By Sean McKeekin, Claremont Review
With Moscow and Washington staring each other down over Ukraine, it is imperative to understand the man who controls Russia’s nuclear arsenal. This is the most dangerous proxy war in decades, yet there is little agreement or knowledge in the West about our adversary. Many American and European press reports portray Vladimir Putin as a Hitler-ian madman bent on world domination, and now a war criminal to boot, against whom we all must rally to save Western civilization. To certain admirers on the American Right, by contrast, Putin is a disciplined statesman who stands up to Western meddling in defense of Russia’s core interests, his unapologetic nationalism buttressed by old-fashioned masculine courage. The contrast between these two portraits could not be more jarring.
But however consequential a statesman he has been, the real Putin is much less colorful than these caricatures. Though he is a competent politician capable of delivering well-received speeches, Russia’s president has never relished public adulation: he lacks the charisma of the demagogue. Despite various successes and a few notable failures in the foreign policy realm—and at the time of this writing it is not yet clear where the Ukraine war will fall on this spectrum—Putin is also a less visionary statesman than his admirers believe. Nor is Putin an especially original thinker. Certainly he is more cunning, more genuinely curious about the world and how it really works, and consequently more effective, than most Western statesmen today. But that is an embarrassingly low bar in the age of mediocrities like Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, and Olaf Scholz. The closer one looks at Putin and his political career, the less remarkable he appears. Putin is at his core a quintessential Russian state servant, a career bureaucrat who ascended to national leadership because of his more mundane qualities, not because of any that made him stand out.
Putin grew up in material circumstances that Americans might consider “working-class,” and his path into the Russian elite was not easy. But his family was well connected. Putin’s grandfather Spiridon, a talented chef who once cooked for Rasputin, survived the revolution to cook for Lenin, Lenin’s widow, and Stalin as well. Because Spiridon Putin could not have been trusted with such sensitive work absent the highest-level security clearance, it is generally assumed that he worked for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs—the secret service, or NKVD. Putin’s father, Vladimir, also served in the secret police, although in his case it was in an elite combat unit fighting the Germans on the Leningrad front in World War II. The family suffered terribly like others during the Leningrad siege years—Vladimir’s older brother Viktor died of diphtheria at age two—but both parents survived.