Window on Eurasia: Two Faces of Vladimir Putin

by Paul A. Goble  |  May 3, 2005  |  ARTICLES

President Vladimir Putin’s colorful suggestion last week that if Riga continues to press its territorial demands against the Russian Federation, Moscow won’t give Latvia land but rather only „a dead donkey’s ears” attracted widespread attention not only in Moscow but internationally as well.

And the Russian president added in equally emotional language that such demands now were especially inappropriate and wrong because  „Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Europe had given away tens of thousands of square kilometers of its historical territories.”

But during the very same media appearance, a May 23rd visit to „Komsomol’skaya pravda” on the occasion of that paper’s 80th anniversary, Putin made an acknowledgement that is likely to prove far more important in the long run -- but one that so far has attracted little attention even from those who might be expected to care the most about it. .

Responding to a question from one of that paper’s editors about the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia and other former Soviet republics, Putin again began with a colorful Russian saying about not crying over the loss of your hair if you have lost your head but immediately became serious:

"All the countries which you have named are former republics of the Soviet Union.  But I want to stress that these are former republics.  Today they are independent countries.  This means that we recognize their right to define independently their foreign, domestic and defense policies.”

And the Russian leader continued: „All foreign bases, if they are not occupation forces, are maintained there with the agreement and at the request of partner countries.  And if there is no such desire on the part of our partners, then we have no choice” but to withdraw them, although he added that he hoped no one would bring „pressure” to bear on Russia to do so.

For Putin, as for most Russians, any territorial claim against their country is naturally a far more sensitive issue than the withdrawal of Russian forces from the former Soviet republics, however disturbing that is for many of them. Consequently, Putin’s paired responses may be nothing more than an accurate reflection of his feelings and theirs.

But there is another and more intriguing possibility, one that was suggested by Moscow analyst Tat’yana Stanovaya a few days after Putin’s remarks.  In an essay posted online, she suggested that Putin may have made a self-sconscious choice to adopt these two different approaches in so public a way (http://www.politcom.ru, May 25).

By using colorful language to condemn the Latvian demands, Putin guaranteed the kind of media attention that will show himself to the Russian people as a leader who shares their concerns and fears, even as his more measured but less widely reported comments indicated that he is prepared to deal more calmly with Russia’s declining power.

If that analysis is correct, then Putin would appear to have accepted the advice of Fedor Luk’yanov, the editor of the journal „Russia in Global Politics.” In an April 28 essay in „Izvestiya,” Luk’yanov urged the Kremlin to recognize that Russia’s declining power in the former Soviet space is „to a large extent not a political but a psychological” problem.

Pointing out that Moscow is not in a position to stop or reverse this decline anytime soon and that suggestions to the contrary are dangerous and counterproductive, Lukyanov urged that the Russian leadership study the ways that other countries have dealt with a withdrawal from empire.

"It is no accident,” he wrote, that the British carefully organized ceremonies on the occasion of their departure from their colonies „lest the impression be created that they had been forced to leave. [And because they did so,] the British left with their head held high and a feeling of their own worth.”

"The psychological importance of such behavior is enormous,” Luk’yanov continued, and this is a lesson that the current leadership of the Russian Federation must learn and use to help the Russian people get through this particular and largely unprecedented phase of their national life (http://main.izvestia.ru/print/?id=1695478).

Putin’s comments at „Komsomolskaya pravda” suggest that he may be edging toward just such an understanding, but of course, in the nature of things, he can do so effectively only by not directly acknowledging publicly or perhaps even to himself that that is precisely what he is doing.