No Comment — December 21, 2007, 7:56 am

Vladimir Putin: Person of the Year

A little earlier this year, an American Bar Association publication announced it was tapping Alberto Gonzales as its “Lawyer of the Year.” The selection produced a torrent of derisive comment. The man had been forced from the office of attorney general in disgrace and now faces a criminal probe. He is held in contempt by the great bulk of his contemporary lawyers. The publishers rushed to their own defense saying that they had taken Time Magazine’s man of the year as a model. Time, they reminded us, picked the man of the year (now person of the year) on the basis of his influence on his time, whether for better or worse—and they quickly noted that Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung had each been “Man of the Year.” The cataloguing of Gonzales with two genocidal maniacs must have caused his supporters to cringe, perhaps even more than the decision that quickly followed to cave to the critics by renaming the award. But it also demonstrated that the editors of the ABA publication really didn’t understand Time’s criteria. Time uses a “greatness” test in a morally neutral, almost Hegelian, sense. They look for an individual who reflects the spirit of the times for better or worse—in the sense that we can now say very clearly of the first half of the twentieth century that Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt were all representative of the composing and struggling forces. Gonzales achieved high office not because of the force and strength of his character, but rather because he was essentially so much legal playdough in the hands of his political masters–he gave them the legal opinions they wanted. No pushback. He was a pawn, not a leader.

Still, this squabble set the stage very well for Time Magazine’s own choice, just announced: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. You may dislike, or even despise Putin—I have a friend who has taken to calling him “Lilyputin,” in fact—but it seems to me extremely difficult to challenge the thesis that he is a proper person of the year. Indeed, the choice is a particularly appropriate one for Americans, who continue to suffer from a serious case of monomania in national security issues.

For the last six years the flavor of the day has been “Islamic terrorism,” “Islamofascism” or some similar histrionics. That is, of course, a handful of stones in the mosaic that composes the nation’s threat environment. On the other hand, the threat potential of a nation which sits on an arsenal of thousand-megaton thermonuclear devices with demonstrated delivery systems goes unmentioned these days. And that, in a word, is severe foolishness.

Putin is a complex character. He’s in the last year of his presidency of the Russian Federation. Yet no serious observer believes he is going to simply fade and disappear from the Russian political scene the way that Gorbachev did after 1992 or Yeltsin did after 1999. The smart money says that Putin will continue to be a vitally influential figure, perhaps as a sort of co-adjutant prime minister in a Medvedev presidency.

It’s also an extremely useful exercise to put the Putin presidency down side-by-side with the Bush presidency—they overlap very substantially. Whatever sympathies or hostility one may personally have towards the policies and objectives of these two leaders, in forming a detached assessment of the course of the presidencies it is impossible to escape this conclusion: Putin is an astonishingly clever politician and his presidency will be marked a success. Conversely, Bush’s political skills on the global stage have proven the weakest of any modern American president, and his presidency will be seen as a failure, potentially even a catastrophic failure. This can be judged in the first instance in how each managed and played the “expectations game.” Putin set very realistic, accomplishable goals for himself and Russia. And he actually achieved those goals. Bush on the other hand, spurned his more experienced advisors and constantly established vague and distant goals which could never really be accomplished, which helps explain why, for instance, in Iraq he has been forced to redefine and lower expectations almost every quarter—the classic conduct of a leader losing a conflict.

I addressed Putin’s presidency in remarks I gave back in July to an audience of professionals from around the CIS in Tbilisi:

The arrival of Vladimir Putin in 1999 marks a very important change in Russian political development. Putin acted very quickly to address the major problems associated with Yeltsin:

  • Shoring up respect for the law (his famous diktatur zakonov);

  • Improving revenue collections to put the budget back in order;

  • Cracking down on the plutocrats, and specifically going quickly against those who had the highest profile and were the most politically engaged;

  • Working to restore Russia’s image on the international stage, specifically by acting more aggressively both within the near abroad and in Europe.

Putin assuredly will be faulted for his rollback of basic civil liberties, for the brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya, for his intolerance with respect to domestic political opposition. Yet for all of this, Putin’s presidency must be reckoned a striking success. He articulated clear goals that reflected the needs seen by the majority of the Russian people; and he took steps reasonably measured to achieve these goals. In fact, it is beyond dispute at this point that he did achieve these goals.

I will cite one example that reflects the underestimated brilliance of Putin’s policy agenda. Putin has an impressive, personal mastery of energy policy. Indeed, this has been a subject that has long captivated him. In St Petersburg, Putin did his kandidat nauk with his dissertation topic on the creation of a foreign policy for Russia which derived maximum benefit from Russia’s enormous oil and gas reserves, with a focus on the gas aspect. The dissertation argues that Russia’s gas resources and Middle Europe’s dramatic gas needs provide Russia with far more effective leverage with the Europeans than the military calculus of the late Soviet period.

Putin, to put a point on it, recognized that Russia’s potential geopolitical leverage point was in natural resources generally, and energy resources in particular. Russian foreign policy has been redefined around this point. A policy that once focused on divisions, tanks and missiles now focuses on pipelines. You can finish reading my analysis here.

Time has chosen very well. Putin’s completed two-term presidency has marked the end of a transition stage for modern Russia. It is returning to the global stage as an important power. Russia is re-emerging in his historical role as the other great power on Europe’s periphery. And it will play this role particularly through the management of energy policy. I expect that many historians in the coming decades will look at the first decade of the twenty-first century and will see a period in which two powers played a round of cards with a focus on energy resources. One sat at the table with an unimaginably strong hand and played very rashly—in fact like a drunken teenager—while the other, dealt a more modest hand, played with great restraint and not a little brilliance. And that sets the stage for the next round, in which a very different set of cards has been dealt. Opinion makers in America have been so caught up in absurd games of fear-mongering that they have largely lost touch with the realities of this card game. And Time Magazine has issued a wake-up call.

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