What USSR’s Collapse Has To Do With Politics, Wars Of Putin

Vladimir Putin felt a sense of humiliation over the collapse of the USSR, the country he deeply loved, and for him, it was the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’

Vladimir Putin felt a sense of humiliation over the collapse of the USSR

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Vladimir Putin was in the thick of things when the Communist block crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he watched helplessly when crowds filled the streets, targeting communist symbols in Berlin.

Putin somehow managed to rush to the basement of the KGB office, where he worked in Dresden (East Germany), as a mob threatened to storm the building. He lit the furnace and burnt secret files before bluffing his way out.

Putin returned to the USSR in 1990 to see the country’s transformation under Mikhail Gorbachev. McDonald’s set shop and introduced Big Mac and Coca-Cola.

People began demanding independence and democracy. Within a year, the Soviet Union collapsed with its red flag coming down at the Kremlin in Moscow to mark the end of the Russian empire after 300 years.

Sense Of Humiliation

Putin, according to CNN, felt a sense of humiliation over the collapse of the country he deeply loved. For him, the breakup was the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.’

The collapse traumatised and changed Putin. He soon joined politics to become the deputy mayor of St Petersburg with top jobs in Moscow as his goal. 

Putin’s rise in politics coincided with the mess Yeltsin created with the rich becoming richer amid food scarcity for ordinary Russians. He was the acting prime minister when Yeltsin announced his resignation as president and handed over power to Putin on December 31, 1999.

Putin took over at the stroke of the 21st century, making his intentions clear: ‘We live in a competitive world, and we are not among its leaders.’ He would endear himself to the masses by visiting soldiers on the front lines in Chechnya. 

Rising oil prices helped Putin stabilise Russia as wages rose. He dealt with western sanctions by initiating an austerity programme and keeping inflation under check.

His popularity soared with Moscow’s intervention in Syria and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine which demonstrated Putin’s promise to remake Russia as a great power.

According to CNN, there were no billionaires in Russia when Putin moved to Moscow in 1996. Russia had 111 of them by 2014, according to Forbes.

Putin’s approval rating has been as high as 86 percent prompting CNN to declare Putin the world’s most powerful man. Former American President Donald Trump would acknowledge Putin as ‘really very much of a leader.’

The Goal

Putin’s avowed goal of remaking Russia as a great power has continued to stoke fears in the West. Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the West’s worst fears. It is the biggest attack on a country in Europe since the Second World War.

Ukraine’s President Volodymur Zelenskiy said Putin’s aim was to destroy his state. He called it a war of aggression and vowed Ukraine will defend itself and win. Zelenskiy urged the world to stop Putin.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called the invasion among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.

The alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was also seen in the light of Putin’s goal. The doubts appeared to add up when Donald Trump’s victory sparked celebrations in the Russian parliament – the Duma – on television and in bars.

CNN showed a Russian man saying: ‘Trump’s victory will be a celebration for all humanity.’ Another man declared they are ‘the champions of the world.’ Putin appeared vindicated. ‘Nobody but us believed he was going to win.’

The Apprentice

For Putin’s biographer, Masha Gessen, the Russian leader was happy to take credit. ‘And that means that he won the US election, the man who is simultaneously president of Russia and in charge of the United States,’ she told CNN. ‘I think Putin views Trump as an apprentice.’ 

The mood in the West was completely different. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the US election results that propelled Trump to power.

They shouted ‘not my president’ across the country – from New York to San Francisco – fearing Trump’s victory would encourage sexism, bigotry, Islamophobia, and threaten civil rights.

Over half a million joined a women’s march in Washington when he took office in January 2017. Similar protest marches were held in neighbouring Canada, across the Atlantic in London, Germany, France, Hungary, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and in far-off Australia and New Zealand.

Robert Mueller, who lead the probe into alleged Russian interference in the election, charged three advisers to Trump’s campaign in October 2017. The New York Times described the development as ‘the most explicit evidence to date that his [Trump]’s campaign was eager to coordinate with the Russian government to damage his rival, Hillary Clinton.’

The Dirt

It emerged that Russian intelligence services used intermediaries to contact the Trump campaign’s former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, to gain influence. In April 2016, the Russians offered the campaign ‘dirt’ on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, the Times reported.

The charges against Papadopoulos and two others were slapped nine months after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted in January 2017 that ‘Putin ordered an influence the campaign’ in 2016 to damage Clinton’s ‘electability and potential presidency.’

It added that Putin and Russia had ‘developed a clear preference’ for Trump. Trump-Putin’s’ bromance’ may have driven the Russian president as much as his eagerness to get even with Clinton. There had been bad blood between Putin and Clinton for years.

In the middle of the 2008 American presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to Putin’s past as a Soviet KGB intelligence agent and remarked: ‘By definition, he does not have a soul.’

Standing Up To

Putin brushed aside her remark saying that statesmen should not be ‘guided by their hearts, they should use their heads.’ Clinton appeared to be relentless. She described Putin as a ‘very arrogant person to deal with’’ and called for the need to ‘stand up to his bullying.’

In 2011, the Putin-Clinton relationship became frostier as protests swept the Arab world and ousted entrenched dictators such as Hosni Mubarak from power. Slogans like ‘Putin, get out of here’ rend the air soon in Russia as tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest protest in Moscow in two decades.

As Putin announced he would run for president for the third time, Clinton said the Russian people like people everywhere deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

She expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the conduct of the Russian parliamentary elections and growing restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights. 

Putin is believed to have seen this as an attempt to topple him. He blamed Clinton for inciting the protests against him; a grudge many linked to the hacking scandal that rocked her 2016 US presidential campaign.

Over 1,900 e-mails were leaked after Russian hackers allegedly hacked the email accounts of Clinton’s colleagues in the middle of her tight race for the presidency with Trump.

Clinton blamed Putin for contributing to her defeat through Russian hackers’ intrusions into her Democratic Party leaders’ emails. Trump did little to allay fears over this and fuelled suspicions that Putin holds some sway over him with his rash decisions. 

Trump fired FBI director James B Comey while the agency was leading a probe into the collusion of Trump’s campaign with Russia. He grudgingly fired national security adviser (NSA) Michael Flynn for misleading vice president Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US.

Flynn refused to turn over documents pertaining to the investigation of Russian interference in the election. Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation against the former NSA.

It was not just about damaging Clinton’s chances, but fears in the US about Putin’s attempts to restore his country’s status in the world by destroying American democracy. Putin’s past as a KGB agent gave credence to these apprehensions. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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