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When Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream, Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, “Round up and shoot all the Muslims and the bleeding hearts, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.”

Puzzled, Putin asks, “Why blue?”

“Ha!” says Stalin. “I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.”

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Putin

It was a brilliantly sunny summer’s day in November and blistering hot too by any standards, normal for this time the year in that part of the world. On the simmering tarmac stood a large wide-bodied jet that had four immense turbo-fan engines which let out a muted hiss as they turned over lazily. Within the next fifteen minutes, they would work up a combined thrust of 105,000 lbs as they effortlessly lifted the giant plane into the skies.

Silver-grey in color, with just a set of thin red and blue stripes running from under the nose to the vertical stabilizer, the huge jet had just one word emblazoned in big block letters above the wings – Россия. (pronounced ‘Rossiya’).

The jet was an IL96-300PU, the PU standing for ‘Command Point’. That is because in flight, the man who traveled on it, could launch a full-scale assault with one or more of the 8000 nuclear warheads that were at his disposal, more than any other nation in the world.

In spite of the 36° Celsius heat and the intense humidity, the tarmac was flooded with grim-faced men in black ties and suits, as a motorcade consisting of three long black limos eased to halt just a few yards from the steps leading up to the open doorway of the jet, where a slim stewardess in a black uniform with crimson collar and cuffs waited stiffly at attention.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin alighted from the second limo and the first thing that he did was to suddenly turn in his stride, accidentally bumping into one of his handlers who was under the impression that he would be walking straight up to the stairs. The man quickly apologized and shrank back while the Russian President strode over to the two Australian motorcycle cops who had guided the motorcade from the hotel to the airport.

Was it his love of motorcycles? Maybe. He heartily shook the cops’ hands with a broad open grin and stood for a moment admiring the heavy white Yamaha FJR police bikes and then turned and headed straight for the steps, already beginning to loosen his tie in the choking heat as he walked. At the head of the stairs, with a quick smile and wave, the man who has brought Russia’s GDP up from $ 900 Billion to $ 2.6 trillion in a decade and enjoys an approval rating of 80+ % at home, turned back and disappeared inside the aircraft.

The jet did not waste any time. It taxied quickly to the extreme end of the runway, made a wide sweeping turn at the outer threshold marker lines and without breaking stride, accelerated swiftly, a high-pitched scream coming from its four Aviadvigatel engines. In seconds, it left the asphalt and rose majestically into the clear blue sky, banking gently till it settled on a heading almost directly north, it’s first leg – nine hours to Vladivostok and then, eight hours to Moscow.

The summit which Putin had just left behind was the G20 at Brisbane Australia, was still ongoing when he departed in a huff, after enduring hours of browbeating by a succession of Western leaders urging him to drop his support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine. When asked at a hurriedly organized press briefing why he was leaving early, the Russian President had muttered with a dismissive smirk, “I have a long journey ahead and I need to get back at my desk first thing Monday morning. And anyway, as far as I am concerned, I am done with G20 summits.”

Incensed by the effort to isolate Russia pretty much the way school bullies tell everybody to shun one kid, Putin thundered on, “Do they want to bankrupt us? In that case they will bankrupt Ukraine too. Have they thought about what they are doing at all or not? Or has politics blinded them? As we know eyes constitute a peripheral part of brain. Was something switched off in their brains?”

Since Russia annexed Crimea and transformed what had been a domestic Ukrainian crisis to an international one, Putin’s approval rating has not fallen even a bit. Most pollsters have found that they are actually about 4% higher now than they were back in April, the month when the nationalist euphoria over the “return” of Crimea was at its peak.

Will Putin’s approval numbers eventually go down? Western right wing think tanks are psyching themselves into believing that they will. Maybe so. The western thought pattern suggests that no matter how good a politician is, his ratings will eventually dip. And the facts on the ground in western capitals bear out this thinking.

No politician in the modern age has been able to maintain an 86% approval rating indefinitely. Those who showed the promise of longevity at the throne, either died of natural causes, were assassinated or just retired, disenchanted by the fickle-mindedness of the electorate. Would Mahatma Gandhi have maintained his stratospheric approval rating if he had lived? Would Nelson Mandela, if he chose to remain as head of state? Maybe, maybe not. Governance requires a different skill-set than revolt.

There’s an interesting thing about popularity – it has got nothing to do with accomplishment. If the masses choose to hate somebody, they will, no matter how many accomplishments he has under his belt.

Take Obama for example. Obama has emerged as one of the most successful presidents in American history. His healthcare reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward. Even in Republican-dominated states, multiple independent surveys show a sharp drop in the number of Americans without health insurance.

Obama’s financial reforms have fallen far short of what should have happened, but they are much more effective than in the previous Republican administration of George W Bush. Economic management has been crippled by Republican obstruction for most of his presidency. And I am told that he has crafted an environmental policy that is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

Yet, Barack Obama’s Gallup Poll approval ratings never went beyond 51%, even when he started his first term. It is now barely above 42%. In comparison, Putin’s ratings have never dropped below 60%, which was just one lone downward spike in an otherwise 80% average approval rating. So far the ordinary Russians are yet to hold him responsible for the negative consequences of his Ukrainian adventure. Perhaps they will in the future, but right now, Putin seems more powerful than ever before.

Vladimir Putin is a rustic thug, in the same mold as Saddam Hussein. Just as Saddam likened himself to the great 10th century BC Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar I, Putin wants to be acknowledged as a latter day Peter the Great. If you go at him with a battering ram, the same thing which happened with the Iraq War will happen with Russia, only this time the devastation will be even-steven on both sides and not restricted to just Russia. The extent to which Putin will be prepared to go, when his back is up against the wall, is incalculable. If in the place of Khrushchev, Putin had been at the helm during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I have little doubt that the world would have had it’s nuclear holocaust.

There is no greatness to Putin. He is not a born leader. He is an insecure despotic individual who uses his fabled steely stare to scare people into thinking that he is big. No one is born with a stare like Vladimir Putin’s. The Russian President’s pale blue eyes are so chilling, so devoid of emotion as to seem like he is affecting it. It is a message – that power can suppress even the need to blink. It says ‘You know who the boss is, don’t you?’

Putin

The fabled Putin stare (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia) 

Putin is very much in the same mold as Stalin was known to be – a bully.

Meetings with Stalin were terrifying. One misstep could lead you into a very dark alley. He would stare you down until your throat ran dry. Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Minister, once recounted a meeting that he was asked to sit in on. A group of composers desired an audience with Stalin to perform for him a new national anthem that he had commissioned. They were there with their first attempt at composition, for Stalin’s approval.

That particular day, the Russian leader had been in a terrible mood. It was June 1941 and German Field Marshal von Runstedt’s Army Group South had overrun Ukraine, pushing back Soviet Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s 11th Army. Stalin decided to look for a scapegoat to appease his inner rage. He began a withering reprimand for what he termed as a shoddy piece of music, while the composers stood in front of him, quaking in terror. It looked as if their tickets to Kolyma were in the process of being confirmed.

Like a predator, Stalin fed on fear and could be relentless when he got a whiff of it in others. He had these piercing eyes that told you that you were an ant that he could squash anytime he wanted. Though he was short, fat and ugly and intellectually devoid of any kind of brilliance, the look he affected made him appear much bigger than he actually was.

Luckily, Dmitry Shostakovich, who was one of the composers present, had the nerve not to appear scared. Without sounding brash or curt, he spoke to the dictator in an even, straightforward tone of voice that made it clear that he was not intimidated. He then made as if he was seeking the advice of an expert and without sounding fawning, he asked Stalin his opinion on a particular beat and whether it would sound more impressive another way. Stalin, eager to prove his ‘mastery’, swallowed the bait and rambled on for a half hour on the subject about which he knew very little. The lethal moment passed. The composers’ lives were spared.

fishing

Like Stalin, Putin too is short. All those photo ops and videos of a bare-chested Putin in the wilderness that we are treated to, are designed to make him look larger than life. This photo was first published in the Russian tabloid, Argumenty i Fakty. Putin had an even more direct connection with Stalin. His grandfather had been Stalin’s cook.

Putin wants respect, in a crude archaic manner that is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, something that he has harped upon time and time again. Respect is simple and easy to give but for reasons best known to them, the west has always found it hard not to look down it’s nose at him.

He wants an end to what he sees as the hegemony of the west but since he is enough of a pragmatist to know that that will happen only when hell freezes over, he wants the next best thing – a buffer zone surrounding Russia, just like in the old days of the Soviet Union.

Putin believes that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a tragedy and wants to re-establish a modern-day Iron Curtain with all the eastern bloc nations back in the fold, even though outwardly he mouths exactly the opposite. If the Americans can build spheres of influence, with military bases in every corner of the earth, why can’t he?

G8-meeting-2013

At the 2013 G8 summit, Vladimir Putin, trailing behind much like the way an aide would be expected to do. He remained behind, throughout that photo-op walk, seeming detached from the rest (photo courtesy:Theguardian.com)

Vladimir Putin wants a seat at the table on the big international issues and at times he has grabbed it, like in Syria and the WMD issue when he upstaged the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in September 2013 by successfully mediating the dispute and averting a western military intervention in Syria.

Unlike Yeltsin, Putin does not believe that Russia should tie it’s future to the broad acceptance of the west’s terms. Also unlike Yeltsin, Putin gives the impression of taut, controlled but intense power. Impatient to the point of rudeness, with small talk, he makes no effort to be ingratiating, charm definitely not being one of his characteristics. An experienced judoka, he is disciplined as regards personal habits, rarely having more than one glass of wine and that too, only when protocol demands it.

We have exciting times ahead. Putin is an unfinished epic. He will not vacate Crimea. He will try to form a competing bloc, like the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – a quintet that matches the G8 in economic size) and in time, maybe a separate trading currency rivaling the USD which has ruled now, for more than a century.

After all, who is better placed than Vladimir Vladimirovich, to see change happening, from the old order to the new.

I’ll leave you with this sense of who Putin is, with this clip from a piece in Time Magazine, called ‘A Tsar is born’, an account of a dinner hosted by Putin for Time’s Managing Editor, Richard Stengel, in 2007…..

“…..Back at the dacha, with snow falling lightly outside, our dinner and discussion continue. Putin has been irritable throughout, a grudging host. Suddenly, at 10 o’clock, he stands and abruptly ends the evening. “We’ve finished eating, there’s nothing more on the table, so let’s call it a day,” he declares.

Actually, the main course (choice of sturgeon or veal) and dessert (“bird’s milk” cake)—lovingly printed in gold ink on the prepared menu cards—haven’t yet been served.

The Russian President’s brusqueness is jarring. Have our questions angered him? Bored him? Does he have another appointment? It’s not clear.

“Bye bye,” says Putin—in English—as he walks briskly out of the room. The work of rebuilding Russia, apparently, is never done….”