David Warsh: On Putin, think of a high-tech Russian 'nesting doll'

Russian nesting dolls; Vladimir Putin is the one on the far left.

Russian nesting dolls; Vladimir Putin is the one on the far left.

Scary Vladimir Putin, Bogeyman to the World, has been on full display in U.S. newspapers this month, most conspicuously on the front page of The New York Times,  in a misleading photograph suitable for the cover of a new edition of Nineteen Eight-Four.  “Putin Says He Has ‘Invincible’ Nuclear Missile,” was the headline. The hypersonic zig-zag cruise missiles and torpedoes of which he boasted might be a bluff for now, The Times noted. Fully operational, however, such weapons would “travel low, stealthily, far and fast – too fast for defenders to react.”

A week later, The Times reported on the attempted assassination using nerve gas of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who in the 1990s had become a double agent for the British intelligence service MI6. The Brits all but charged the Russian government with making the attempt. The Russian government denied responsibility and took umbrage.

It was then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev who pardoned Skripal in 2010 and swapped him for a batch of Russian spies. Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin was then serving as prime minister. The business newspaper Kommersant recently reported that Russian authorities considered the damage done by Skripal comparable to that of Oleg Penkovsky, another military intelligence double agent who was caught and tried in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. Penkovsky was reportedly rolled alive into a crematorium oven in 1963.

What wasn’t on display last week was an analytic account of what else Putin said in what was, after all, his state of the nation address, three weeks before the election in which he is seeking a fourth presidential term. For that I turned to Alexander Baunov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. I get my Russia news from Johnson’s Russia List — 191 items last week, of which I read perhaps 25  — and from Jonathan Haslam’s blog, "Through Russian Eyes''.  Haslam is Kennan professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Bloomberg’s Andrey Biryukov and Evgenia Pismennaya set the stage for Putin’s hour-long speech. Simon Shuster conveyed its atmospherics in Time, and Mary Dejevsky, of London’s Independent, its production values. But it was Baunov who made sense of it, in A Hi-Tech Russian {"nesting"} Doll: Putin’s Fourth-Term Reboot, on the Carnegie.ru Web site:

"Putin’s goal is now neither to recreate the USSR, nor to become part of the West. Rather, the ambition is to build an economic and technological “West” inside Russia, while continuing an aggressive posture towards the West on the outside….

"Putin’s speech depicts his vision of Russia as a kind of Matryoshka, a Russian {"nesting"} doll. The inside of the doll—the domestic part—is digital, wears hipster glasses and a short trendy jacket. The outside foreign part is dressed in military camouflage fatigues.''

That sounds like something the Chinese are well on their way to achieving: to be like the West, but with a diluted version of its values. But where China has the luxury of a geographic theater with natural boundaries – the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” as it was envisaged by Japan – Russia faces much greater difficulties identifying and protecting the boundaries of a natural sphere of influence. Its ambivalent relationship with Western Europe is more than three centuries old and shows no signs of flagging. No wonder, then, that, the day after his speech, Putin told a press conference that he regretted the break-up of the former Soviet Union.

The problems of the Russian economy, interesting though they may be, are for the most part orthogonal to those of the U.S., which at the moment have to do with the prospect of trade wars with its allies.  Vladimir Putin is there to stay in a way that Donald Trump probably isn’t. As Princeton University Prof. Stephen Kotkin told The Wall Street Journal last week, 18 years after Boris Yeltsin chose him as successor, Putin is no longer the “arbiter over a scrum of competing interests” but has become instead “the leader of a single faction that controls all the power and all the wealth.”

But Kotkin is simply mistaken when he says that, while Putin didn’t highjack the U.S. election itself, “he high jacked American public discourse.” It is the major newspapers — The Times, The Washington Post, and at least the editorial pages of The Wall Street  Journal – as well as The New Yorker magazine that are holding U.S. Russia policy hostage to their disdain for Donald Trump.  This proposition wants a separate column. I will write it soon.

David Warsh, an economic historian and long-time columnist on economic, political and media matters, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this columnist first ran.