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‚Äôs personal representative in the G-8. Dr. Illarionov was the driving force behind the adoption of a 13% flat income tax, the Russia‚Äôs government‚Äôs creation of a Stabilization Fund for windfall oil revenues, reduction in the size of government and the early repayment of Russia‚Äôs 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 (‚Äúsiloviki‚ÄĚ), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia‚Äôs 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.

Transcript

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‚Äôs personal representative in the G-8. Dr. Illarionov was the driving force behind the adoption of a 13% flat income tax, the Russia‚Äôs government‚Äôs creation of a Stabilization Fund for windfall oil revenues, reduction in the size of government and the early repayment of Russia‚Äôs 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 (‚Äúsiloviki‚ÄĚ), and horrific corruption within the Russian leadership. Earlier, in 1992, Dr. Illarionov had served as an Economic Advisor to Russia‚Äôs 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.

Q&A

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.

Watch the rest of his talk.

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