February 4, 2019 10:31 am
Updated: February 6, 2019 11:01 am

Russia Rising, part 2: The rise of Vladimir Putin

Russia has suspended the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, after the United States said it would withdraw from the arms control pact, accusing Moscow of violations.

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On this episode of Russia Rising, we’ll take a closer look at the man who has ruled over the world’s largest country for nearly two decades.

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Vladimir Putin was a poor kid from a tough neighbourhood who became a KGB agent and the country’s longest-serving leader since Stalin. Along the way, he’s also been accused of committing a laundry list of atrocities. To truly understand what motivates Putin — why he does what he does — we need to know where he came from.

To that end, we’ll speak with Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian editor for the Economist magazine. Ostrovsky was born in Moscow and literally wrote the book on Putin’s early years, a biography called The Invention of Russia. Ostrovsky describes the lessons Putin learned growing up in a tough neighbourhood in what was then Leningrad, where he was always getting into fights with kids who were bigger and stronger. Ostrovsky says it was actually a Russian spy movie, The Shield And The Sword in 1968, that inspired a young Putin to pursue a career in the KGB.

READ MORE: An ex-KGB agent reveals why Putin would want to interfere in Canada’s upcoming election

Steven Lee Myers — another Putin biographer and veteran journalist with the New York Times — describes how Putin’s career with the KGB was pretty unremarkable, until one night in December 1989. Putin was a junior officer working a desk job in Dresden, East Germany, when the Berlin Wall fell. The mass pro-democracy protests spilled into East Germany and landed right on Putin’s doorstep.

“A very large crowd had gathered outside the Stasi headquarters. It was, for the East Germans inside I’m sure, a terrifying moment,” Myers says.

Putin called for back up but was told he was on his own. In what would become a defining moment of his early life, Putin stepped outside to confront the crowds alone. “That moment seemed to really represent to him the collapse of central government authority, the authority of the nation. And that’s something he often repeats over and over. It can never happen,” Myers explains.

In 1991, Putin quit the KGB and entered politics.

We’ll explore Putin’s rapid rise to power in an interview with Jeremy Kinsman, Canada’s former ambassador to Russia. He says Putin’s military interventions — including his war in Chechnya in 1999 and invasion of Georgia in 2008 — helped to bolster his popularity and cement his grip on power.

“Trump came up with that slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ But Putin’s been running it in Moscow for 12-14 years,” Kinsman says.

READ MORE: Russia to abandon nuclear arms treaty after Trump pulls plug on 1987 pact

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a united bloc of Western countries responded with economic sanctions, tipping Russia into a recession. In response, Myers says that the Kremlin came up with a new and novel way to hit back. “There is no question in my mind that there were Russians involved in disrupting the political process in the last U.S. election,” Myers says. “The question, I think, that’s harder to answer is: what is Putin’s motivation?”

To explore that question further, we’ll speak with a former KGB agent named Alexander Vassiliev. Vassiliev was recruited by the KGB in the 1980s and attended the same spy training school at around the same time as Putin.

Vassiliev says the Russian President still thinks like a KGB agent and they were taught to always consider the big picture. Vassiliev believes Putin would interfere in Western elections to promote nationalist candidates, especially those who want to do away with Western alliances such as NATO and the European Union. The weaker these Western alliances become, the easier it is for Putin to re-assert Russia’s power in the region without facing a unified Western resistance.

“It’s a bit of a cliché to say the Cold War has begun again, but effectively that’s what’s happened,” Myers says. “And he’s going to see anyone on the other side of that — Canada, the United States, all the NATO nations — as part of the enemy.”

If you enjoy Russia Rising, please take a minute to rate it on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Tell us what you think and share the show with your friends.

Contact:

Twitter: @JeffSempleGN

E-mail: RussiaRising@Curiouscast.ca

Guests:

Arkady Ostrovsky, Russian editor for the Economist magazine, Author of The Invention of Russia

@ArkadyOstrovsky

Steven Lee Myers, New York Times Correspondent, Author of ‘The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin’

@stevenleemyers

Jeremy Kinsman, Former Canadian Ambassador to the Russian Federation

Alexander Vassiliev, Former KGB Agent, Co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America

 

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