In more ways than one, the crisis that now grips Ukraine and Russia—as well as the rest of Europe—dates back to September 2011, when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced that Vladimir Putin would return as president in 2012. Medvedev had turned out to be, as feared, a seat-warmer who would step down after serving one term in order to pave the way for Putin to return and serve what may very well be a second set of two consecutive terms for another 12 years in office. Barring some personal or political disaster, Putin can now stay in power at least until 2024, when he will be 72 years old, putting him at roughly the same age and number of years in power as a predecessor in Moscow, Joseph Stalin.
In 2000 Prime Minister Putin became temporary head of state when President Boris Yeltsin resigned. Russian law called for a new presidential ballot in 90 days, and so a trio of writers was commissioned to produce in assembly-line style (and almost overnight) a biography designed to be the PR tool to ensure Putin’s victory.
In 2008 the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen penned an in-depth profile of Putin that included a lengthy discussion with Nataliya Gevorkyan. She was one of the three writers drafted into producing the laudatory bio, but—recalling her experience eight years later—as she delved into his background and personality, Gevorkyan found Putin increasingly less likable.
Specifically, she zeroed in on the wish Putin nurtured from a very young age to become a KGB agent. “What kind of person wants to be a KGB agent at the age of 15 or 16, when everyone else wants to be a cosmonaut?” asked Gevorkyan. “A mean, small-minded, and vengeful person” was her ultimate conclusion.
All three attributes seem to describe the mindset of Putin for the past several months, as he tried to keep Ukraine from leaving Russia’s orbit and moving onto a path towards membership in the European Union. It began with the fateful meeting in November 2013 in which then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was threatened with retaliatory measures from Moscow if he followed through with his declared plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU—the first step towards eventual membership.
Putin’s pathological personality flaws were in full flower that day. James Sherr, a fellow at the Russian and Eurasian program at the London-based think tank Chatham House and a leading Western expert on Ukraine with very well-developed sources inside the Ukrainian government, gave the English-language Kyiv Post a description of what transpired. According to Sherr,
Putin effectively said to Yanukovych that if he signed the association agreement with the EU he (Putin) would break every bone in his body. And he showed him how he would do it. By that I mean that Putin presented him with the telling details of the work done by [Putin’s adviser] Sergey Glazyiev and others, which targeted the key sectors of Ukraine’s economy vulnerable to Russian influence, including the industrial and financial interests closest to Yanukovych himself. My understanding is that Putin spoke in direct and brutal language: in language that would normally oblige the president of an independent state to end the meeting and return home.
Yanukovych then made an abrupt about-face and declared he would not sign the EU accord. This sparked the popular revolution that three months later had him fleeing Ukraine with a thuggish coterie of his kleptocratic inner circle (along with all of the expensive furniture and household relics he could carry with him) and scurrying across the border to safe haven in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Ridding themselves of Yanukovych’s disastrous and murderous neo-Soviet regime was a victory for the people of Ukraine. But it only heightened Putin’s mean and small-minded vengefulness. So he invaded Crimea.
The inclusion of Crimea within the territory of Ukraine has long been a sore spot with Russian nationalists. This southern peninsula was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in what has been characterized as an off-the-cuff move that no one on the Soviet Politburo spoke up to oppose. The combination of lingering Russian resentment and Putin’s desire to wreak vengeance on Ukraine for toppling the bully-boy he had picked to rule in Kiev has now prompted him to invade another sovereign nation. This has plunged Central Europe into the most dangerously destabilizing situation since Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938.