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Understanding Vladimir Putin

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

To understand why he took the action he did in the Ukraine, one needs to understand this about Russian President Vladimir Putin: loyalty to Mother Russia and to him is non-negotiable.

Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, 10 years after the imperial city created by Peter the Great was surrounded and nearly starved to death by the Germans. Both of his parents served in the Red Army and a brother died of starvation. Putin passed his formative years in a Russia still recovering from a war that cost the nation over 20 million people. He holds an advanced degree in international law and worked for the KGB, first stationed in Dresden (East Germany) and later in Leningrad. Putin is a Russian nationalist to his core and to put it delicately, shares the same authoritarian tendencies of those who ran Imperial Russia. A new Stalin, he is not. He is a slick politician who emerged from his position in Leningrad to the post of president.

Aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, his first aim was to rebuild Russia’s lost sense of pride and self-confidence. At the Winter Olympics, held in a city rebuilt on the Black Sea, Putin paraded before his people and the world those who projected Russian power and culture, from Peter the Great to composers and writers. The outfits worn by the Russian athletes featured the symbol of Tsarist Russia on their jackets.

Putin believes the collapse of Russia was avoidable and he harbors a deep bitterness against those responsible. On Oct. 3, 1990, the two Germanys were reunited, Moscow withdrew its forces from Eastern Europe, and the once mighty Soviet Empire started to implode. This was accelerated by the actions and indecision of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For reasons that are still unclear, in December 1991 the process of breaking up the empire started. An agreement was signed that stated that after Jan. 1, 1992, the USSR would no longer exist and each of the former Soviet Republics emerged as separate nations.

One of those nations, the Ukraine, remained in the Russian orbit but over the past decade, nationalists and liberal-minded politicians started to look West, hoping to reorient the nation as part of the European Union (EU). Ukrainians argued that their economy was in a freefall due to corruption and cronyism. With a GDP of only $293 billion and a per capita income of just over $6,000, they looked to the prosperity in Poland and the Baltic States as success stories and concluded that if the Ukraine was to be successful, it had to detach its economic ties with Russia and connect with the EU. While the pro-Russian president Victor Yanokovych was in control, hopes of moving in the direction of Europe were dashed. However, in late February of this year, he was ousted from office and an interim government was installed.

The prospect of the Ukraine being part of the EU and possibly NATO is unacceptable to Putin.  When it was clear to Moscow that the aim of the effort to overthrow Ukraine’s president was to move the nation into the EU, Putin took steps to keep the country in the Russian orbit.

Talk of Putin rebuilding the defunct empire may be exaggerated as well as claims that a new Cold War is on the immediate horizon. However, to suggest that Russia in no longer a major power is wrong. Yes, its GDP of $2.4 trillion is far less than that of the United States ($16 trillion). However, Russia’s economic power was never measured in the production and consumption of consumer goods, rather in natural resources and military clout.

It has plenty of both.

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