Diplomatic MattersStrategic Opinions

Putin’s love for the Russian Roulette

By Osmund Agbo

It was nerve racking for a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin as he watched angry crowds overrun the sprawling Stasi compound, the inner sanctum of which housed the KGB headquarters in the East German city of Dresden where he was stationed in December 1989. Even worse was the feeling when he placed a call to his superiors, asking for a backup in order to protect his men as well as the sensitive files hidden inside. The voice at the other end was clear about the fact that “Moscow is silent” and that meant he shouldn’t expect any help.

Totally overwhelmed with grief and consumed by fear, Putin dashed outside and lied to the crowds that he had heavily armed men inside who were ready to shoot anyone that would attempt entry. The mob quietly dissipated and everyone was safe. The bluff worked, but if not for his quick wit, Russian history would have been different as we know it today. The event of that December, however, continues to shape the thinking and policy of the man whom Boris Yeltsin handed over Russia ten years after. He watched in the most pathetic and humiliating way,

the crumbling of one of the world’s most powerful empires; the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Soviet Union finally disintegrated on December 26th, 1991 following the launching of Gorbachev’s twin signature program of Perestroika ( a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Glasnost that advocated openness, amid deep economic turmoil. By this time, Putin officially had resigned his position with the KGB and headed back to Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg where he worked for the city’s mayor and his former law professor, Anatoly Sobchak. 

Putin was fiercely loyal to his boss, kept a low profile and before long built up a reputation as the behind-the-scenes guy that gets things done. He later relocated to Moscow in 1996 and quickly climbed up the political ladder to became the head of the Federal Security Service(FSB), the agency that succeeded the KGB. Yeltsin later appointed Putin prime minister, the second-highest-ranking official in Russia and when he stepped down on December 31, 1999, under enormous internal pressure, he named Putin the acting president. Putin then went on to win the election in March.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia privatized many state-owned assets which allowed some businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin access to informal deals that led them to rapidly accumulate wealth during the time. In the process, Russia minted a bunch of new billionaires referred to by the western press as the Oligarchs.

One of Mr. Putin’s first order of business as acting president was to reassure the powerful Russian Oligarchs that he was not out to get them as long as they stay in their lane and support him whenever he calls for help. He started by granting his former boss. Mr. Yeltsin immunity from criminal investigations against reported cases of high-level corruption and financial malfeasance.

As the then new president, Putin was seen as another colorless technocrat that Boris Yeltsin and the oligarchs propped up to cover their ugly tracks. But soon enough, the former Soviet apparatchik morphed to an over-ambitious macho man. Putin came to embody Russia’s struggle for power and relevance in a fast-changing world. Whether it’s him subduing Siberian tigers, shooting guns or throwing down opponents in martial-arts competitions, the carefully curated image is that of Russia that is back, roaring and so demands respect among the committee of nations.

In his annual state of the nation address on Monday, April 25th, 2005, President Putin called the collapse of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He stated that tens of millions of Russians found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory and that the ugly effect of the collapse of the union has threatened the nation’s corporate existence, referring to separatist movements such as those in Chechnya.

Since the removal of the fantastically corrupt but Putin-backed Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, following a massive uprising tagged the Ukrainian revolution, Russia has been throwing tantrums and doing everything in her power to destabilize a neighbor that would rather look towards the West.

Using the excuse of “to ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will”, Russia in March 18th, 2014 invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. According to the United Nations, about 13,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict, a quarter of them civilians and as many as 30,000 wounded. As of today, Russia continues to illegally occupy Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the city of Sevastopol, certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions within the territory of Ukraine.

Even though he thrives in sophisticated thuggery and his method is often crude and devoid of decency, Putin without a shred of doubt has positioned Russia as a strategic player of global reckoning. That is why many Russians are willing to forgive all his transgressions which are way too many. But the Russia that the former KBG officer envisages today, is close to an impossibility. Though still strong militarily, the Russian economy is in shambles following years of crippling economic sanctions imposed by the US. Her economy is hardly diversified and is heavily reliant on crude oil and natural gas with all the market crests and troughs. With a GDP of $1.3 trillions in 2015 according to the World Bank, Russia’s economy is roughly a tenth the size of the United States. Yet, the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute, stated that in that same year 2015, Russia budgeted 5 percent of her GDP to Military spending compared to the U.S. 3.3 percent.

Also, the old communist alliances she had, have shattered as most of the nations that made up the old republic move toward liberal democracy. Her former allies in the Warsaw Pact are all flocking into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Starting with Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary in 1999, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania followed in 2004, and Albania in 2009. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine are on the waiting list. Now Kremlin is lashing out. Big time.

Putin is demanding a legally binding security guarantees from NATO that promises to halt further expansion to the east or else, she will overrun her less powerful neighbor. As President Oleks Zelenskyy, the actor/comedian turned politician continues to fight his own internal political battles at home, the country that he superintends has become an unfortunate pawn in Russia’s expansionist chessboard. 

Today, the Kremlin is ratcheting up tension even more and amassing close to 150,000 troops and tanks in the border with Ukraine. It maintains that Kiev that is aligned with the West and NATO is an encroachment on Russia’s area of influence. NATO is yet to offer Ukraine membership but the fact still remains that the Kremlin believes that Russia will never become a consequential global power without exerting control over Ukraine. There is also the idea that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine is a threat to the current authoritarianyism in Russia and may inspire a whole generation of dissenting voices that could demand changes in the way things are done.

Aside from Military aggression,

element of Russian warfare against Ukraine include trafficking in propaganda based on lies and deceit; terror and intimidation of Ukrainian citizens; trade and economic pressure; cyber-attacks and energy blockade to mention but a few. Russia is hell bent on undermining the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and had shown no sign of stopping untill that hope is realized.

The Group of Seven countries comprising the United States and European nations warned Moscow of massive consequences and severe costs if it attacked Ukraine. Defying such warning on Monday, however, Putin recognized the two breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian troops to move in. The G-7 on Tuesday responded with series of sanctions targeting those Kremlin-backed regions. Germany placed on hold, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline built to deliver natural gas to Europe but not yet operational. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is threatening to suspend the certification process of the project over what he calls Russian aggression and break of international law. Aside from these economic sanctions, the US and her NATO allies have no appetite for an armed conflict with Russia, ruling out the option for a direct military intervention beyond providing economic aid and military Hardwares to Kiev. President Biden would continue to wring his hands while Russia continues on the path of unbridled aggression.

Russian Roulette is a fatal game of chance where a single round is deposited in a revolver, following which the cylinder is spun. The player then sets the muzzle against his or her head and pulls the trigger. The average number of attempts required before the bullet discharged is about 3.5, if one didn’t have to rotate the barrel of a six-chamber pistol after every pool. That means that the odds of a discharge is high, yet humans still play this deadly game.

Most people would normally not gamble with their lives, yet the thrill of playing the Russian roulette bothers on crass brinkmanship. The odds are that normal people who play the deadly game are already suffering the bug of optimism bias. That probably might explain why we tend to discount the statistical probability of losing a loved one in an auto crash or why a cigarette smoker would disregard all available statistics and continue to puff away. Sadly enough, that is the game Putin has on the rest of the world.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]

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