As an officer in the KGB in the 1980s, watching the Soviet Union begin to fall apart, Putin learned much about the virtues of credibility. He was, for instance, unusually candid in the campaign manifesto, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” that he published on the eve of replacing Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999. Russia’s economy had shrunk by half in the 1990s, he wrote; it was a tenth the size of the United States, then a fifth the size of China. Fifteen years of robust growth would be required just to reach the level of Spain or Portugal.Warsh's full essay is here.
For the first time in the past two hundred [or] three hundred years, [Russia] is facing the real threat of slipping down into the second, and possibly even third rank of world states. We are running out of time to avoid this.Putin took office as a conciliator, eager for economic integration with the West. He was the first to offer assistance to the Bush administration after 9/11. He did not object to a US base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to support the invasion of Afghanistan. He journeyed to Texas to visit George W. Bush at his Crawford ranch.
A series of disappointments followed. NATO continued a second round of expansion, admitting seven nations, including Lithuania, Latvia and Eastonia, former republics of the Soviet Union. Putin flew to Germany and France to join them in their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, without success. The US quietly supported the Orange and Rose Revolutions – westernizing movements in Ukraine and Georgia, and bruited those nations eventual entry into NATO.
Perhaps the most decisive development came when Chechen hostage-taking left 400 dead in the north Caucasus city of Beslan in September 2004. Afterwards, Putin blamed the US for failing to work closely with Russia in cracking down on Chechen rebels. All were terrorists in Moscow’s eyes; in Washington’s opinion, some were moderates with legitimate aspirations to independence.
Putin spoke out strongly in February 2007 in a speech to a security conference audience that included several American grandees. The New World Order with “one master, one sovereign,” was increasing tensions, not diminishing them. “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions” were causing more deaths than the bi-polar world that had existed before 1989, he said.
The next developments are familiar. A short war with Georgia in 2008 designed to emphasize its Finlandization in Moscow’s eyes. President Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The Arab Spring and NATO’s intervention to remove the Qaddafi regime in Libya. The beginnings of civil war in Syria. Putin’s decision to replace Dimitri Medvedev as president after the latter served a single term. Clinton’s support of election protests, and, above all, the events in Ukraine in 2014 that led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Even then, Putin relied on the reputation he had built for candor, starting with “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium.” The emotionally-charged speech to both houses of the Russian parliament announcing the annexation of the Crimean peninsula was analyzed and annotated by the BBC. It stands up well as an act of persuasion to those who grant Moscow’s right to a Monroe Doctrine of its own. Even the pretense of the “little green men” who stage-managed the referendum by which Russia obtained the consent of the locals seems to fall within the penumbra of truth-telling. Nations aren’t expected to disclose orders of battle when going to war.
It was the downing of a Dutch airliner by missile in eastern Ukraine that marked Putin’s departure from Western standards of credibility. The Russian government denied any role in the in incident, in which 298 persons perished, but investigators concluded that only a senior Russian military commander could have ordered the sophisticated anti-aircraft system deployed to Ukraine.
It was the same thing again last week when Putin denied that the Kremlin had sponsored a massive campaign of digital theft and political tinkering with US social media in 2016.