2008. Then, since he couldn’t run again, his guy Medvedev became president and named in Prime Minister and he kept Putin-ing all over Russia. He was still in charge in everything but name. Then, when Medvedev’s 4-year term was up, he didn’t run again and Putin won the presidency by a suspiciously high margin in 2012. He just recently won reelection that will make him president until 2020. But regardless of title, Putin has ruled Russia since 2000.
One of the first things Putin had to do to have real power was to take down the oligarchs. Or, not take them down, but make them subservient to him. Some oligarchs opposed him, often citing state corruption and hinting at some of Putin’s own personal ties to businesses and criminal organizations that were making him a lot of money. Putin wasn’t having any of that.
The best example of this is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the early 2000s he was the head of the Yukos Oil Company and one of the richest men in the world. His company was well respected by western business and had enormous influence and power in Russia. In a 2003 roundtable discussion between Putin and the 8 oligarchs, Khodorkovsky makes a presentation about how bad government corruption is in Russia. Khodorkovsky claims he had no idea at the time that Putin himself was getting rich off of the presidency, which seems unlikely, but either way he struck a nerve. You should go watch this discussion on YouTube – they filmed it. Putin is early into his presidency and seems strangely meek around the oligarchs. When they bring up political corruption, he is visibly uncomfortable. He fidgets with his papers, stumbles on his words – he might as well be sweating and pulling at the collar of his suit.
But don’t worry – he recovered quickly. After that meeting Khodorkovsky was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His company was taken, broken up, with some of it being sold to some of Putin’s friends and other parts kept for the government’s profit. After this, the oligarchs realized that it was in their best interest that their vision and Putin’s vision were aligned. They mostly kept quiet about state corruption and Putin mostly kept out about their business dealings.
Publicly, most Russians didn’t know all of this backstory. What they saw was a man with no political background rising to power unexpectedly and taking on corruption and large monopolies. Even though he was also corrupt and was making a ton of money below the table, from their perspective Putin was “their guy” tackling inequality head on. This is just one of many similarities I found between Putin and Trump during my research. They both have an extremely loyal base that sees them as an anti-politician who is “draining the swamp” and fighting for them – even though all evidence points to the contrary.
In terms of diplomacy, in the first years of his presidency, Putin also appeared to want to reconnect with Europe and the U.S. According to him, his two goals were to “make Russia a strong state again and I want to reconnect it with the west.” He spent the first few years of his presidency rebuilding the economy, partly by taking down some of the oligarchs (we’ll get to that in a second), and buddying up to western leaders like George W. Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair. He wanted respect for himself and Russia on the global stage and he seemed to be getting it. But that changed once he began addressing another goal of his: to reunite the Russian Empire.
When the USSR fell, Russia lost control of 2 million square miles of territory. In Putin’s view, and the view of many Russians, this wasn’t about self determination and the rise of new nations. This was theft and the separation of many ethnic or linguistic Russians from their motherland of Russia. Putin refers to people living in many eastern European countries as “co-patriots.” It’s like Manifest Destiny – Russian style.
One of the reasons Putin wanted to regain control over those former satellite states was because he wanted to protect Russia against NATO. Remember, NATO’s main goal for the last 50 years had been to contain the Soviet Union. They were the bad guys who had laid siege to Soviet ambitions. Putin is now worried that they will gain influence with the newly independent states of eastern Europe and so he consistently intervenes in those countries democratic process. Sometimes he just makes sure that one of “his guys” – someone who will stay loyal to Putin – wins control, but other times he pulls out the military.
One example of this is in Georgia – the country not the state. Although with the way things are going… In 2003 a revolution in Georgia overthrew Putin’s ally and put in charge a reformer that was friendly with the West. The new president refused to be a vassal state to Russia and his government was supported by some of Russia’s old enemies, namely the United States. President George W. Bush asserted Georgia’s right to self determination, which Putin saw as a stab in the back.
Remember the context: Putin grew up during the Cold War when the US was supporting anti-Russian regimes, sometimes really bad guys, all around the world. Now it looked like they were doing the same thing in eastern Europe, backed by Russia’s adversary NATO. If you remember all of the U.S. interventions around the world during the Cold War, it’s not such a crazy thing that Putin didn’t trust them at their word that they were just supporting Georgia from afar.
It was events like this that made Putin openly adversarial to the West. From his point of view, he had tried to “play their game.” He had given press conferences and invited them to visit him in Russia. But the West was still up to their old Cold War tricks. In 2005, Putin turned his focus inward and began openly shunning the West. His new catchphrase became, “Putin is Russia, and Russia is Putin.” It’s like something straight out of 1984.
For the last 15 years or so, Russia has invaded surrounding territories and supported regimes like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, flouting sanctions and other general disapproval from the West. And a lot of people in Russia love it.
Meanwhile, while a lot of Americans were ignoring Russia entirely – “I mean, the Cold War is over. It’s all about China and North Korea now!” – Putin was flexing his muscle and developing an arsenal of weapons to bring Russia back onto the world stage. And it’s only been in the last few years that most people in the West have begun to realize how much we should have been paying attention.
Act 3: Russia Today
To understand Russia today, let’s take a trip to Ukraine. Quick note: The country is called “Ukraine” – for some reason we all want to put a “The” in front of it. Anyway. Ukraine is a large country in eastern Europe bordering Russia. There is a peninsula attached to Ukraine called Crimea. It sort of dangles down from Ukraine between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and it has been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the late 1700s.
Russia fought a war against the Ottoman Empire for complete control of the peninsula appropriately called the Crimean War. They lost – but only because Britain and France stepped in to help the Ottomans, fearful of Russia expanding into eastern Europe. Turns out that was a pretty legitimate fear because after the Ottoman Empire fell thanks to World War I, the Soviet Union expanded into its former territories in Eastern Europe. Ukraine became a part of the USSR in 1920 and wouldn’t become independent until the fall of the communist bloc in 1991.
During its time as a Soviet state, 10 million people starved to death in just two years. Stalin’s agricultural policies were so terrible that the “Bread Basket of Europe,” as Ukraine was called, couldn’t feed its own people. Also under Soviet control, the entire ethnic population of the Crimean Peninsula was deported to Central Asia and replaced by ethnic Russians. So when Putin today talks about all of the Russian co-patriots living in Crimea who want to be part of Russia… yeah. They’re all there because Russia put them there.
Back to the 1990s – after having millions of its people killed and ethnically cleansed, Ukraine was pretty excited to be independent for the first time in a few hundred years. 91% of the population voted to separate from Russia – good choice. But Russia was not happy about it. It is a rich agricultural region, has a ton of coastline along the Black Sea, and almost all of Russia’s pipelines that take oil to Europe run through Ukraine. Also, Ukraine was just seen by Russians as “theirs.” It’s kind of like how Americans viewed Cuba before Castro’s Revolution. We knew it was technically independent but we still wanted to treat it like the glamorous part of Florida where we could listen to Frank Sinatra, sip mojitos, and gamble. We tried to assassinate Castro. We wanted Cuba back. Putin wants Ukraine back. Or at least the Crimean Peninsula.
In 2004, the Orange Revolution kicked out Putin’s guy and put in place pro-West president Victor Yushchenko. Remember the episode from Season 1 where I talked about the words you shouldn’t say if you are a Latin American leader who doesn’t want to get overthrown by the CIA. So there are similar rules if you are an eastern European leader who doesn’t want to get poisoned by Putin. Just don’t say “I’m pro-West” or “Yay NATO!” or something along those lines.
So Yushchenko was like “Yay NATO!” and so Putin had him poisoned… allegedly. But he survived and won reelection! At that point, Putin accepted that he might not get the whole country back, but he was definitely going to get Crimea. Remember how the Soviet Union deported everyone from Crimea and replaced them with Russians? Of course you do, I just told you that like 2 minutes ago. So Putin now uses that as an excuse to take Crimea. It would be like if the United States sent a bunch of sugar planters to Hawaii, encouraged them to revolt, and then were like, “See? Everyone in Hawaii wants to be part of America!” Wait. We actually did that? Shoot.
When the Orange Revolution started, Russia launched an online propaganda campaign to discredit the pro-West president of Ukraine. This campaign was designed to divide the country and stoke fears amongst the Russian-speaking population that made up 37% of Ukraine. He figured if he could divide Ukraine by exacerbating pre-existing societal tensions, it would be easier for him to control the side that would flock closer to him. Sound familiar?
When ethnic Russians in Crimea began to revolt against the Ukrainan president, Putin sent in plain-clothes soldiers disguised as Crimean rebels. They helped push the revolt forward. Then, using the chaos as an excuse, Putin marched Russian troops into the peninsula to protect ethnic Russians. How nice of him. In 2014 Crimea held a closely-watched referendum where the majority voted to leave Ukraine and be part of Russia. Putin was like, “Take that Ottoman Empire!”
The invasion and annexation of Crimea is a big deal. It’s the first time since World War Two that a European border had been altered by force. And it turned out to be a win-win for Putin. He gained territory and more access to the Black Sea. And his base in Russia praises him for bringing glory back to Russia after a rough few decades. In their eyes, between Chechnya, Georgia, and now Crimea, Putin is reuniting the empire – getting the band back together at gunpoint.
The only problem was the West. They were not OK with Russia annexing Crimea and they put sanctions on Russia as punishment. Russian currency was plummeting, the energy industry was collapsing; what could Putin do? If only he had allies in Europe and the U.S…
So, why does Russia care about Ukraine so much? First, their people have been pretty consistently pushing for autonomy and democracy for decades now. And they’re right on the border with Russia. Putin is scared that some of those ideas might seep into Russia (they already are – but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
And, like I’ve already mentioned, Ukraine was the agricultural center of the Soviet Union. Historical memory is an interesting thing – generations of Russians spent their whole life relying on Ukraine for food. Even though the Soviet Union is gone, that feeling – fear of losing the “breadbasket” is still there. And, it’s also just a pride thing. Who are they to distance themselves from Russia? At least that’s how Putin sees it.
The real question you might be asking right about now is – why do we care about Ukraine? My snooty answer is, “Isn’t the pursuit of knowledge enough for you? Do you need a reason to learn about things going on in the world?… You do?… You are exhausted from keeping up with the ever-changing geopolitical landscape of the 21st century and don’t have time to watch three Putin documentaries and read the entire Wikipedia page on Ukraine? That’s fair, I guess.
The real reason why we should learn about what happened in Ukraine is because it’s happening to us right now. Crimea was a kind of training ground for Putin’s new style of warfare – maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called cyber warfare and it’s terrifying and confusing and I think it means the robots will take over soon.
Putin wields a few methods of control, aside from the classics: straight-up corruption, ties to criminal organizations, and military invasion. Putin’s real power is information. Within Russia he controls as much of the media as possible. All news channels are state-owned and are just propaganda machines in support of his government. Hence, all the footage of Putin riding a horse through a river shirtless instead of reporting on the millions of dollars he’s made while in office. And Putin realizes the power of the information age. Today in Russia, people are in jail because they “liked” or “shared” a post on a social media site that went against Putin’s narrative.
He has also developed the most sophisticated cyber army in the world. In 2008, it shut down the internet of the entire country of Georgia while Russian troops invaded. Russians have repeatedly hacked the West – stealing information from the Pentagon and hacking into politicians’ email accounts. They’ve hacked into critical infrastructure across the country including the power grid. But don’t worry: our national power grid is so disjointed across counties and states that it would be impossible for them to shut the country down entirely – federalism for the win!
It’s important to note quickly that the first major documented cyber attack was committed by the United States. Put a flag in that Putin – we got there first! The NSA, in conjunction with the CIA and Israeli intelligence, hacked into Iranian nuclear facilities and inserted malware called Stuxnet. Can you tell I have no idea what I’m talking about? Do you insert malware? I’m picturing it like a physical object – a black flash drive covered in skulls or something. Anyway, they stuck the malware somewhere and it caused a few hundred nuclear centrifuges to silently accelerate until they destroyed themselves. But this isn’t an episode about our cyber warfare. Back to Russia!
And of course in 2016 they hacked into the the Democratic National Committee’s email and published – via WikiLeaks – emails that fueled the growing divide within the Democratic Party. For example, some of the emails seemed to hint that the DNC leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ campaign. This is the event that led to the recent (like in mid July) indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents. Fun fact: these agents are part of a cyber espionage group known as Fancy Bear, which is what I imagine Putin calls himself when he compliments himself in the mirror.
Russia has been responsible for hacks, information leaks, cutting off vital services – all online – for years now. In Estonia in 2007, they essentially shut down the entire country. Online banking was inaccessible, government employees couldn’t email each other, and media outlets couldn’t distribute news. And that was just because they had had a diplomatic argument about a Soviet war memorial in Estonia.
The point of all of this is that Putin has spent the last 10 years developing these capabilities and practicing them on smaller countries. And he also uses this tactic on his own people to convince them of his version of the story. During the pro-democratic revolution in Ukraine, Russia distributed online propaganda that made it seem as though ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis were behind the revolt. Disinformation and division, especially via social media and fake online news reports, is Putin’s bread and butter.
Do people in Russia oppose Putin? Do they see his corruption? Of course they do. In the most recent presidential election, seven other people ran against him. But even though there were eight total candidates – Putin won 77% of the vote. If that seems suspiciously high, good job – you’ve been paying attention!
So people do oppose Putin. But remember – the president of Russia is in charge of all branches of government – he can help make laws, administer them, and bring people to “justice” (air quotes). The most famous dissenters are the Russian feminist protest group Pussy Riot. This is a small group of about a dozen women who stage guerrilla performances and acts of public protest.
Their most controversial act was in 2012 when they staged a “punk prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior against the Orthodox Church’s support of the government and the lack of separation between Church and state. Three women were convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison. Most recently, four women dressed up as police officers and stormed the field during the World Cup final.
So Putin grew up poor with the collapse of the Soviet Union looming in the distance. Just as he was starting to work his way up in his career in the KGB, the USSR ceased to exist. He found his footing when his skills at manipulation and his desire to get rich combined nicely with a job in politics. And he has spent the last 20 years trying to get Russia back on equal ground with the West. And it would appear that he has done that. In 2016, a senior Kremlin advisor told the Russian national security conference in Moscow that Russia was working on new cyber strategies that was the equivalent of testing a nuclear bomb and would “allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.” Even if that’s exaggeration, it can’t be good.
And what are the two things that the international community could do to help Putin’s cause? Lift sanctions and weaken NATO. So Putin has also turned his cyber army toward the West, distributing propaganda, fueling division, and influencing elections so that far-right candidates are winning across Europe. But the icing on the top of the cake for Putin? The election of Donald Trump.
Putin has built a world where Russia is relevant and powerful again and the world let it happen. He used his cyber army to support far-right candidates across Europe and in the United States. His cyber officials used their power to influence Brexit voters – hacking into the emails of leaders who wanted to stay with the EU and stoking xenophobic fears about immigrants and Syrian refugees that possibly swayed people in the middle toward leaving the liberal EU.
And in the United States, Russia definitely wanted Trump to win. He said it himself on live TV just a few weeks ago in Helsinki. When asked, “Did you want President Trump to win?” he responded very quickly and emphatically, “Yes I did.” Of course he did! Trump campaigned on isolationist policies that would turn the U.S. away from entangling alliances with Europe, like NATO. Trump himself is also very clearly a fan of Putin. Here are just a few examples…
In 2013, Trump tweeted, “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?”
In 2014, Trump said on Fox Business, “We just left Moscow,” Trump said. “He could not have been nicer. He was so nice and so everything. But you have to give him credit that what he’s doing for that country in terms of their world prestige is very strong.”
In that same interview, Trump called the invasion of Crimea “so smart. When you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, OK, ‘We’ll go and take it over.’ And he really goes step by step by step, and you have to give him a lot of credit.”
In 2015, he said, “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he is getting an ‘A,’
Of course Putin wanted him to win! Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia as they attempted to sway the election? I have no idea. We’ll have to wait for Robert Mueller whenever he emerges from his basement where he spends hours weeping into a pile of Tweet transcripts – that’s how I imagine the investigation.
But what we saw in Helsinki a few weeks ago shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a lot of ways, Trump and Putin are weirdly similar. They both were raised in the Cold War era where strength won out. They both were raised on the outside – Trump was never taken as seriously in the business world as he would have liked and Putin grew up poor and only made it to a low-level translator post in the KGB. They both have enormous self confidence – Putin’s is more reserved but any 65 year old who publishes that many photographs of himself shirtless definitely has an ego. And they both gained power by making deals and surrounding themselves with loyal “yes men.” When someone said “No”? You’re fired. They both have felt disrespected and not taken seriously by the establishment – for Trump, that was Washington and the upper echelons of the business world, For Putin, he was pushed aside by the West. And now they’re out on a mission to prove everyone wrong.
In my humble opinion, I think that the best way to understand Trump’s relationship with Putin is the simplest explanation: he likes him. Trump admires Putin. Putin has made it. He has commanded respect and is viewed by the world as strong and a person to be taken seriously. When Putin has been accused of violence, like the invasion of Crimea, or assassinating opponents, Trump’s response is consistently to praise his strong leadership style. For years Trump has commented about how great Putin is, how he wants to be his friend, and how Putin would probably think Trump was a “genius.” It’s so simple. Trump likes Putin – he’s the “cool kid” and Trump wants to be his friend.
On a slightly more complex note, maybe Trump sees Putin as the ultimate challenge to showcase his “Art of the Deal.” In various comments over the years, Trump has stated that the problem between the U.S. and Russia was just that Putin hated Barack Obama and so nothing could ever get done. Before he was president, Trump promised that Putin would like him and Trump could work with him. At the same time that he was praising Putin’s skills in manipulation and saying that he was “outsmarting” the United States, he was also bragging that he could negotiate with Putin. He wouldn’t be outsmarted. God I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that room in Helsinki. We may never know exactly what the relationship between Trump and Putin is, but it’s OK. It’s not like the fate of our planet hangs in the balance or anything…
Should we be afraid of a war with Russia? No. But should we be alert about Russia expanding its power and influence across eastern Europe and central Asia? Yes. It’s like 1930s all over again. We have a known dictator who willfully abuses human rights in his own country. He has invaded and taken territory by arguing that he is just reuniting the Russian ethnic group. I know it’s extreme to compare anyone to Hitler but, come on.
And the “meddling” in the 2016 election is not the end of things. Quick note: I take issue with the term “meddling” – it makes it sound trivial. It’s not. Did they hack into voting machines and change votes? No – at least as far as all the evidence we have tells us. But they exploited our society’s divisions to help make the 2016 campaign one of the most brutal, polarizing, and exhausting in our history. That doesn’t mean Americans aren’t also to blame for how 2016 went – but it didn’t help that there were hackers halfway around the world pushing false stories that just made each side angrier and has made it harder for us to come together in the aftermath.
The best thing you can do to fight Putin? Don’t play his game. Don’t fall into your own online echo chamber – that comments section is not going to change anyone’s mind, especially since half those people are really probably just bots using an algorithm to say the most offensive things possible. Instead, seek out other perspectives. Assert your freedom of speech, something people in Russia can’t do. And do your research. If something you see online seems fake or too good to be true, it probably is. If you don’t have the time to do your research, just keep listening to my podcast where I will do the Wikipedia-ing for you. I promise.
To be continued.