On the night of Dec. 5, 1989, Vladimir Putin, then a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, watched with alarm as thousands of East Germans in Dresden swarmed the riverside compound of the dreaded secret police, the Stasi.
The Berlin Wall had been breached the month before, and the Communist government that had ruled East Germany since the end of World War II gasped its last breaths as protesters took to the streets across the country. The officer and future Russian president, just 37 at the time, could only stand by helplessly at the KGB’s Dresden outpost a few hundred feet away.
The takeover of the Stasi headquarters was relatively peaceful, but in Putin’s mind the crowd was frenzied, deranged and dangerous, and the experience that night haunted him like nothing else in his mostly undistinguished career as an intelligence officer. “I felt it like a fault of my own,” he told one of his oldest friends, Sergei Roldugin.
East Germany soon ceased to exist, as did the Soviet Union following the abortive revolt in August 1991, suffering from an affliction that Putin described as “a paralysis of power.”
That diagnosis has been a driving force in his consolidation of political power, and it does much to explain Russia’s forceful intervention last week to bolster the besieged government of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
The specter of mass protest — of mob rule — is one that has haunted Putin throughout his political life, and that fear is at the heart of his belief in the primacy of state authority above all else at home and abroad.
The East Germans considered their protests an expression of popular will, just as many Syrians did when protests against Assad’s government began in 2011. But Putin viewed them as an unlawful usurpation of government authority. And that, in his mind, leads inexorably not to positive political change, but rather to chaos.
“Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change,” Putin said at the United Nations on Monday, where he spoke for the first time in a decade. “But what was the actual outcome?”
Dark view of democracy
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed darkened Putin’s opinion of freewheeling democracy — and of the character of his own constituents. He was deeply ambivalent about the protests that hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and as an obscure mayoral aide in St. Petersburg, cheered Boris Yeltsin’s forceful response to the political uprising in the constitutional crisis of 1993, which culminated in the shelling of the parliament.
In 1998, as the head of Yeltsin’s security council, Putin had to mediate an electoral dispute in the southern region of Karachayevo-Cherkessia to prevent violence erupting between rival ethnic groups.
The lesson he said he learned was that only the strong hand of the state could avoid the economic and political chaos that consumed Russia in the 1990s. That belief is widely shared in Russia, and is one reason for Putin’s genuine popularity at home.
“The Russian people are backward,” he told a group of foreign academics in 2005, according to Marie Mendras’ account in “Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State.” “They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.”
What is striking, though perhaps consistent, is how Putin’s view of public protest has become the basis for an increasingly assertive foreign policy, one aimed at countering what he views as efforts by the U.S. and others to violate the sovereignty of nations by encouraging change.
Putin considered U.S. support for the revolutions that swept former Soviet republics — Georgia in 2002, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 — evidence of a U.S. policy to topple governments in what had historically been Russia’s sphere of influence.
Fear of those movements contributed to the deterioration of political freedoms in Russia. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a report released Friday that these uprisings have been studied by Russia’s commanders as “a new U.S. and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at a low cost and with minimal casualties.”
The civil war in Syria, in that view, is merely the latest in a series of messy conflicts that arise from the toppling or weakening of central authority through U.S. aggression. Previous instances include the U.S. war in Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein, and NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya.
The events in Libya proved decisive in Putin’s return to the presidency after stepping aside, at least formally, in accordance with the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. With his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, in the Kremlin at the time, Russia acquiesced to a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force against the government of Moammar Gadhafi.
Factor in Putin’s return
According to several officials close to the Kremlin, Medvedev’s dangerous irresolution was a decisive factor in Putin’s decision to return to the presidency, which he announced six months later. Since he returned, Russia has blocked resolution after resolution against Syria’s government, prompting criticism that its intransigence has only worsened the conflict.
By the time protests erupted again in Ukraine in the winter of 2013 and 2014, Putin was firmly back in the presidency. The upheaval seemed to him the continuation of an aggressive foreign incursion that was marching inexorably to the Kremlin itself. That argument ignored the indigenous grievances that drew Ukrainians to the streets.
“Any citizen has a right to express their opinion about the decisions made, but this must be kept within the law,” he said when the protests began.
Last week at the U.N., he said that “the people’s widespread frustration with the government was used for instigating a coup d’état from abroad.”
Putin used the chaotic flight of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014 to justify annexation of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine that has splintered the country and led to more than 7,000 deaths.
Many have variously interpreted Putin’s intervention in Syria as a response to domestic pressures caused by an economy faltering with the drop in oil prices and sanctions imposed after Crimea; a desire to change the subject from Ukraine; or a reassertion of Russia’s position in the Middle East.
All are perhaps factors, but at the heart of the airstrikes is Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.
“Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one,” he declared at the U.N. The Soviet Union, he said, had once sought to export “social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.”