With the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, you may be wondering, “When is that cruel man Putin going to find his heart and put a stop to this?” It is doubtful that he can. Putin is riding a bull, and if he gets off, he will get stomped.
In 2007, I asked a young Russian woman to name Putin’s greatest achievement. She replied, “Staying alive.” A few years before then, Moscow was like Chicago in the 30’s. That it is not today is the result of some very sophisticated measures of control, discussion of which would be a digression.
But in spite of examples to the contrary in domestic politics, people tend to view Russia as a “Game of Thrones”, with Putin the Czar of all Russia. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Russia lacks a political class that even loosely fulfills Will Roger’s description of the U.S. Congress, it has an economic class, the “Oligarchs”, who wear both hats. When Putin ascended, power was concentrated in a mere seven of them. He has managed to considerably increase the number, which, in Russia, counts for progress.
Perhaps our worst fears of Putin’s negativity towards political pluralism will come to pass, but he sends top students abroad, particularly to the U.K., where they will inevitably become infected with ideals. Why would Putin accept the risk of infection, when they can learn to program in Java at home?
Possibly, it is because Putin really would prefer, on his eventual departure, to hand the country over to an advanced political class, of the type formerly nurtured here by the “Eastern Intellectual Establishment.” I miss those days. But there is a gap approximating a generation. Russia runs on money. The whole of the oligarchic structure is composed of elements that would devour every living, moral thought in the country. The only institution that could conceivably serve as a moral gap-filler is the Orthodox Church.
Much has been made of Putin’s hidden billions, with the spin of hidden fortune, hidden aggrandizement, hidden corruption. Now, look at the man. Do you see him dripping with bling, and gals on the arm? Are there rumors that he sleeps, as did Gandhi, with seven virgins? His style is all of a piece with Warren Buffet’s.
When I wrote a paper about Putin’s character, I omitted mention of a hidden fortune, not because I disbelieved it, but because I could not find a citation without the word, “rumor.” But it is certainly plausible that it exists, and it is large. One plausible reason accompanies the existence of the billions: to buy Russia back.
But, you say, he has Russia. What does he need to buy? The fortune may be real, but the idea that he rules Russia truly is an illusion. If a collusion of oligarchs attempts to remove him, the money is to buy the country back. The price would be huge, but, as we have seen, he is a providential planner. And at stake, literally, is the Soul of All Russia.
This is why, in the administration of a domestically oriented President with a not-so-great foreign policy record, the policy of sanctioning the oligarchs is brilliant. If and when the oligarchs decide, military disengagement with the rebels will occur. But they have a problem. By now, the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.
If Putin and his inner circle decide to do the right thing, they are then faced with arranging the mysterious disappearances, accidents, falling down stairs, getting run over by cars, etc., of hundreds of people. These days, arranging even one unfortunate accident can take years.