What Makes Putin Tick?

What Makes Putin Tick?
(Andrei Illarionov, June 22, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Andrei Illarionov is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington. From 2000 to 2005 he was the chief economic adviser of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president’s personal representative in the G-8. Dr. Illarionov was the driving force behind the adoption of a 13% flat income tax, the Russia’s government’s creation of a Stabilization Fund for windfall oil revenues, reduction in the size of government and the early repayment of Russia’s foreign debt. At the end of 2005, he resigned from his post as a Presidential Advisor for what he said were three main reasons: the transformation of Russia into a politically non-free country, the capture of the Russian state by the corporation of secret police officers (“siloviki”), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia’s Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. And from 1993 to 94 he was Chief Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Dr. Illarionov has written three books and more than 300 articles on Russian economic and social policies.

He received his PhD from St. Petersburg University in 1987.


Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, its director, and today I am very happy to welcome for the first time as a Westminster speaker Dr. Andrei Illarionov. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington. From 2000 to 2005 he was the chief economic adviser of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president’s personal representative in the G-8. Dr. Illarionov was the driving force behind the adoption of a 13% flat income tax, the Russia’s government’s creation of a Stabilization Fund for windfall oil revenues, reduction in the size of government and the early repayment of Russia’s foreign debt. At the end of 2005, he resigned from his post as a Presidential Advisor for what he said were three main reasons: the transformation of Russia into a politically non-free country, the capture of the Russian state by the corporation of secret police officers (“siloviki”), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia’s Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, and from 1993 to ’94 he was Chief Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin.

Dr. Illarionov has written three books and more than 300 articles on Russian economic and social policies.

He received his PhD from St. Petersburg University in 1987.

Today he is going to discuss with us, “What makes Vladimir Putin tick?” Welcome.

Andrei Illarionov:

Thank you, director Reilly, for such a kind introduction and for inviting me to speak at the Westminster Institute. Certainly these topics that you invited me to talk about are huge, almost boundless. This topic is huge and definitely we will not be able to cover all aspects in all angles of this topic. That is why I will try to focus my attention to a couple of topics that I think would be of interest for our audience and especially for English language audience that might not be fully familiar with some aspects of the Russian life.

On this particular character first of all I need to tell something that is being downplayed here in the United States as well as many Western countries. Mr. Putin is a very capable person and objectively speaking, he is a very talented one, talented in many regards. He is very knowledgeable. He is working hard. He is reading a lot. He is talking to many people and he is able to think fast, and he is able to find arguments and counter arguments in debating discussions that not very many people are able to do.

Sometimes we have been able to hear, especially at the eve of the Geneva Biden/Putin summit that, for example, American president grew through democratic competitive process where he participated in many debates and that is why he is much better prepared for debate unlike Mr. Putin, who never participated in the competitive election and in the debate and so on. And I need to say that I met not very many leaders of states, maybe not a one, not one who would be better prepared for debates of different kind, and I am saying that because I met personally probably more than 50 heads of states partially mostly when I was invited to Russian president and the Russian sherpa, and after that.

So once again, he is a very capable person. He is very reserved. He controls himself very well. He is very good in formulating his ideas, his messages, regardless of whether they are correct or incorrect or they are openly false. Nevertheless, he is very accurate in sending messages which he wanted to send to the audience but as part of the his personal features and personal characteristics.

What is important to know is how he is using those skills. We need to accept that he has outstanding skills in a number of areas. How is he using those skills in one particular area of foreign policy? And here we need to come to his worldview, his ideology, his understanding of the state of the world, and here I need to say a little bit about two concepts that he has been able to develop first of all by himself, even with the help of some other people, but at least he became the most articulate person who was talking about these two concepts.

One of those concepts is this concept of the so-called divided nation or divided people, divided Russian nation or divided Russian people. At least for the last eight years he continues to talk about a divided Russian nation. What does it mean? It means according to Putin that there are no separate ethnic groups or separate ethnic nations like Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. According to Putin this is one united nation or one united ethnicity with a little, just really slight differences in language and culture and attitudes, but essentially it is one nation which was artificially divided.

He does not specify when and where or by whom, but it is divided and he sees one of the most duties as the President of Russia to unite all those nations under one roof. And he has even developed the formula for the so-called united Russian nation. He said language, meaning the Russian language, and it is true that not only Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians, almost everybody without exception, do understand and many of them do speak Russian very well. He said one religion. The Orthodox Christian religion, which is widespread in Russia and Belarus and in Ukraine. And he adds the third element to his formula: one prince. One language, one religion, and one prince. I hope it’s not necessary to to mention who exactly should be that one prince.

Alright, so this concept of one national, united nation Putin was able to spread around and it became almost official position of the Russian administration, the Russian government, in the last eight years and especially since the attack on Ukraine, the occupational annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Donbas.

But there is another concept, an ideological concept that he has developed over the last two decades, and for the first time Putin was able to put it on a paper in his article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on January 23rd in the year 2012. This is a concept of historic Russia. This is a very interesting term because those who studied Russia not only in the West, not only outside of Russia, but even within Russia would not find this concept in textbooks or in widespread literature. This is something that he put in, [that he] was able to develop with help of a few other advisors and assistants, mostly by himself.

The concept of historic Russia means that the current territory of Russian Federation and historic Russia are not the same and it is also not the same as the former Soviet Union. And that is why to put equal sign between the today’s Russia and today’s Russian borders or former Soviet Union borders and imaginable or imagined historic Russia according to Mr. Putin would be incorrect. So that is why Mr. Putin spent some time explaining his understanding of historic Russia and he has put forward at least three criteria, how he understands historic Russia.

First of all it is one language. This means territories where one language is being used. Not surprisingly, it is the Russian language. The second criteria, one religion, is not a very big surprise. It is an Orthodox Christian religion. And he adds one more element because the obvious question would arise where are the borders of this historic Russia? And in that article that I mentioned in year 2012, Putin identified the borders of the former Russian Empire at the end of 18th century as the borders of historic Russia.

Anyone who is interested in that topic can download the map of the Russian Empire at the end of 18th century, and would find that the western border of the Russian Empire then was going from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea along the river’s Neman, Western Bug, Zbruch, Dniester. Maybe not everybody who listens to us and who watches us at this moment is familiar with the geography of that particular region, but it would be helpful to just understand that the whole territory of the current Republic of Belarus, an independent state, according to Mr. Putin belongs to historic Russia. Almost all of the territory of Ukraine, with the exception of western Ukraine (Galicia, Volyn, Trans-Carpathian, Bukovina) all the rest belongs to historic Russia.

Transnistria, the part of the Moldovan republic which lies on the left bank of River Dniester, belongs to historic Russia according to Mr. Putin. Also Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania without a little strip belongs to historic Russia. So that is why we can see that the approach of Mr. Putin is towards historic Russia is very close to his approach to the so-called divided nation that should be united; one language, one religion, the borders of the Russian empire at the end of 18th century, and the final element of that concept is one prince.

And that is why what we have seen for more than 10 years since Putin’s aggression against Georgia in the year 2008, continuing with his aggression against Ukraine in the year 2014 with occupation and annexation of Crimea, with war in Donbas are just elements, steps in full realization of his very well thought through program of recreating historic Russia, reuniting the so-called divided Russian nation, divided Russian people.

It means that what we have seen in the year 2008 and what we can see in Georgia and what we can see since year 2014 in Ukraine is not the final finish steps at which Mr. Putin decided to stop. No, it is just the very first steps in realizing and implementing his very close to his mind concept of restoration of the united people and restoration or creation because it never happened, existed before of the so-called historic Russia.

And that is why this revanchist approach to foreign policy to immediate neighbors for Russia is the crucial element of the real policy that is being implemented by Putin while he is is the president of the Russian Federation at the moment. That is why nobody should sleep quietly, relaxing, not expecting that Mr. Putin decided not to bother his neighbors. It would be not the position as the one that has been advocated by a former U.S. ambassador in Moscow who said okay, Putin occupied and annexed Crimea because he has he had a very bad mood that day when he organized Olympic games in Sochi in the year 2014.

No, this concept has been developed by Putin at least from year 2003 when he was on record talking about how it would be very good to have Kiev, the capital of independent Ukraine, to be within Russia because Kiev is a sacrosanct place for Russian Orthodox people that has many monuments, many churches, many cathedrals that are very close to Orthodox Christian minds, and that is why this part of territory with some little belongings should be given to Russia.

That is why if you would like to understand what the next move might be from Mr. Putin, you need to study his set of mind, his ideas, his ideology, his interests, and frankly he is not hiding those views. He has been open over the last almost 10 years. He has used this concept and this term, the very historic Russia or divided nation, many, many times, and that is why when he would have such a chance to implement this policy, in reality he would do it. And the Biden/Putin summit in Geneva that finished just yesterday gives an enormous opportunity, gives a green light to Mr. Putin to implement this policy in reality because unfortunately the U.S. president did nothing to confront Mr. Putin, did nothing to stand up to Mr. Putin, did nothing to defend either Ukraine or Belarus or human rights in Russia, in Belarus from Putin’s pressure.

Putin understands very well strength and weakness and he saw the weakness of the U.S. leadership at the distance of his hand. That is why no doubt he would try to do everything possible to use this weakness to implement his strategic, darling goal for him, to create the so-called historic Russia and to attack Russia’s neighbors, trying to establish control over Ukraine, over Belarus, over part of Moldova, and maybe over other territories.


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, that takes a moment to digest, but let me ask you what are the conditions under which he might make his next move? You say he can discern weakness and that he saw a weakness in Geneva, but does he have a strategy and if so there must be conditions for implementing it? I mean, for instance, in the Spring there were more than 80,000 Russian troops gathered not far from the border with Ukraine and fully deployed field hospitals, everything that the Russian military would need for a conflict, and of course, President Putin said this is just a standard military exercise, but [it was] close enough to the border that the NATO members were alarmed that he might move. Then slowly the troops are dispersed. He has done this more than once. Is the idea there to sort of wear down NATO to the point at which he does decide to move they are caught unaware and flat-footed and really can’t do anything about it? In other words is his next move military?

Andrei Illarionov:

Okay, first of all in March and April this year when there was this high concentration of the Russian troops along the Ukrainian borders and in the occupied Ukrainian territories like in Donbas and Crimea, Putin was not ready to launch a large-scale intervention into Ukrainian territory. Why? We know it for sure. The concentration of troops itself does not mean necessarily that Putin was ready to attack, to organize incursions because for that to do so it is necessary to have conditions, those conditions that you were talking about.

So the question arises what kind of conditions Putin needs to start a full scale operation. First of all, we have to look into how this concentration was going on. It was going on openly in the day time. In many cases all these troops were moving towards the border absolutely unmasked while in the downtowns or villages or cities hundreds of people were able to see it and to take pictures and videos, which they posted on social media. Only even that would be a very strong indication. It is not the case when Mr. Putin is going to attack.

When Mr. Putin attacked Georgia in August 2008 almost nobody was able to detect this concentration of over one hundred thousand troops on the borders of Georgia. When in the year 2014 in February and March Putin attacked Ukraine and occupied Crimea even U.S. intelligence publicly said, ‘We are not expecting that Putin is going to occupy Crimea.’ They had not seen it because they were hiding. In August 2014 none of the intelligence [analysts] were able to see a concentration of Russian troops to attack Ukrainians near Iloveisk. In January and February yet 2015 once again neither Ukrainian intelligence nor U.S. intelligence were able to see Russian troops that were going to attack near Debaltseve, so we can say that if Putin shows his troops, it means he is not going to attack. When he is going to attack, at least so far, intelligence on the ground is unable to detect it. At least it is not able to detect sufficiently enough to send a signal, yes, this is an alert to something, really, so this is the first one.

Second one, Mr. Putin did not concentrate enough forces near the borders. Just to start a really serious operation he needs more, even 80,000 or some people say one hundred thousand. It is not something that he is looking for. He is looking for something bigger than that.

Third and maybe the most important fact: in March [and] April this year there were American troops in Europe because they were preparing and participating in the military drills Defender Europe 2021. Putin has never attacked his neighbors when American troops are in Europe, never. He is waiting until American troops will finish their drills and will come back to the United States. That is the time for Putin.

Putin is a very calculating person. He has taken into care into account all the important conditions and the most important factor is that Putin himself is planning his own military drills, which is called West 2021, and those military drills will be organized together with Belarusian troops, and they will happen in September this year. And the military reels of such type allow so-called legitimately to concentrate a much larger military force than even what we have seen in March and April. We do not know how much, but based on the previous experience of Vapad or West 2017 and Center 2019 – I am using these names for military maneuvers that Putin was organizing four years ago and two years ago.

In the first case there were one hundred thousand troops who participated and the other one [had] one hundred and twenty-seven thousand, so that is why it cannot be excluded that it could be one hundred and fifty thousand troops, especially with better Russians at this moment plus about four hundred forty thousand in occupied Donbass, so that is why it might be that the total amount of troops that Putin can move towards Ukrainian borders might be one hundred and ninety thousand or even maybe two hundred thousand.

That is something serious that can he can use for large-scale interventions against Ukraine, but this time it will be not much. In April this year it would be a much higher risk of such operation. Later this year probably in September once again it is not a guarantee and we nobody can produce a guarantee, but we need to say that the risk of such crisis such operation in September this year is higher than this Spring.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let’s step back for a moment in order to ask you to what ex you say that President Putin is very open about his vision of historic Russia and divided nation and obviously reuniting this divided nation. To what extent do you think do the Russian people or the peoples of Russia (because they are not all Russian) share this vision? Is this a source of popularity for Putin?

Definitely, to some extent, yes, and he could capitalize on support of some part of the population on this revangelist or neo-imperialist vision and we have seen that after the intervention against Georgia his popularity jumped up very substantially and after the occupational annexation of Crimea it jumped up almost to 90 percent. It was 85, 86, even 87 or even 88 [percent] for some time and [the poll was] done by an independent sociological company so that is why at least some level of trust of confidence for such polls can be given. So that is why it was extremely popular and even such a term have been invented ‘Crimean consensus,’ meaning that the support of this intervention and occupational annexation among the Russian population was extremely high.

So we do not know what will happen next time, if that next time will come, if Putin will organize another intervention but it cannot be excluded that such an operation would enjoy substantial popularity by the Russian population. But having said so I once again would underscore that with all due respect to this popularity issue, Putin has his own vision and his own vision for him seems to me is even more important than this popularity support because he feels himself – even sometimes he mentioned it, that he now is so high in his self-esteem that there is no one in the world that he can talk to except for Mahatma Gandhi but Mahatma Gandhi is not with us anymore. So that is why he is kind of talking to the higher authorities in the skies or even maybe above the skies and that is why he is trying to fulfill the sole God-given agenda to him regardless what all those people around him are talking about.

Robert R. Reilly:

Does this mean that he takes the Russian Orthodox faith seriously himself or is he just using that as a means through which to exercise control as the Russian state has for so many years?

Andrei Illarionov:

Some observers are saying that okay this is really some kind of cover-up, that he is pretty cynical and he is just using [religion] to portray himself as a Christian person, but he is not. I have seen him in a number of situations that I can say, no, he is really some kind of devoted to this. But I would not say that the Christian religion – at least as I understand it and probably as many other people understand it because Christianity is also to not produce harm to others and to respect the dignity of other people. It is not such a Christianity. It is a very different type of Christianity, according to Mr. Putin, but when you can see him in some churches, when he is doing some prayers, yes, you would not have any doubt that it is something very deep in him. But once again it is something different from traditional or [the] very widespread understanding of Christianity.

Robert R. Reilly:

It is very interesting to hear you explain this grand vision and the extent to which Vladimir Putin is animated by it because many analysts of Russia here portray him as simply a Machiavellian opportunist whose principal concern is the preservation and augmentation of his power and the protection of those close to him whom he needs, and the protection of their assets as well so that there is nothing much to see there beyond this narrow self-interest. But you are painting a very different picture from those who say that kind of thing.

Andrei Illarionov:

Now, that is why you have invited me to the Westminster Institute and that is why I am saying what I have seen with my own eyes, and what is a result of my own analysis, and that is why thank you for this comparison to some American pundits who, frankly speaking, have a very limited understanding of Mr. Putin and of modern Russia, of the contemporary Russia. They are very popular here. Probably it is much more convenient to think about Putin as you have described, but it has a very, very big difference between that description and what Mr. Putin is himself.

Robert R. Reilly:

Can you then relate President Putin’s foreign policy to this grand vision? Help us understand his moves in Syria and Libya, his discrete uses of force there to gain a great deal. How do they relate to historic Russia or the divided nation thesis?

Andrei Illarionov:

It is not necessarily [that it] should be attributed to a historic Russia vision or some kind of re-unification of the so-called Russian people, including Ukraine because not the many Ukrainians and the Russians [are] in Syria and Libya and in other places.

Now, here he is doing his foreign policy of a much more traditional, imperial character, supporting the context with the brotherly tyrants and dictators around the world who are in need of support from Putin (political, diplomatic, military), from political police, and so on, sometimes financial, sometimes it is a kind of business-like relations, Venezuela, or something like that.

But there is one more element, which is also partially business-type relations and partially [an] ideological one because in all those cases [with] those countries, those regimes are authoritarians, dictatorships, and that is why he feels himself absolutely necessary to support them. This is some kind of dictators international and he understands if one of those dictators fall, it means the next one will be a next one and finally [it] will be him. So that is why by keeping them alive and on the floor it means he is strengthening himself. He does not allow them to fall, and that is why he supports the whole international.

And then in that particular business he felt that he has essentially only one serious adversary, the United States, and everybody understands that only one country in the world is physically able and [is] the right person at the top. The United States is able mentally to stand up in reality against Putin and able to crush his troops as it happened in year 2018 in Syria, yes, when the United States troops kind of destroyed private military company Wagner, which is essentially crazy Russian troops in Syria. That was the first time for any U.S.-Russian military contact that ended with total elimination of this particular group, about 200 troops.

And Mr. Putin learned this lesson very well, that if somebody is in the White House (and it the time President Trump was in the White House) who either can give an order or he would not resist using force by the American military, his troops can be destroyed within minutes or hours. And that is why the most important thing that he is looking for [is] the level of readiness of the current U.S. president to use force to defend freedom, liberties, rule of law, independence of different countries around the world, so that is why he tested each president one by one, whether they [are] able or not. He thought that George Bush would not use American force and that is why he moved Russian troops into Georgia.

And it was [at that] moment that there was a very big, very serious debate in the White House, in the Bush White House, whether to use U.S. force or not. And on August 11 year 2008 George Bush appeared near the White House flanked by his Secretary of Defense and his Assistant for National Security and he said, ‘Okay, I would not recommend Mr. Putin to make another step.’ And [the] U.S. Navy moved to the Black Sea and the U.S. Air Force moved to bases in Turkey and Romania. The next day, August 12th, Mr. Medvedev, who was officially President of Russia, announced that [the] operation in Georgia [was] finished. That was a decision [that] was affected, influenced by [the] decision of George Bush, President of the United States.

Then Putin tested Mr. Obama in year 2014 when he moved his troops into Crimea, and we remember what Obama answered. He said publicly, ‘I am not going using American troops to defend Ukraine.” What Mr. Putin said [was], ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Obama, I suspected that you would not use troops, but thank you very much for telling openly that you are not going to use troops, but I will.’ And he did use troops and he occupied Crimea and an accident and he moved troops into eastern Donbass.

When he met President Trump he could not figure out whether Trump would use troops or not in year 2018. It became clear when the ChVK, or the private military company Wagner, was destroyed in Syria. And Mr. Putin understood probably it is better not to try to test Mr. Trump anymore because nobody knows what will happen after that, but when Mr. Biden appeared in White House forum posting [it] became absolutely clear that Biden would never dare to stand up to Mr. Putin, and that is why [the] next day after inauguration [there] was a substantial jump in hostilities on the Russian-Ukrainian line in Ukraine in Donbass. Five days later Putin started to put pipeline Nord Stream 2 in the Baltic Sea, and and so on and so on.

Watch the rest of his talk.