The Man With The Razor

MOSCOW, Russia -- Power is a double-edged weapon, Vladimir Putin once told NEWSWEEK, likening it to a razor in the hands of a drunk. Wield it clumsily and you'll be hurt. Lately, Putin himself has played the drunk. And he's bleeding.

The Ukraine crisis is a post-Soviet tale of Jekyll and Hyde. By day, good Dr. Putin tries to remake Russia as a modern country. By night...

The crisis in Ukraine is only the latest in a series of self-inflicted wounds, ranging from the bungled takedown of the Yukos oil company to last year's disastrous meddling in Kiev's Orange Revolution. With Moscow assuming leadership of the G8—a long-sought validation of Russia's standing in the Western world—the Kremlin might have been on best behavior.

But no. By cutting Europe's gas supplies, only to see the tactic backfire, Putin & Co. once again showed themselves to be "the gang that can't shoot straight," as Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, bluntly puts it.

It's puzzling. Like him or loathe him, Russia's president is anything but a klutz. Critics accuse him of rolling back democracy and seeking to resurrect an empire of Soviet Lite. But they rarely deny his accomplishments. Almost singlehandedly, he imposed order on the chaos of the post-Yeltsin years.

New tax laws have filled the state treasury; the economy is booming. After leaving the KGB, Putin even wrote a part-time grad-school thesis on how Russia could use its energy resources to regain its global sway. As president, he's done just that. So the question: how does he so often get things so wrong? The explanation lies in the nature of his regime, a self-defeating coupling of arrogance with paranoia, power with weakness.

Begin with the Ukraine debacle. Cliff Kupchan at the Eurasia Group in Washington describes it as a sort of post-Soviet tale of Jekyll and Hyde. By day, the good Dr. Putin seeks to remake Russia as a modern European country. Hence, he intends to clean up Gazprom and open it to foreign investors. (Never mind that, along the way, he'll enrich Kremlin cronies who'll get stakes cheap and later sell out for big money.)

He promises that Russia can be counted on as a secure, reliable energy supplier, in contrast to the uncertain Middle East. But then night falls. Almost despite himself, Putin succumbs to dark inner urgings: a desire to punish Ukraine, perhaps a determination to show Europe (and others) that a resurgent Russia can no longer be taken for granted. "They are drunk on petrodollars," says Kupchan. "That inebriation caused them to miscalculate." And what a miscalculation. Not even during the cold war did Russia resort to using energy as a weapon. It was the ultimate un-European and antimodern act, undermining Russia's progress on all other fronts.

Closer to home, the same dynamic is at work. The story of how Putin rebuilt the Kremlin's power is familiar. He is a Russian Pinochet, or Marcos, tolerant of divergent views as long as they do not intrude on politics. Yet within the Kremlin itself the picture is weakness, not strength, as factions compete for money and power in an elite bureaucratic free-for-all that checks the president's latitude.

Paranoia and isolation rule the Kremlin roost, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a prominent Moscow political commentator. Surrounded by spinmeisters, Felgenhauer argues, Putin trusts no one fully—neither their motives nor the information they bring him. Thus he delays decisions until forced by events, and then he often overreacts.

Frequently the result is some variation on Ukraine—a nightmare of unforeseen and ugly consequences. Think of the mishandled Beslan and Moscow-theater hostage crises, with their needless civilian casualties, or the ham-handed meddling in Kiev's "colored revolution" —which Kremlin extremists fear will spread to such neighbors as Belarus if not Russia itself, abetted by Western "spies."

A potentially even bigger mess is brewing to the south, unnoticed by most Russians—let alone the outside world. Contrary to Moscow's story line, its brutal war in Chechnya is spreading. For years Putin and his men indulged a fantasy that the fighting was the work of a small minority of Islamic "terrorists" who could sooner or later be crushed by raw military power.

Now a virtual civil war rages, with Chechens preying on one another, led by Kremlin satrap Ramzan Kadyrov and his personal army of mercenaries specializing in kidnapping, extortion and murder. Fearing Islamic insurgencies elsewhere in the region, Moscow has cracked down on the population at large, closing mosques and detaining hundreds (if not thousands) of suspected troublemakers while condoning corruption and abuse by local security forces.

The upshot, says Rajan Menon, a Russia expert at Lehigh University, is to alienate the populace still further, playing into the hands of extremists and fanning the fires of a war throughout the North Caucasus.

Who dares speak truth to Putin's power? Precious few. One who did, economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, quit just last week, all but throwing his arms into the air over the Ukraine gambit. To NEWSWEEK, Putin once described himself as "very cautious, very careful." And so he is—except when he's not.

Source: Newsweek International