In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, a 15-year veteran of the KGB stationed in East Germany was offered the position of assistant to the powerful chairman of the city council of St. Petersburg, then still known as Leningrad.
Since the pictures of Lenin which had hung for years on office walls had been taken down, city officials were asked to choose whose photo they wished to hang up instead. Most chose Boris Yeltsin, who had recently become the first freely elected president of Russia. But the KGB agent indicated that he preferred a portrait of Peter the Great. Here, too, he was offered a choice — between a painting of a young, curly-headed Peter and a little-known engraving of the Tsar towards the end of his life, after he had established his great empire. The KGB officer-turned-politician chose the latter.
He would ultimately go on to become mayor of St. Petersburg, and later prime minister and ultimately president of Russia. But this anecdote early in Vladimir Putin’s career is very telling.
As House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers put it this week, Putin “goes to bed at night thinking of Peter the Great, and wakes up in the morning thinking of Stalin.”
“We need to understand who he is and what he wants,” Rogers continued. “It may not fit with what we believe in the 21st century, but that’s not who he is or what he wants to accomplish. We need to be a little bit tougher with Putin, or he is going to continue to take territory that he believes is rightfully Russia’s.”
Peter the Great started his military campaign to transform Russia into an international power in 1695 by waging battles against the Crimean Tatars. Initially unsuccessful, Peter persevered, and eventually captured large swaths of land from Finland, Estonia and even Persia. By the time he died, 30 years later, he left a massive empire that stretched from the White Sea to the Caspian Sea and from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Peter was also extraordinarily ruthless, and had no compunctions about having his own son tortured and condemned to death.
Some three centuries after the demise of Peter the Great, Vladimir Putin seems to be keen on following his hero’s example and is bent on restoring Russia to a powerful position on the world scene.
Putin enjoyed a year of stunning victories in international diplomacy. He successfully brokered a deal on the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons that protected his close ally Assad from punishing international airstrikes. He humiliated the United States by giving former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden asylum.
When he suffered a stinging setback with the toppling of his Ukrainian pawn, President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin refused to take it lying down.
Five years after ordering the successful invasion by Russian troops of Georgia, and the seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin did the same with Crimea.
The fact that President George W. Bush barely responded to Russia’s blatant aggression emboldened Putin, as did President Obama’s decision to ignore Putin’s land grab in Georgia and famously declare that he wanted to “reset” the American-Russian relationship.
In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a gift-wrapped red button, which said “Reset” in English and “Peregruzka” in Russian.
As Lavron was quick to point out, “peregruzka” does not mean reset. It means overcharged, hardly the message America was trying to send.
As the events of the past few weeks have illustrated, it is Mr. Putin who is very eager to “reset” his country’s relations with the outside world — back to the days of Peter the Great.
Though Putin’s actions have sparked one of Europe’s deepest political crises in decades and drawn comparisons to the Cold War era’s tensions, it would be an error to underestimate the Russian leader’s willpower. As America and the EU struggle to come up with an effective response, there is real fear that Putin may seek to send his troops further into Ukraine, or perhaps into the tiny European country of Estonia.
In an interview a few years back, Putin recalled his childhood experiences living in a communal apartment. Though he developed an excellent rapport with some of the neighbors, including a Shabbos-observing elderly Jewish couple, he described the living conditions as horrid.
He related that on the “stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me! It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut on its nose.”
This is some historical background to the current crisis in the Crimea.
Now we wait to see how the Obama administration and its European allies will cope with the current crisis.
In his drive to restore the Russia to the glory of the days of Peter the Great, Vladimir Putin is fully cognizant of the weakness being exhibited by U.S. foreign policy and is eagerly exploiting it. Cunning and calculating, he will go to extraordinary measures to ensure that he won’t be cornered; that he will be the hunter and not the hunted.
It will take great wisdom and enormous determination to try to checkmate this brilliant and ruthless player. We can only pray that the Creator imparts this wisdom to leaders of the Western world as they seek to contain Putin’s relentless appetite to swallow the lands of his neighbors, so he can rebuild an empire.