A Look at Putin Through the Soviet Lens

This year dawned, 30 years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, amid shades of the Cold War. Russian paratroopers deployed to Kazakhstan this week to help quell unrest. Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, and the world wonders if

Vladimir Putin

is about to seize more territory from a former Soviet republic.

At the same time, Mr. Putin has stepped up repression inside Russia’s borders. Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of human-rights group International Memorial, which documents Soviet-era crimes. The government also detained associates of imprisoned opposition leader

Alexei Navalny.

Independent media are finding it increasingly difficult to operate.

“Society is becoming more scared. The consequences seem to be more dire,” Cold War historian

Sergey Radchenko,

a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tells me in an interview by video. “The opposition leaders have either been in jail, or killed, or have been exiled, or fled overseas. Putin is becoming obviously more repressive and more desperate to hold onto power while not seeing a clear exit for himself.”

With Mr. Putin seeking to upend the U.S.-led world order, Mr. Radchenko, 41, faults some of his peers for “a degree of triumphalism.” “Cold War historians focus on the Cold War—started in 1945, finished in 1991,” he says. In the aftermath, they saw it as “a struggle of two ideologies. Communism was defeated, therefore everybody lives happily thereafter. But what they, I think, fail to appreciate is that a lot of the underpinning elements of Soviet behavior that were there during the Soviet times and in Russian times before that . . . those elements remained.”

For one thing, the Russian government today seems no more open about its decision making than its Soviet predecessor. “[Putin] claims that he’s receiving information from different sources,” Mr. Radchenko says. “Where does he really receive information? Is it the intelligence services? What kind of information is he receiving? Is he a victim of his own delusions?”

Yet an important dynamic has changed. “Russia is actually pretty open when it comes to archival sources,” Mr. Radchenko says. “Not in every area—they’ve shut down Memorial, for example.” But “there has been considerable declassification and opening on Putin’s watch in the last four or five years. It’s been quite amazing. What you have now is an absolute avalanche of materials on Soviet leaders.”

As a result, more may be known about

Nikita Khrushchev’s

thinking than Mr. Putin’s. Frustrating as this is for Western policy makers, Mr. Radchenko sees “massive continuities” between the actions of the Soviet Union and today’s Russian Federation. His own deep dive into the minds of Soviet leaders is helpful for understanding Mr. Putin’s behavior.

Consider the Berlin crisis (1958-61). Khrushchev perceived the balance of power shifting as the Soviet nuclear arsenal grew, and he believed he could bluff away some of his country’s foreign-policy dilemmas. “He would say, ‘OK, we’ll squeeze the Americans out of Berlin.’ Obviously Berlin was a big sore point for Khrushchev, much as Ukraine is for Putin today,” Mr. Radchenko says. “He presented an ultimatum to the Americans—that you have to sign a peace treaty with Germany, paving the way to a withdrawal from Berlin. And if you don’t, he implied, then the Soviet Union would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, and they’ll kick the U.S. out of Berlin.”

The archives show that Khrushchev “thought that the Americans were unlikely to go to war over Berlin, and he made the calculation that it was a 95% chance that they would not go to war,” Mr. Radchenko continues. Still, that was a 5% chance of “an absolutely destructive, suicidal war. And that was too much for him. So he decided to back down and quietly wind down the whole Berlin thing by building a Berlin Wall.”

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Today Mr. Putin seeks an agreement that would limit the size and activities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, effectively restoring Russian dominion over much of Central and Eastern Europe—a nonstarter for Washington and the alliance’s leadership. “I’m not trying to suggest that Putin is Khrushchev or Khrushchev is Putin,” Mr. Radchenko says. “What I’m saying is that Putin cannot be blind to this general perception—that’s not just in Russia but around the world—that there’s a changing correlation of forces.”

The historian cites America’s “absolutely horrendous withdrawal from Afghanistan” and its “preoccupation with China” as signs U.S. leaders “don’t have the guts to do much about Europe.” Like Khrushchev, Mr. Putin could be trying his luck to see what he can come up with. “He’s obviously hoping to avoid a war and get his way, including his so-called security guarantees, . . . and then sell that to the Russian public as a great victory for great strategist, Vladimir Putin.” Such are the stakes at next week’s U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva.

Mr. Radchenko was born in the Soviet Union near the Chinese border and grew up on the island of Sakhalin in the northern Pacific. Life in the far-eastern outpost was so dull—“just lots of ice fishing, really”—that Mr. Radchenko would “tune into Japanese radio and just listen for hours, thinking: What are they saying?”

As teenager in the 1990s he came to America “thanks to U.S. taxpayers.” He took part in the Future Leaders Exchange Program, which “allowed young Russians to go to the United States in order to see the virtues of democracy and hopefully come back and transform Russia into a free and democratic society. It didn’t quite work out.” (One alumna of the program is now editor in chief of the Russian state-controlled RT television network.)

But America won over Mr. Radchenko. Studying in Texas, he was at first “quite dazed” by its freedom and prosperity. “What matters to me is that I live in a democratic, free, open society,” he says. “I value freedom, and I value democracy, and I value the ability to speak your mind.” He later studied in Hong Kong and England, where he earned a doctorate in international history at the London School of Economics. He worked in Mongolia, China and the U.K. before settling at Johns Hopkins.

He describes his work as a historian as “trying to understand, fundamentally, motivations for human actions,” especially in international relations. He describes one of Moscow’s paramount motivations: “Throughout the Cold War, Soviet leaders wanted to obtain recognition of their greatness,” he says. “They felt an acute deficit of legitimacy, domestic legitimacy. Of course this was helped by the fact that the Soviet Union, the Soviet leaders, had no other sources of legitimacy, in terms of free and fair elections that could allow them to claim legitimacy for domestic purposes.”

The Soviets sought to be recognized as revolutionary leaders but also America’s co-equal: “If Americans recognized them, recognized their greatness, therefore that really would make them great, and that legitimized them for their domestic purposes.” Mr. Putin craves the same recognition today, but “the question for Putin is: What does he want to be recognized as?” It’s too late for Russia to become an American partner, but standing up to NATO “legitimizes Putin in his own eyes and for the purposes of domestic political narratives.”

Mr. Putin also is preoccupied with his place in the pantheon of Russian leaders. “He himself is trying to understand his role in history. And that is why he keeps turning to history, and that is why he writes historical articles,” Mr. Radchenko says, referring to the Russian leader’s published writings on World War II and Ukrainian-Russian relations. “Why would you do that? This is crazy. Historians do that. He’s not supposed to be doing that. But that’s because he’s trying to understand himself what it is that he did for Russia.

“And unfortunately, it’s a pretty short list. Because if you look at the list, it’s repression, stagnating economy, lots and lots of bad things. So he’s trying to portray himself as potentially somebody who is restoring Russia as some kind of a regional actor, and that potentially includes regional integration. So he is developing close relations with some of the former Soviet republics, countries like Kazakhstan,” where Mr. Putin likely hopes his role in putting down protests will strengthen ties with the regime. “He is obviously hoping that his relationship with Belarus will eventually lead to some kind of integration between Russia and Belarus.”

Which brings us back to Ukraine, crown jewel of former Soviet republics. “Early in his tenure, Ukraine was central to Putin’s integrationist vision for Eurasia. And it didn’t work out, largely because of his own actions after he annexed Crimea and after he oversaw the invasion of Eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Radchenko says. “His articles about Ukraine, or his various statements about Ukraine being an artificial nation, can be viewed as almost a cry of the soul—as in: ‘Look, why are things going in that direction? They’re supposed to go in a different direction. What can I do now to fix the situation?’ ”

Mr. Putin turns 70 this year. “Is he thinking that, for his legacy to really stick as the gatherer of the Russian lands, would he have to annex half of Ukraine?” Mr. Radchenko asks. “That’s a big question. He obviously has helped himself to Crimea, and obviously there’s a war that’s going on—has been going on for seven years in Donbas. But the question is: Is that enough for Putin? Is he looking for something beyond that?”

Mr. Radchenko doesn’t claim to know the answer. “As a historian, I never take a clear-cut view. Because I say, well look, historically, it’s always some shades of gray,” he says. “To completely appease Russia, that doesn’t work. Or you completely stand strong and cause a war or something, that also doesn’t work. So the answer I think is finding the middle ground”—an outcome that avoids catastrophe even if it’s morally unsatisfying.

“Although the world does not recognize Russian annexation of Crimea, the fact is that Crimea is in Russian hands,” he says. “It’s inconceivable in any near future or medium-term future that Crimea will somehow be renounced by Russia and return to Ukraine.” As for Eastern Ukraine, “Is it likely that Russia is going to leave Donbas or whatever parts it’s holding on to, and sort of abandon it? I don’t think this is a likely proposition. So the menu to choose from is conflict, renewed warfare or some kind of negotiated solution.”

If Mr. Putin is hell-bent on incorporating Eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation, he has the military capability to do so. But Mr. Radchenko sees some space for optimism. “I feel that Putin is an opportunist,” he says. “If he is an opportunist, then it’s likely that he can be convinced, with the proper inducement and proper application of sticks and carrots, to pursue a different policy. But you also have to then consider what to give him, and how to give it, in order not to potentially encourage further encroachment and further aggression.”

He thinks “freezing the situation on Donbas probably would be everyone’s preferred solution at this stage, because the alternative is unfreezing it and we don’t want to unfreeze it at this moment, because this would mean war. That is why advice would be, both to Kyiv and in fact to Moscow, to try to find some sort of compromise solution. And that, of course, means avoiding by all means a renewal of military hostilities on the actual line separating the two sides in Donbas.”

He returns to his unlikely Soviet-era model: “The Berlin Wall was not a very nice outcome, obviously. It was a brutal symbol of the Cold War, and people died trying to cross it, seeking freedom in the West.” But at least it came down peacefully decades later.

Mr. O’Neal is a Europe-based editorial page writer for the Journal.

Main Street: Critics warn that talk of military action will kill any hope of a diplomatic solution with Iran. But the opposite is closer to the truth. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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