Young “Volodya” once hunted a fat rat in the musty cellar of the building where his parents lived in St. Petersburg. He chased it until it had nowhere to escape, so it jumped onto the boy. Recalling the incident with fear and disgust in his memoirs, “Firsthand Account,” Vladimir Putin concluded: Don’t chase rats into a corner.
The childhood experience left its mark on Mr. Putin – and continues to influence his policies to this very day.
“I was rowdy, a real street kid,” the Kremlin leader wrote in the same chapter. A small teenager, Mr. Putin held his own against stronger neighborhood boys only after learning judo from a man who is still his friend today.
Mr. Putin has bolstered his position with friends from the Silovik, Russia’s military-intelligence complex, which is deeply paranoid about the threat posed by enemies from the West.
His former judo coach and an old neighbor and sparring partner are among the president’s closest confidants. Together, they own Rossiya Bank, which wins plenty of fat public contracts.
Mr. Putin also hasn’t lost the street speak of his youth. He once said he wanted “to knock off” Chechen militants “in the latrine” and remarked in 2008 that Georgia had “gotten smacked in the face” after its war with Russia. Now, when the Kremlin boss explains his policies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel or E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, he talks about either “us” or “them.”
Mr. Putin is still battling with his childhood feeling that the world was against him. His time with the KGB only served to increase his sense of mistrust and suspicion of looming betrayal.
His policy since the beginning of the Crimea crisis has been to take two steps forward and one step back until he reached his goal – annexing the Ukrainian peninsula. Such twists and turns are nothing new for Mr. Putin, who had initially said uniformed soldiers without insignia were not members of the Russia military, only to later praise them for their clever tactics.
Another example is his recent statement that Crimea is to Russia what the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is to Jews and Muslims. In 2008, after the war with Georgia, he said Crimea was “not a contested territory” and “no ethnic conflict” excisted there. Moscow, he added, had “long ago recognized the current borders of Ukraine.”
But he miscalculated: He assumed that he could divide the West, turning the European Union against the United States, and the E.U. states against each other. Polish anti-Russian hardliners against soft Germans with a poor grasp of history.
Now, the president has painted himself into a corner.
Mr. Putin’s recent nationalism dates to 2012, when hundreds of thousands of Russians demonstrated against his third term as president. He swore never again to put up with revolutions like those in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine; after all, the next one could topple him.
So Mr. Putin summoned up the ghosts of Russian nationalism.
Now, old-style communists like Alexander Prokhanov are back in vogue; he said Russia “is by nature an empire, whose borders breathe.” Mr. Putin also refers to philosophers like Ivan Ilyin, who called for “democratic dictatorship” and a “Russian mission.” He praised a “leader who beats opponents rather than spouting words and rules, rather than selling out to foreigners.”
Accordingly, Mr. Putin has bolstered his position with friends from the Silovik, Russia’s military-intelligence network, which is deeply paranoid about the threat from the West. Enemies from the West are blamed for the Maidan uprising in Kiev, which was seen as just one step towards toppling Moscow. Mr. Putin is acutely aware he has done little to free his country from its dependence on oil and gas exports. Now he has little room to maneuver; his economic model has failed and the ruble continues to fall.
Mr. Putin’s nationalism, craving for recognition and expansionism do not address the true concerns of his people. He is just defending the interests of his clan of old judo friends, dacha buddies and oil dealers from their days together in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. That wasn’t something his presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev could do.
That is why he returned to the Kremlin for a third term, according to political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky. It chimes with an analysis by economist Konstantin Sonin, that Mr. Putin doesn’t care about reforms anymore, “it’s about holding onto power.”
In Russia, repression has increased so much that German Gref, the head of state-owned Sberbank, said: “You can’t motivate people with the fear of the gulag.”
Mr. Putin’s early victories, like the overwhelming popular support for annexing Crimea, have only served to trap him. The ghosts he called up with his neo-imperial policies may have increased his popularity, but they also block his path back to a rational course of action.
The more Mr. Putin confronts the West, the more the Russian economy suffers. He is trapped in a vicious circle, or perhaps Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “first circle” of hell.
Mathias Brüggmann is Handelsblatt’s foreign editor. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org