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His Beautiful Wickedness

Vladimir Putin. What’s going on in Vlad’s head? If you find yourself wondering these things in the middle of the night after you’ve solved Wordle and Worldle (if you thought Diego Garcia was a toughy, just wait until you have to search the world for a tiny oval island with no ports, bays, peninsulas or any other notable features. Good luck.)you might want to settle down with a few hours (ok, half a day) of The Putin Files by Frontline on YouTube.

The Putin Files is a series of interviews of journalists, state department officials, Russians etc, who have studied, met and/or worked with Putin. It’s like that metaphor of the 6 blind men and the elephant. Everybody has a different experience with him but they overlap to give an image of the wicked witch of the east.

Masha Gessen’s interview is the most interesting and insightful. She gives a chilling background of what it was like to live in post WWII St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. Putin’s childhood puts tough childhoods in a whole different category. I don’t mean to imply that his parents were abusive or that they had no money. Nobody’s parents had money back then. I mean that his parents lived through a siege that was horrific beyond what our charmed American lives can possibly comprehend.

Julia Ioffe was present during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine that ousted Victor Yanacovich.

Anthony Blinken recounts the history of the Obama administration’s interactions with Putin and Putin’s interactions with Hillary Clinton.

There are at least a half a dozen other interviews with John Brennan, Susan Glasser, Vladimir Kara-Murza and others.

The impression I get is of a kid who grew up very poor but whose traumatized parents indulged him. Something about his interactions with his parents reminds me of Alex DeLarge from Clockwork Orange. Vlad was an undersized feisty kid who learned how to beat the sh^# on the playground. His parents bought him a car when he went to college. Gessen speculated that he was the only person his age in St. Petersburg with a car.

Then he tries to get into the KGB at age 16. They tell him to come back after he’s got an education. He does.

The picture you get is of a man who is still playing King of the Mountain. Once you get to the top and you’re sitting on your hoard, you’re always watching out for people who want to steal it and topple your mountain. He’s greedy, vengeful, paranoid and deeply upset that the breakup of the Soviet Union means he has less of an empire to control. He’s tightly wound like a spring, very clever about finding out what makes other leaders tick and Bush Jr, Obama and Trump were no match for him.

Hillary Clinton drove him absolutely crazy. He hates her with a passion that feels like the worst sexism mixed with genuine fear. Hillary was/is an ambitious woman who was used to dealing with powerful men. It might have been easier for Putin to get into a guy’s head but Hillary might have been a lot less gullible and not nearly as complacent as her boss. When he couldn’t make any headway with her, he got into the heads of the guys who might vote for her.

Anyway, if you’re ever suffering insomnia, give the Putin Files a try. The series is 4 years old but remarkably prescient. All of these interviews feature Ukraine. Putin is determined to get it back and then Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Oh yeah, they will be his. But he is also terrified of public protests. There’s a ban on them now in Russia. Go to a protest and you’ll get 15 years in jail. We’ll see how long that keeps the peace.

Start with Gessen. There’s also a very recent Frontline from last week called Putin’s Way that provides a neat summary of Putin and his motives.


33 Responses

  1. Why not sanction all Russian energy exports? Oil and gas revenue comprises nearly 50% of the Russian government’s budget. The US is considering such sanctions but it will do little to harm the Kremlin since we import a small percentage of our oil and gas from Russia. European sanctions on all energy exports from Russia would hurt the Kremlin because Europe imports a considerable amount of their oil and gas from Russia. Yes, it would hurt the world economy and the European economy in particular but if we in the West truly “stand with Ukraine”, aren’t such painful sacrifices necessary?

    In the distance, I hear the ghosts of Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisers calling out to us, waiting for the West to come to their rescue. To do so might have started WW3 and wisely (tragically) we knew that. The least we can do now to help Ukraine is impose sanctions that will really hurt the Kremlin, even if that means the West suffers economically.

    • Even after writing the above, I will admit that I am not a strong believer in the effectiveness of sanctions, but if that is the route the West is going to take, then make the sanctions strong ones.

      Best case scenario: Continuing negotiations will establish Ukraine as a neutral country that will not become part of NATO (it has never met the qualifications to join NATO anyway). Much like Finland and Austria which have never been part of NATO. Such negotiations would probably involve recognizing the Donbas as separatist republics. So be it. Ultimately, Ukraine cannot win a war with Russia, even with the toughest sanctions against the Kremlin. If Putin’s aim is to take control of the entire country and install a puppet government in Kyiv, he will accomplish that eventually. A guerrilla war will continue with many Ukrainian lives lost. It will go on for years. Who wants that?

      • Sovereign means sovereign means the right to join whatever alliance or union that is good for your country.
        If Putin gets Ukraine to back off joining NATO or the EU, then he will have succeeded beyond his wildest expectations and can yank that chain any time he wants. Ukraine would remain exposed and vulnerable to invasion whenever any asshole in Russia decides to take it over and install a puppet governor again.
        I’m not sure that’s what Ukrainians want. Who would want to go through this again??

    • The sanctions are already hurting Russia.
      The best thing we can do to avoid painful sacrifices is get off fossil fuel as much as we can as fast as we can.
      There’s no damn reason why every house in the US that has a reasonable solar index shouldn’t have solar panels. There’s no reason why we can’t all be driving hybrids or electric cars someday.
      I won’t hear about any more painful sacrifices. We brought this on ourselves by falling for the oil companies lobbying and propaganda.
      If the pain gets great enough, we will do something about it. Good. Let it get really bad. I’m sick of having my entire life controlled by Exxon and Joe Manchin.

      • The US can easily tolerate a complete boycott of the Russian energy industry. Russian imports supply a very small proportion of our fossil fuel use (we’re a net exporter of natural gas, in fact). Canada can make up any domestic shortfall pretty easily. I’d much rather send money to Trudeau than Putin any day of the week.

        Unfortunately, Germany can’t. Half of Germany’s natural gas comes from Russia and they’re highly dependent on that supply, in part because they’ve shut down their nuclear industry over the years. Germans aren’t going to freeze in the dark for Ukraine. Maybe when the weather warms up, or if the US can figure out some way to get them enough LNG to get through the rest of the winter, we’ll see more willingness on that front.

        That doesn’t mean sanctions won’t be effective. Russia’s GDP is minuscule (smaller than Italy’s, Canada’s, or *Texas* for that matter). It’s going to be very difficult for them to sustain a prolonged occupation/counterinsurgency. The “death of a thousand cuts” is still death, after all.

        I’m with you on the solar panels – there’s a 5.2 kilowatt array on my roof.

  2. The question of how to deal with Putin is perplexing and distressing. We cannot risk a nuclear World War. We cannot let him roll over Europe. And he doesn’t seem to care a bit about the Russian people.One wonders if there is anything that matters to him besides wanting to appear stronger and cleverer than everyone else.

    The major concern, i think, is that he must win, in his mind, he cannot concede or compromise. We dealt with Kruschev, who ultimately showed to have a concern for humanity, but I don’t know how we get Putin to stop his war, unless he wins it, and then he may well begin other such incursions. It should be noted that the kind of nation he rules, where no one is told the truth, and the people are just chattel or fodder,, is a worse but parallel version of what the Republicans are trying hard to set up in states like Florida and Texas. And those people are just waiting to blame Biden for not winning this war which our country simply cannot be an active part of, but logic was never a factor for them when there are political points to be gained.

    • Macron is remains in communication with Putin. He seems to be the designated go-between now that Merkel (“The Putin Whisperer”) is in retirement. France and Russia have a historical alliance that may still count for something. Negotiations must continue.

  3. Countries must meet certain requirements in order to join NATO and Ukraine has not yet met those. It has been working toward that goal. But France and Germany (especially Germany) have long opposed having Ukraine join NATO. As far as I know, those two key members of NATO have not changed their positions (held since at least 2008) on Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

  4. @RD, I will get around to reading the files, that sounds like excellent research! I learned a little about Putin from Karen Dawisha’s book “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” which Anne Applebaum reviewed here. https://www.anneapplebaum.com/2014/12/18/how-he-and-his-cronies-stole-russia/

    For the moment, though, I think too many people (present company excepted) have spilt too much ink over “What does Putin Want?” It’s all too clear, as you say, that he wants to re-establish the Russian Empire while re-Stalinizing the country. Time for us to do what we need to do without losing sleep over what he will do.

    I am also fed up with the complacency in some quarters (Tom Friedman in yesterday’s Times was a prime example), where people proclaim that Putin has “lost.” Such writers think Putin’s invasion was a mistake because they would not have invaded “if they were Putin.”

    On this I call BS. Putin thinks differently than we do, and any helpful analysis must take into account Russian history and Russian ways of thinking, not our way of thinking parachuted into their circumstances. Anyone tough enough to endure KGB office politics (where failure could send you to the gulag) and come out on top most likely does NOT think the way Americans do. Putin may well consider it a victory if ends up occupying all of Ukraine, no matter what it costs Russia economically. The Russians have endured much worse, and at least some percentage of Russians seemingly long for the Soviet glory days Putin wants to restore.

    Nor does he care how many civilians he will end up murdering or what kind of smoking wreck he will have conquered should he succeed in beating Ukraine down. Like Macchiavelli’s Prince Putin would rather be feared than loved.

    • Yeah, I’m thinking that he counts too much on the West chickening out. It’s the crazy scary act routine. I honestly don’t care what Putin wants. I only care about what Ukraine wants.

      • When this whole mess with the Donbass started, I told Dr. Dr. Mrs. Propertius, “It’s the Sudetenland all over again.” She dismissed it as a facile analogy. I think she was wrong.

        Friedman’s an idiot. He always has been. Putin doesn’t think like us because Putin is a real honest-to-God imperialist. He doesn’t really care how many people he needs to harm to satisfy his ambitions.

  5. New from Reuters:

    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has told Ukraine that Russia is ready to halt military operations if Kyiv agrees to:

    •Cease military action

    •Change its constitution to enshrine neutrality (to prevent it from joining a bloc, meaning NATO or the EU)

    •Acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory

    •Recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states

    • Interestingly, there is no Russian demand that Ukraine “demilitarize and denazify”. Putin seems to have given up on that fantasy premise for the war.

      To trust or not to trust? That is the question. IIRC, Zelenskyy has shown some openness to declaring Ukraine a neutral country. It could never join NATO or the EU but Putin could not demand Ukraine join a Russian bloc either.

      Austria and Finland are neutral countries and have done pretty well as such.

      • I dunnoo, Lethe, he already violated the Budapest Accords. Why would anyone trust him to honor this? To refresh everyone’s memory, the Budapest Accords say:

        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.
        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.
        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm, in the case of the Ukraine, their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.
        The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will consult in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments.

        • Have the US and the UK upheld their part of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum? I wonder if Ukraine thinks so? After all, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons because of the Budapest Memorandum, trusting in all three nuclear powers (the US, the UK and Russia) to protect them. Unfortunately, there aren’t and never have been any Article 5, NATO-type security guarantees given to Ukraine by the Budapest Memorandum, which is not a treaty and is legally nonbinding. If I were Ukrainian, my general level of trust toward the outside world would be pretty low these days but I would still be looking for a negotiated peace because the alternative is too nightmarish to comprehend. Many Ukrainian lives can be lost while waiting for Putin to run out of money.

      • “Austria and Finland are neutral countries and have done pretty well as such.”

        Yeah, but they’re both in the EU. Opaque Eurobureaucracy notwithstanding, the economic benefits to EU membership are substantial (as Boris Johnson has found out the hard way). It would be really disadvantageous to Ukraine to give up that possibility.

        • Yes, last week, the EU agreed to start examining Ukraine’s bid for membership. As you know, it is a process that takes years, usually a decade or more. The EU has been slow to admit new members. Perhaps EU membership will someday happen for Georgia and Moldova as well (they also made requests to join the EU last week).

          • Sounds like a recipe for learned helplessness. I’m not into spreading that frame of mind, Lethe. Russia is the unlawful aggressor here. The only deal I would accept if I were Ukraine would be for the Russians to leave and pay for all the damage. Otherwise, I’d have to agree with Propertius. It’s the Sudetenland all over again and Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia may be next.

    • I figured this is what they really want. They will own Ukraine if it doesn’t join NATO or the EU and it will be a sitting duck.
      If I were Ukraine, I wouldn’t accept those terms.

  6. In defense of Vlad the Invader, his Judo book is really quite good.

  7. I wish my old Russian and East European professors were still alive so I could ask their opinions on the current war in Ukraine. The American-born ones were mostly former OSS who remained active in the CIA throughout their academic careers. The majority of others were refugees from Hitler’s camps or Stalin’s brutal regime. They had seen it all and had a perspective few alive have today. What would they say?

    • I don’t know. I’m only interested in what the Ukrainians say at this point. Russia didn’t have to invade Ukraine. It’s abuse.

    • Hey were you a classics major? Lethe is the River of forgetfulness. Eris was it’s mother. I think Eris was female anyway. Wasn’t she the one who wasn’t invited to a wedding and threw the apple into the group of Artemis, Aphrodite and was it Hera or Athena? The apple said “to the fairest” and they squabbled over which goddess that was. They decided to let a shepherd decide. Each of them promised the shepherd a fantastic reward. Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. So the shepherd gave the apple to her.
      The shepherd’s name was Paris. The most beautiful woman was Helen. And when they ran off together to Troy, the started a war between the Trojans and the Mycenaeans lead by Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter ephigenia for favorable winds since Athena was trying to prevent the Greek flotilla from launching. His wife Clytemnestra would end up killing him in the hot tub with his captive Trojan concubine Cassandra (no one ever listened to her). Then Clytemnestra’s son Orestes was goaded by his sister Electra to avenge their father’s death by killing their mother. Orestes felt like he had no choice so he killed her. That brought the erinyes down on him. They pursued him 24/7 because he had spilled the blood of his own family. Finally, Athena got involved and set up the first jury to hear Orestes case. The jury was hung until Athena cast the deciding vote. The erinyes were told to leave the guy alone and in return, they’d be transformed into more benevolent spirits.
      And it all started with a snub and an apple.
      If I’m not mistaken, Eris means strife, stirring up trouble. Interesting that her son would be the River of Forgetfulness.

      • i am very impressed, i think you wrote all that from memory! i read most of those stories, and remember the gist, but not all the details as clearly as you do. I read the first play in the Oresteian trilogy, but not the other two , and this will be an impetus to read them. . And i think that all sorts of plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles and other great playwrights were lost when the libraries at Alexandria were mostly destroyed.

        Yes, Athena offered wisdom, Hera offered power. But Paris chose to have the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, with the face that ultimately launched a thousand ships.

        • Paris was a guy. What more can we say.
          Yeah, my final in Classical Mythology was on the Oresteia but I didn’t know that until the actual final. So I kinda remember it. It was something along the lines of explaining how the court system was invented or something like that.
          I passed. Ok, I got an A. Plus.
          I know the stories but sometimes get the actors names wrong. Hesiod’s theogony is like the ainulindalë in the silmarilion. There’s a lot of spirits to keep track of.
          Anyway, I’m more concerned with archetypes these days.

          • Or at least how the presumption of innocence originated (Athena always sides with the accused).

          • Was presumption of innocence the point? I thought his guilt was well established and the erinyes had a right to pursue him. But it was more like, just because you have a right to torment this man for the rest of his life doesn’t mean you *should* torment him. Orestes had to avenge his father’s death. It was a no win situation for him.
            I’m thinking that Athena broke the tie because the erinyes represented some ancient retribution that was very inflexible. Sort of like the Old Testament laws. With the new jury system and court, there was an opportunity to apply reason and evolve away from barbaric customs. You can kind of see how this worker when the erinyes were turned into the fates. They were ordered to stand down and they got a place of honor instead.
            But, yeah, if you want the best outcome, it’s good if Athena is appointed to be your judge.

  8. From what I have been reading, Finland did not enjoy being a “Finlandized” client state of Russia. They do not want to go back there. Which is why they want to join NATO now.

    I am a bit hazier on Austria, but I seem to recall that all four powers — US, UK, France, USSR guaranteed its neutrality. So Austria was in a better place than Finland during the postwar period, if I am not mistaken, even though Vienna was a center of cold war intrigue/ espionage second only to Berlin.

    Not sure how the history of either country could realistically apply here. Ukraine does not want to be a Russian client state and Russia does not want a Ukraine that is formally protected by Western powers.

    I wish I was smart enough to square this particular circle. I don’t know how that issue gets settled other than on the battlefield, horrible as that may be.

  9. For something more pleasant, I am wondering if everyone was able to solve the wordle. It was rather tricky, given various possible words, and I think that I came up with an ingenious fourth guess in order to help me to get it on the fifth guess. Hopefully it was easier for others here.

    • Several words were possible answers today but I chose the right one on my third guess. When that happens, I consider it more a matter of luck than skill.

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