David Hayter: Review of Clifford Gaddy’s presentation on “Operative in the Kremlin” Richmond, VA

Vladimir Putin file photo with VOA logo; screen shot from video still

Subject: Review of Clifford Gaddy’s presentation on “Operative in the Kremlin” Richmond, VA
Date: Mon, 13 Apr 2015
From: David Hayter <hayterd@mymail.vcu.edu>

Last week I attended a presentation by Clifford Gaddy on his book on Putin, and did a short write-up of it.

David Hayter
VCU Globe Assistant
Global Education Office
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, Virginia

On April 8, 2015 Clifford Gaddy, author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, spoke for Richmond Virginia’s World Affairs Council. The talk didn’t do much in the way of summarizing the book, and he actually didn’t speak of Mr. Putin to any great extent. One issue here may have been in the format – since it was for a more general audience than say a Slavic Studies conference, more time had to be devoted to background information and some things were spoken of in more general terms. That said, he was able to give some good historical background on Russia’s economy, as well as some hints to the thesis presented in his book (co-written with Fiona Hill.) Their basic premise is twofold, that we do not know the “real” Putin, and that that is exactly how Putin wants it.

Gaddy explained this as the first error that Western leaders make when trying to work with Putin; they think that they understand him, that they know how he will react to certain deals or pressures, that he might react the same way as any of them would. This incredible oversight is one of the many reasons that we once again see the West in a deadlock with Russia. The other being that the West has a very US/EU-centric outlook, a club which Russia has been denied access to time and again (see: NATO), and therefore views with enmity. It is no wonder that little progress is made when one side holds the other in contempt, and the latter is oblivious to this fact, and cannot predict the former’s actions.

Before going into an anecdote about Putin himself, Gaddy first drew attention to the importance of the oil and gas sectors in Russia’s economy. True, they are not the only sources of revenue for Russia, but he described them as two pillars on which all other industry stands. Without successful energy income, the remainder of Russian industry would not be able to operate. With that background in mind, Gaddy segued into a discussion of the oft-reviled oligarchs of Yeltsin’s Russia. He reviewed information about their seizure of major industries, including those already stressed as most important: oil and gas. This scenario was to be kept in mind while Mr. Putin was introduced to us.

The standard information was given on Putin’s political career – KGB officer to Committee for External Relations in Petersburg, to head of FSB to Prime Minister to President. The details Gaddy sought to illuminate were that in his time at the Committee, Putin was amassing incriminating data on the oligarchs – such as failures to pay taxes and corrupt back-door deals. Gaddy explains that as Putin moved up from each level of the organization, he would have the previous underlying division closed. This, he explains, kept all of the incriminating files in the hands of Putin and only Putin. This, Gaddy continued, is one of the keys to executing successful blackmail – making sure that nobody else has access to the information in question.

And so we were brought to a summary of the secret blackmail meeting between Prime Minister Putin and the oligarchs, in which he revealed to them the files that he had been keeping on their activity, and that in return for keeping the details secret, the oligarchs must keep out of political life, and, should the time come where Putin needed a monetary favor, it would be in their best interest to oblige. The lesson here from this story, is that only someone with Putin’s background in the KGB, an operative, could have calculated such a long term plan. Gaddy claims this to be one of the key things that we also fail to understand in the West: the mentality of the operative.

In all, the talk provided at least an interesting story of what Putin may have done throughout the 1990s, but that is about where it ended, as a story. As Timothy Ash described in his review of the newly (2015) revised second edition of the book for Business New Europe, the authors do “a really excellent job in trying to piece together elements of Putin’s past to try to understand the man.” This is the main criticism I would make of the presentation, that it is comprised mostly of conjecture, and based very little on fact. I think perhaps the authors, who have met with Putin in economic settings, caught a glimpse of what they describe as “operative” behavior, in his reluctance to reveal his true self and ambitions, and had to find ways to present their case in book form.

One refreshing element of the presentation, was that Gaddy showed a clear amount of respect for Putin, which is not the norm among most of today’s analysts. He made mention of the fact that Putin’s goals lie in his perceptions of what is best for Russia – the state and its people, just as any political leader would. He didn’t talk about quests to rebuild the Soviet Union, he didn’t call him a dictator or evil, he simply wanted to shed light on a few facets of Putin’s background that one should analyze before attempting to engage with or judge him. I would deem this a worthy cause, and one that would certainly be helpful in today’s world climate. That said, I do still wish a different title was chosen – since harping on Putin’s KGB past is one of the main tools of fear used by western pundits, whose only intent is to make citizens afraid of Russia once again, thereby justifying whatever actions are taken, from economic sanctions to full-scale war. Certainly that isn’t to say that Vladimir Putin should be spoken of in terms of bunnies and sparkles, but casting him as a cold-blooded and tyrannical “operative” is certainly counterproductive at this point.

Despite some of the criticisms of the presentation I have outlined here, I left with a desire to read this analysis of Putin, since as Gaddy indicated, we can only know about him what he allows us to, and reading any and every interpretation of the minimal facts available can only further each of our understanding of Putin, and subsequently, today’s Russia. When the pages of mainstream media editorial sections are filled with uninformed Reagan-esque attacks on Russia as a backwards or evil empire, or decry Putin as an evil totalitarian-dictator-Tsar-Hitler hybrid, the task becomes ever so much more important for those of us who study Russia to provide a counterbalance, and have a thorough, comprehensive understanding of the matter.