A Quick Peek in the Mind of a Tiger
Lionel Barber, Financial Times editor, has recently interviewed Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. Here are the main takeaways I’ve deemed worth to remember. You might also want to watch their video on YouTube, it’s always interesting to see the man talk himself. What’s striking about Putin is that he radiates confidence and yet speaks very softly, with a noble and dignified air to him.
Longevity as a leader
First, let’s remind ourselves that his time in power has enabled him to attend a lot more international meetings than his international peers. Indeed, he has been Russia’s prime minister for four years and president for the next sixteen years. More than most of the developed countries' leaders.
I’ve learned in this interview that, although Russia is among the world’s largest oil producers, it is not an Opec member. Therefore, it has resorted to agreements with the organization members, and notably Saudi Arabia, to stabilize the market.
On a more general trend, Putin seems to be fond of order. He reckons today’s world has become “more fragmented and less predictable” than during, say, the Cold War. It is no wonder, then, that he leads an authoritarian policy in his own bastion. More noteworthy is the fact that Putin apparently was greatly disappointed in the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which he calls “the cornerstone of the entire international security system”. That surprised me, as my image of Putin was that of a more hawkish leader.
I made very energetic attempts to convince our US partners not to withdraw from the [ABM] treaty… the world would be a different place today, had our US partners accepted this proposal.
For all the bad press Putin receives from the US, he himself does not think poorly of the American presidents he has met. He spoke respectfully of the first one he worked with, Bill Clinton, and did the same with Donald Trump. He clearly states that he does not agree with many of his deeds but he still sees him as a “talented person”. He emphasizes Trump’s masterful handling of the US middle class dissatisfaction with globalization in his campaign.
More unexpectedly, Putin himself is not against globalization, and even defends it. He does put Russia’s interests first, but he believes those two stances are not incompatible. He strongly insists that his relationships with China do not carry deeper hidden meanings: he states that they are simply aligning their policies for the benefits of the both of them.
We are not against anyone, we are for ourselves.
On the topic of a war between the US and China, Putin points out that China has always showed loyalty to both its partners and opponents, but does not say the same about the US. Unfortunately, I do not know enough of Chinese politics to tell whether this statement is accurate. He also evokes the recent US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, and plans to talk with Trump about New Start, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire in 2021 if nothing is done. He seems adamant in containing the arms race between superpowers. He also reminded us that China’s defence spending is $117bn, compared to the US' $700bn. Again, he hopes the US and local powers such as India and China will cooperate with them to ensure stability in the Asia Pacific region.
Now, about North Korea, Putin put forth a answer which was consistent with his general stance. He argues that the problem is not to make North Korea disarm, but rather to ensure its government feels safe and protected by international treaties so as to placate the nuclear war threats. He judiciously compares it to the Soviet Union adopting the policy of detente, thus leading to its downfall.
Barber then asks Putin about his risk policy. Putin answers that he always assesses the situation thoroughly before making any heavy decision. For instance, the Russian intervention in Syria was decided after careful thinking, and proved to be very fruitful, according to him. He argues that they stabilized the region, therefore increasing Russia’s domestic security as a nearby territory; they were able to conclude good relationships with regional powers; and the Russian army gained valuable experience. He elaborated on Russia’s backing of Bashar al-Assad’s government: he believes Syrians should choose their own fate, but stability — again — must prime. He laughs as he remembers that, when he asked the US administration about what would happen if Assad was removed, they admitted they didn’t know.
Putin seemed a bit exasperated when Barber asked him why Russia supported Maduro’s regime. He answered that they had signed contracts from long ago, which are according to him perfectly legal and legitimate, which involved Russian specialists and instructors training local forces. He claims there are no other Russian forces in Venezuela. He draws a parallel with Libya and argues that it was impossible to impose a French democracy in a country that never had French democratic institutions. The result: war continues in Libya.
There was a little cat-and-mouse game between Barber and Putin about the Skripal affair. Putin argued that treason was a very grave crime that had to be punished, but denied any involvement in the assassination, stressing the fact that Skripal had already served in prison for five years.
Correcting Barber, Putin stated that real wages are not declining in Russia, but the real household disposable income is. He points out several factors explaining it: the VAT increase from 18% to 20%, the legalization of the shadow business and the high proportion of consumer loans in Russia. He says the economy is recovering and sending a few good signals but he wants to speed it up. Mainly, he insists on the growth of labour productivity through AI and robotics.
Also, their $500bn reserves in gold and foreign currency are according to him a safety net, and generate interests they can confidently spend. $35bn per year at a 7% interest rate would indeed be quite satisying.
Putin explains the Soviet Union’s collapse by the harsh living conditions of its people. As they lost their desire to preserve the state, it died down, but their situation did not necessarily improved. With the crumbling of both social protection and healthcare systems, many lost their jobs, he claims. That’s why he favors stability above all. In the West, he says, the gap between elites and the middle class has become too wide. He then touches on liberalism:
There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable.
Putin contends that Merkel made a “cardinal mistake” in naively accepting migrants. In Russia, he explains, they have toughened the legislation to ensure migrans respect Russian law and culture, and they are directly working with the migrants' original countries, teaching Russian at their schools. To Putin, “the liberal idea has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”.
The liberal idea
Putin believes, contrary to Marx, that religion is not the opium of the masses, but a very important component of today’s society. Whether we want it or not, our current world is based on mostly biblical values, and that much I agree with. He also views traditional, religious values as more stable than liberal ideas, which are slowly dying, in his view.
He throws a little joke here, asking if the journalists do not fear God, for they keep on torturing him at 12.45am. I didn’t see Putin as a humorous man, so it was refreshing to see.
On being asked if now is the time of the “illiberals”, Putin answers with a very vague and mild tone, arguing that diversity is key and that extreme opinions should be avoided… Then he also says this:
For this reason, I am not a fan of quickly shutting, tying, closing, disbanding everything, arresting everybody or dispersing everybody. Of course, not. The liberal idea cannot be destroyed either; it has the right to exist and it should even be supported in some things. But you should not think that it has the right to be the absolute dominating factor. That is the point. Please.
I can’t help but think Putin is being at least a bit hypocritical on that one. I’m sure Alexei Navalny would agree with me.
Putin admires Peter the Great, who greatly expanded the Tsardom of Russia, which later became the Russian Empire. He throws a few beautiful words about him:
He will live as long as his cause is alive just as the cause of each of us. We will live until our cause is alive.
Surprisingly, Putin also says he was impressed by former France president Jacques Chirac, whom he holds in high regard as an intellectual and a man of great conversation.
Putin has been thinking about his succesion since 2000, but finally says that his succession shall be chosen by the people of Russia. The future will show us how it goes, but I’m a bit skeptical about this.
A few thoughts
It was a very eye-opening interview, in my opinion. It’s always a valuable experience to dive into the inner workings of world leaders, and Putin is undeniably a great one. I could also realize he was much more clever that what people think of him, and his policies do make sense when he explains them with respect to his general stance and his affection for stability. If there is one word I’ll always associate with him, it’s this. Stability. Maybe it’ll help me understand better the stakes of future events involving Russia. I’m still unconvinced about his opinion on liberalism and freedom in general, but I’d say my opinion of him has quite improved.
Let’s hope his goal of a world-wide stability will come true.