When we first met, he already knew the power of terrifying adversaries...
In 1999, Vladimir Putin suddenly sprang from bureaucratic obscurity to the office of Prime Minister. When, a few months later, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Putin was voted in as President, governments around the world were taken by surprise yet again. How could this unknown figure have amassed national voter support with so little media attention?
I had first met Putin seven years before and was not surprised by his rapid domination of the new Russia. We were introduced by Yevgeny Primakov, widely known as “Russia’s Kissinger”, who I had met in Moscow multiple times during the Cold War years when I advised Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Primakov was a no-nonsense thinker and writer. He was also a special emissary for the Kremlin in conducting secret discussions with national leaders around the world.
When Yeltsin tasked his advisor Anatoly Sobchak with identifying and recruiting Russia’s best and brightest, Putin, then a local politician in his hometown of St Petersburg, was top of his list — so Primakov took Putin under his wing to tutor him in global power and security issues. Eventually, Primakov introduced Kissinger to Putin, and they became close. That both Primakov and Kissinger took time to coach Putin on geopolitics and geosecurity was a clear demonstration that they saw in him the characteristics of a powerful leader. It also showed Putin’s capacity for listening to lengthy lessons on geopolitics — as I was soon to learn.
In 1992, I received a call from a meeting organiser at the CSIS think tank inviting me to join a US-Russia St Petersburg Commission to be chaired by Kissinger and Sobchak. The purpose would be to help the new Russian leadership in opening channels of business and banking with the West. Most of the Western members would be CEOs of major US and European companies, as well as key officials of the new Russian government. I would attend as an expert. I was told that a “Mr Primakov” had personally asked if I could make time to participate. I could hardly refuse such a request, and I was intensely curious about the emerging Russian leadership, especially about Putin.
Arriving at the first meeting, I saw several people gathered around Kissinger and a man I was told was Putin. An official identified himself to me and said he had been asked by Primakov to introduce me to Putin. He interrupted the conversation with Kissinger to announce my arrival; Putin warmly responded that he was looking forward to chatting with me about how I see the world from inside Washington.
We spoke on several occasions between meetings, and he arranged to sit next to me at a dinner, accompanied by his interpreter. At that dinner, he asked me: “What is the single most important obstacle between your Western businessmen and my fellow Russians in starting up business connections?”
Off the top of my head, I responded: “The absence of legally defined property rights — without those there is no basis for resolving disputes.”
“Ah yes,” he said, “in your system a dispute between businesses is resolved by attorneys paid by the hour representing each side, sometimes taking the dispute to the courts which normally takes months and accumulation of hourly attorney fees.”
“In Russia,” he continued, “disputes are usually resolved by common sense. If a dispute is about very significant money or property, then the two sides would typically send representatives to a dinner. Everyone attending arriving would be armed. Facing the possibility of a bloody, fatal outcome both sides always find a mutually agreeable solution. Fear provides the catalyst for common sense.”
He used his argument in the context of disputes between sovereign nations. Solutions often require an element of fear of disproportionate responses if no deal is struck. The idea of forcing adversaries to face horrific alternatives seemed to excite him. In essence, he was describing to me the current Ukraine impasse between the US and Russia. Putin knows Russia cannot afford a prolonged ground war with Ukraine. He also can see Biden is facing crucial midterm elections with a domestic congressional impasse, and cannot afford a major foreign crisis distraction. The two sides have no choice but to strike a deal.
On a different occasion, Putin asked me how decisions are really made in Washington, with its complex division of Presidential and Congressional powers. He said Kissinger could explain the broad parameters of a Presidential policy decision, but could not clarify how political consensus was achieved between the House, Senate, and the Executive Branch.
It was evident he had been given a deep intelligence brief on my career. He said Kissinger enjoys the public theatre of powerful people meeting in elaborate dinners or meetings with many aides ready to guide them. And he told me he had been informed that I preferred backroom meetings to shape consensus and provide room for negotiating details.
I tried to explain the elaborate process of balancing the interests of the many players in Washington, including Congress, the major agencies, and the intricate business arrangements that might be affected by any decision. I told him of my first personal meeting with Nixon, who had said he was impressed that I had strong personal support from leaders of both major parties. However, he added, this raised worries among his staff in the White House — so he really needed to know whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. To which I replied: “Yes.”
When Nixon asked what that meant, I explained that I was not a partisan warrior, but rather a problem solver. To get a solution I would always be ready to work with key players of both parties depending upon the specific problem. This seemed to amuse Putin.
The impression of Putin that I was left with was of a man who was more intelligent than most of the politicians I had met in Washington and in other capitals around the world. I was reminded of my childhood: I grew up in a predominantly Sicilian neighbourhood, with a mafia maintaining order. No disorganised crime allowed.
Putin did seem to have the instincts of a Sicilian mafia boss: quick to reward but quick to pose mortal risk in the event of non-conformity to the family rules.
Looking back to those times of growing disarray in Russia’s leadership, I can recall the prolonged, multi-year paralysis of the Brezhnev Presidency, which was followed by the brief Presidencies of Andropov and Chernenko. Gorbachev was not strong enough to impose his will. Yeltsin had good ideas but was easily distracted and lacked follow through. Russia was in urgent need of a strong leader — and so Putin stepped in.
As for how Putin sees himself, he did bring up several times his admiration for Peter the Great, so much so I was convinced he sees himself as his incarnation. I have not been a guest of the Kremlin since 1988, but I am told Putin had portraits of Peter the Great hung in several important meeting rooms there — rather than portraits of himself, as would be more customary. What this means for Biden, Nato and Ukraine is slowly becoming clear. There is more to Putin than meets the eye.
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Harald Malmgren is a geopolitical strategist, negotiator and former aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford