by Gordon M. Hahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entire career, from the Soviet KGB in Dresden to the Russian presidency in Moscow, has displayed bold risk-taking. In situations where he has been under great pressure to make difficult decisions, he has repeatedly demonstrated a propensity or ability to act promptly, decisively, and with considerable effectiveness. A few examples from key turning points in Putin’s political life will suffice to demonstrate these points. On the more humorous side, but perhaps no less indicatively, Putin almost married a college girlfriend but at the last minute reneged, leaving her standing at the altar.
His first political test came with the fall of the Berlin wall, which threatened the KGB’s outpost in Dresden where Putin had been stationed since 1985 to recruit agents undercover as deputy director of the House of Soviet-German Freindship. As mobs of protesters turned their attention to the KGB building after storming Dresden’s Stasi headquarters, Putin went outside to confront the “aggressively-minded crowd” and answered their questions. He then went back inside and called the Soviet military base for help but was told that they could do nothing without an order from Moscow and that “Moscow is silent.” “Hours” later troops arrived and the crowd quietly dispersed (N. Gevorkyan and A. Kolesnikov, Ot Pervogo Litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym (Moscow: Vagrius, 2000), p. 71.]
Incidentally, a different, apparently embellished version of events makes Putin’s conduct out to be even bolder and, not surprisingly, more menacing and aggressive. In the Peter Baker’s and Susan Glasser’s recounting, Putin took a pistol from a security guard when he went outside to confront the crowd and “(p)ointedly cocking the gun, he warned that he would open fire on anyone who trtied to scale the fence…. Back inside Putin tried to obtain instructions on what to do,” bringing the famous response “Moscow is silent.” The authors delete Putin’s request for troops and the troops’ arrival leading to the crowd’s quiet dispersal described by Putin. [Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution (New York: Scribner, 2005), pp. 44-5).] Baker and Glasser cite page 79 of First Person [Vladimir Putin, Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), p. 390, footnote 20.], the English-language translation of Ot Pervogo Litsa, the extended biographical interview with Putin published shortly after Putin’s rise to the presidency. I cite the Russian version. There is no mention whatsoever of a pistol in Putin’s recounting of the Dresden event in either the English translation cited by Baker and Glasser or the Russian-language version cited by the present author. Even without the pistol and the cocking, Putin’s actions were sufficiently bold and risky and seemed to be effective in calming the mob down until the cavalry arrived.
Along with his new mentor and boss, democratic St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, deputy mayor Putin played a leading role in helping to defeat in St. Petersburg the Moscow-centered hardline August 1991 coup against reformers led by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and pro-democracy revolutionaries led in the moderate wing by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The coup plot was led by Putin’s still then formal boss, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and Putin responded by writing his second resignation letter to the KGB, risking arrest by driving to the airport to meet Sobchak who returned to St. Petersburg from Moscow to organize the resistance in the ‘second capitol’ to the coup-plotters, and touring the city’s enterprises and businesses to drum up pro-deocracy supporters to attend the mass demonstration on Palace Square and to undertake other measures around the city to resist the authoritarian takeover. Putin has stated that he and Sobchak also oversaw some distribution of weapons to combat the coup. (Gevorkyan and Kolesnikov, Ot Pervogo Litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym, pp. 84-5 and Baker and Glasser, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, pp. 46-7.) Although many in Russia took risks in those days when choosing either side, Putin’s actions were certainly decisive, bold, seemingly effective, and fraught with great risk, given what would have been his fate if the GKChP had succeeded. Incidentally once more, per the oft-misquoted Putin statement about the collapse of the USSR being the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, Putin also ensured “a few months” after the coup collapsed that communists ceased hanging the Soviet flag on government buildings. (Gevorkyan and Kolesnikov, Ot Pervogo Litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym, p. 86.)
On 7 November 1997 it appears that Putin took another political risk in helping to spirit his mentor Sobchak out of the country after hardliners were moving to charge him with improper privatization of his apartment, that of his elder daughter’s, and his wife’s art studio. Compared to the massive corruption and numerous thefts of multi-billion dollar enterprises by Russia’s infamous oligarchs and former Soviet officials over the seven previous years, this was minor stuff. Sobchak flew to Paris ostensibly for heart treatment and returned two years later. Putin claimed in 2000 that he played no role (Gevorkyan and Kolesnikov, Ot Pervogo Litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym, p. 111.)
In reality, it is almost certain that Putin played a key role in his political mentor’s exodus. Sobchak flew out of St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport on a private plan without a passport check when he departed. Putin was the highest tanking official with close ties to Sobchak at the time. The risk for Putin comes in that the position in the Kremlin at the time was not all-powerful: Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration in charge of Main Control Directorate of the Presidential Property Management Department. Putin was still a politically vulnerable bureaucrat, rather than a high-powered politician. Caught on the losing side of a power struggle, his fall could be precipitate and permanent. Putin was able to get the charges against Sobchak dropped only after he became FSB chief (July 1998) and Secretary of the Security Council (March 1999), and Sobchak flew back to Russia in June 1999.
One reason Putin ended up on the winning side in the Yeltsin succession struggle and why he was promoted to Security Council Secretary was the loyalty to the Yeltsin clan he displayed in the position of FSB chief. In 1999 the succession struggle was at its peak and Russian General Prosecutor Yurii Skuratov in the midst of a series of investigations of corruption in and around Yeltsin, his immediate family, and the Kremlin, including the notorious oligarch Boris Berezovskii. Yeltsin attempted to have Skuratov removed from office but was overruled by the State Duma. On March 19 a video of Skuratov cavorting with prostitutes was aired on several of Russia’s main television channels, allowing Yeltsin to fire him. Skuratov’s dalliance with the ladies of the night took place in a FSB house, suggesting that the FSB was behind the videotaping and revelations. It is likely that this was the work of Berezovskii, and Putin had little choice but to play along, still being a Yeltsin family outsider.
Nevertheless, Putin had made the ‘right’ choice in terms of the family’s interests and thus had made a high-stakes play in cahoots with it. He, like they, if the play had been trumped would not only have never been Yeltsin’s choice as successor—a third or fourth successive one, albeit—but his career in Moscow would have met a quick end.
Putin’s decision to not only rebuff the jihadi invasion of Dagestan launched from the anarchic, lawless and jihadizing ultra-nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) but to continue into Chechnya and re-occupy the breakaway region was another bold, risky decision. There was a ready, more cautious alternative of stopping at the Terek River and setting up a line of defense there in order to isolate the terrorists in the less welcoming climes of mountainous southern Chechnya and thus create a buffer. Putin resisted this tempting compromise variant that might have proved less costly in military and political terms at least in the short-term and instead took the considerable risk of attempting to re-conquer, occupy and pacify Chechnya.
This leads us right into Putin’s next risky move: his move to rein in the oligarchs who were plundering the state and driving the agenda and dynamics of Russian politics and policy through their control of the main mass media organs. This is a well-known aspect of Putin’s rule and need not be detailed here. The main point is that the Berezovskiis, Khodorkovskiis, Potanins, Abramoviches, Gusinskiis, Smolenskiis, Freidmans, Avens, and others had great power and resources. Had they been able to temporarily overcome their differences, they could have gravely undermined this relatively green president with few allies outside the still somewhat weakened FSB. Moreover, Berezovskii had sunk his teeth into the FSB and controlled elements within the corruption and organized crime fighting departments. So even after becoming president—not to mention during he campaign—Putin remained vulnerable, especially with the war against Chechen and jihadi terrorists destabilizing the Caucasus, with its own organized crime syndicates, with which Berezovskii had contacts. A Berezovskii-funded assassination plot could have come onto the oligarch’s agenda, if Putin had not quickly moved against him once deciding to do so. These elements, as is well-known, had exhibited considerable capacity to kill over the previous decade.
There was little to no risk in Putin’s military response to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetiya and its massive, indiscriminate, hours-long artillery barrage of its capitol Tskhinvali, which killed several hundred civilians and 19 Russian peacekeeping troops. Little risk is probably the more accurate assessment, since we now have testimony that some in the George Bush Administration urged consideration of a U.S. military response of some sort, and the same figures may have lobbied more earnestly behind the scenes outside of meetings of the principle advisors and decisionmaker.
It seems to me there was more significant risk in his decision—after routing the U.S.-backed Georgian army to recognize the—to recognize the independence of South Ossetiya and Abkhaziya. This is not to say that he should have treated the former any differently from the latter. Surely, the reckless Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili would have treated both the same if he had the opportunity. If Russian had not responded and Georgia was able to re-take and pacify South Ossetiya or if Moscow decided not to protect Abkhaziya as it did South Ossetiya, then Saakashvili would certainly have attempted to repeat the act in Abkhaziya. It is to say that Putin did not leave himself the room for maneuver and change of policy he typically tries to maintain and he risked a much more harsh Western reaction than ultimately occurred. It was certainly reasonable to perceive a much more robust Western response—one similar, say, to that undertaken by the West after Russia’s reunification of Crimea with a broad sanctions regime and attempt to isolate Moscow diplomatically.
With the occupation and annexation of Crimea, Putin took a step that he must have known risked the very reaction the West might have had in response to the Georgian crisis and did in fact have in response to Crimea. Moreover, he risked much more depending on how things played out in what is an incredibly complex Ukrainian crisis and conflict. A few examples make the real and potential risks obvious: the possible effects of the sanctions on an already lethargic Russian economy and thus political stability, the more forward posture adopted by NATO, the possibility that hawkish elements in DC might prevail on the Obama administration (or the next one) to send offensive weapons to Kiev, and the unpredictability of radical elements both at home in the person of Russian ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists in both Russia and even more threateningly in Ukraine. All these risks could have coalesced (and perhaps still could coalesce) into a perfect storm, creating a political crisis, or one or more could have been or be in future magnified by the omnipresent possibility of ‘black swans’. All of the above can be said for Putin’s decision to surgically assist the Donbass insurgents after Kiev declared war against the Donbass counter-revolt.
Putin then added a new layer of risk onto the Ukrainian crisis and/or Russian-Western relations by deciding to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war. I have written about the very real concerns that I believe helped Putin make this decision. But there are grave risks—one of which we may have just seen with IS’s bringing down of the Russian airliner over the Sinai on October 31. This is not to say that IS—which has an affiliate in Russia’s North Caucasus—and other jihadists have, do, and will not have Russia in their cross-hairs. However, Russia’s intervention is likely to encourage jihadists to focus on hitting Russia more than they otherwise might have. Although it should not be overstated—since Russia is sticking largely to air operations so far—the possibility of falling into a quagmire emerges once you step in. A failure of the air campaign to save Assad, the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, and or significantly reduce the capacity of jihadists in Syria could lead to a decision to assist Assad with significant ground troops. From there the quagmire easily can become more encompassing.
There are at least five conclusion that can be drawn from the aforementioned analysis. First, Putin is not risk-averse. He is willing to take risks, especially in an effort to fulfill obligations to political patrons (KGB in Dresden, Yeltsin and Sobchak against opposing clans), protect political allies whether domestic or foreign (Sobchak, Yeltsin, Ossetiyans, ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Assad) and/or to roll back a security or geopolitical setback (Chechnya/Dagestan, South Ossetiya/Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria). Second, so far all the risks Putin has taken appear to fall within the range of the rational. Third, most of the more bold risks he has taken have been a response to challenges posed by others: the jihadi ChRI invasion of Dagestan; Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetiya; the numerous Western actions and violation of the 20 February 2014 EU-Russian-Ukrainian agreement that led to the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, prompting Putin’s counter-move in Crimea; and the new post-Maidan Kiev regime’s declaration of an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation against anti-Maidan protesters and a small number of insurgents in the Donbass without attempting seriously to negotiate. Fourth, a decision not to respond to these challenges also entailed considerable risks, demonstrating that Putin has been forced to weigh and measure risks and like other leaders often has limited options.
Finally, all his risk-taking decisions have been successes or are still playing out and have good potential for ending in success or at least as arguable successes, and in today’s spin-dominated politics an arguable success is often good enough.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct, www.russia-direct.org; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. His website is http://www.gordonhahn.com.