Argument

You're a Mean One, Mr. Putin

Was 2012 the year Russia's president finally lost it?

A cold and snowy December week in Moscow is always more interesting than pleasant, but I have not found the mood in the Russian capital so depressed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Growing repression has made President Vladimir Putin more feared, but respect for him has plunged deeply as well. People who used to compare Putin with the stern Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825-1855 and built up the Russian secret police, now deride him as Paul I, the foolish and ineffective tsar who reigned for just five years before being murdered by his exasperated advisers in 1801, much to the relief of his subjects.

Moscow is boiling with aggression and anger, but everybody is unhappy in their own way. A standard statement is: "We are in a dead end." Muscovites refer to Vladimir Lenin's definition of a revolutionary situation: "when the upper classes can no longer govern, and the lower classes no longer accept living in the old way."

The mood is reminiscent of the late Brezhnev period, when nobody thought the system was sustainable, but nobody could see how things could change. Although discontent remains great, opposition protests have ebbed because people see no alternative, leader, or program. In the upper middle class, the dominant theme of conversation is when and where to emigrate. The future is abroad.

Paradoxically, Russia is doing very well economically. The wealth in Moscow is just astounding, not only with its 100 billionaires but also a vast middle class. Macroeconomic data are stellar. The consensus expected 2012 growth rate is 3.6 percent, while neighboring Europe is mired in recession. Russia has a budget surplus and almost no public debt, a huge current account surplus, and bulging international currency reserves. Admittedly, Russia thrives on large energy exports, but oil prices are high and likely to stay there.

So why the sour mood? The popular protests against Putin after the rigged parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, 2011, seem to have pushed him out of balance. His strength has always been tactical improvisation rather than strategy, but that requires self-confidence and inspiration, which now seem to be lacking. His state of the union speech on Dec. 12 was strangely backward-looking. At his rambling, marathon press conference on Dec. 20, he hardly answered any questions over the course of four and a half hours.

Rather than being a guarantor of stability, Putin has suddenly become a source of destabilization. His defensive actions include increased repression against political opposition, a faux campaign against corruption, an anti-American crusade, and obscurantist appeals to Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church. In a populist vein, he agitates the poorest two-thirds of the population against the wealthy, well-educated, and cosmopolitan. His fundamental problem is that he represents no real values and therefore lacks any source of legitimacy other than stability and economic growth that will not last forever.

Like many authoritarian leaders, Putin presents himself as a convinced democrat, stating in his state of the union address: "For Russia there is no and can be no other political choice than democracy... We share the democratic principles adopted in the whole world." Yet, he quickly betrays his true feelings: "For Russia, the tradition of a strong state is characteristic." And "Control is without doubt the most important function of the state." Such talk is reminiscent of fascism. Step by step, Putin is systematically increasing repression of the opposition with new antidemocratic laws -- for example, against foreign funding of non-governmental organizations -- and the jailing of opposition activists.

Still, Putin states many truths, even this key one: "It is obvious to all that our main problems are the low efficiency of state power and corruption." Corruption in Russia is certainly out of control. Investment analysts privately estimate standard kickbacks on government procurement at 70 percent for pipelines, 50 percent for roads, and 35 percent for medical equipment. But for all his tough talk, Putin is widely seen as the main protector and beneficiary of corruption. Opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov and his former junior business partner Sergei Kolesnikov have accused him of embezzling tens of billions of dollars.

Never mind that -- Putin has launched an anti-corruption campaign against senior officials, and Russia's state-controlled television devotes substantial news time to all the gory details. The opening salvo was an investigation of embezzlement of $100 million against the then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov. Former minister of agriculture Elena Skrynnik has been accused of being involved in fraud of $1.2 billion. Neither has been formally charged or arrested, only called as witnesses (though a deputy economic minister has been arrested for kickbacks of $500 million). Other open fraud cases of about $200 million each involve city officials in St. Petersburg, the space agency, the state telecommunication company, and the Federal Property Management Agency, respectively.

For any other country, such revelations would be big news, but not to the placid Russian elite. They comment privately that hundreds of billions of dollars have been stolen, and the biggest culprits are much higher up in the Putin hierarchy. In each case, the real reason for a corruption investigation appears to be that one member of the elite is attacking a weaker culprit for the sake of revenge, power, or material benefit. Few think the former ministers will end up in prison.

In his state of the union address, Putin started a new crusade, coining the term "de-offshore-ization." He called for a law "limiting the rights of civil servants and politicians to hold foreign bank accounts, securities, and stocks." All real estate holdings abroad have to be declared. He concluded: "Let me stress that the state's moral authority is a fundamental prerequisite for Russia's development. Therefore the policy of cleansing and renewal of the state will be carried out firmly and consistently." ("Cleansing" is a diminutive term for the Stalinist concept of "purge.") Two days earlier, when discussing his anti-corruption campaign, Putin commented that "otherwise we would return to 1937," referring to Stalin's great terror. That is hardly reassuring.

Given that Putin is widely considered immensely corrupt and that he has tolerated ballooning corruption for years, it is somewhat surprising that he himself has started this campaign. Some argue that he has been forced to do something because corruption has reached a point at which the state no longer can be managed. Others suspect that Putin has lost control, and that his top aides are pursuing personal vendettas. His own words suggest that he is planning a purge of the government. A major elite struggle is certainly taking place.

Regardless of Putin's goals or control, he is destabilizing the elite. The families of thousands of top officials and businessmen are already abroad, and many senior people are preparing their own departure. Putin seems to welcome their emigration. In November, his press secretary Dmitri Peskov noted publicly that "90 years ago, a philosophical steamship took 225 leading philosophers together with Ivan Ilyin out of the country," referring to when the early Soviet government encouraged bourgeois intellectuals to emigrate (rather than being sent to the Gulag). Clearly, Peskov and Putin were suggesting that it should be done again.

The anti-corruption campaign has enraged ordinary Russians. I happened to meet two provincial Russians in Moscow and I was surprised to hear them claiming ignorance of their leaders stealing billions. After learning of it on state television, they called for the confiscation of the culprits' property and long prison sentences.

Putin has engaged the Russian Orthodox Church in his anti-Western campaign. On Nov. 4, the newly invented day of Russian National Unity, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia warned Russians against a return to the “Time of Troubles,” the era of chaos in the early 17th century. He stated: “We were a hair’s breadth from a tragedy of historic proportions, from the destruction of the country, from losing our sovereignty, from the assimilation of Orthodoxy into Catholicism, from the destruction of our national identity.” He went on to warn that then treason had been concealed in the rhetoric of “modernization.”

When he served as president until May, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev advocated more domestic freedom, economic modernization, diversification, privatization, and better foreign relations, especially with the United States -- although not very successfully, because of Putin's resistance. Medvedev allowed the West-initiated United Nations resolution of Libya to pass, for which Putin has criticized him. One of the few remnants of Medvedev's policy is that Russia has joined the World Trade Organization. Further achievements in U.S.-Russia relations do not appear likely as long as Putin remains in power.

The rosy economic numbers, meanwhile, mask a darker reality. Rather than revitalizing the economy through long-needed market economic reforms, Putin is allowing state corporations to suffocate the economy as he seeks to stimulate growth through large, misguided investments. He is ignoring the crisis of moribund Gazprom, which is suffering due to competition resulting from the U.S. shale gas revolution. With their abundant state funds, large state corporations are gobbling up private companies, which in turn devour small enterprises. The total number of enterprises peaked in 2009 and is now falling. The consequences are evident to everyone. Prices in Moscow shops are typically three to four times higher than for the same goods in the United States because of the lack of competition. The dearth of private enterprise is equally evident from the difficulty of getting a cab in Moscow.

Although Putin has been president formally for two terms, and informally for a third, his policy has changed profoundly over the years. Today, he seems to have lost sense and balance and in reality he has no program. His dominant policy is the current anti-corruption campaign and shallow populism directed against a broad elite. His line is also anti-American and anti-Western. And now that his few Western friends, such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, have been duly discredited for dubious financial dealings, he seems most at ease with the likes of Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, Belarus's President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez.

Putin seems to have lost his grasp, making one mistake after the other. Most recently, he punished poor Russian orphans by prohibiting their adoption by Americans. This new law, which he signed on Friday, would deprive at least 1,000 Russian orphans a year of a family and home, leaving them in Russia's infamously overpopulated orphanages. The move was supposedly in retaliation for the recently passed U.S. Magnitsky Act, which refuses Russian officials who have violated human rights the right to enter the United States and allows U.S. authorities to freeze their financial assets, but Russia had already voluntarily accepted much more far-reaching commitments to human rights and the rule of law through the Council of Europe.

Ultimately, Putin's new attitude is destabilizing and not sustainable. But it is difficult to see any clear alternative. Perhaps that is why Moscovites are so grim.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Year in Quotes

The 20 most puzzling, hypocritical, and revealing things said about U.S. foreign policy in 2012.

Understanding U.S. foreign policy is not particularly easy, but you can learn quite a bit from press conferences, congressional hearings, congressionally mandated reports, and answers to reporters' questions. Often, I come across passages that are puzzling, audacious, hypocritical, revealing, or inspiring. In chronological order, here are this year's top 20 notable foreign policy comments from the U.S. government -- with a little context from your columnist.

1. Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict: "Al Qaeda wasn't as good as we thought they were on 9/11. Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn't that good looked really great on 9/11." (Andrew Tilghman, "U.S. Misjudged al-Qaida Capabilities," Air Force Times, Feb. 7, 2012.)

2. Department of State: "We call on all governments to declare or reaffirm their commitment not to conduct explosive nuclear tests, and encourage all States that have not done so to sign and ratify the Treaty." ( Media Note: CTBTO Prepcom Fifteenth Anniversary, Office of the Spokesperson, Feb. 17, 2012.)

Of course, one of the countries that the State Department is encouraging to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is the United States.

3. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "I am not a military strategist, but I think I know enough to say air strikes [in Somalia] would not be a good idea and we have absolutely no reason to believe anyone, certainly not the United States, is considering that." (Press Availability on the London Conference, Feb. 23, 2012.)

Hours after America's chief diplomat said this, U.S. Joint Special Operation Command conducted a drone strike -- confirmed by two U.S. officials -- against vehicles in a convoy in southern Somalia, killing between four and seven suspected militants.

4. Attorney General Eric Holder: "An individual's interest in making sure that the government does not target him erroneously could not be more significant." ("Remarks at Northwestern University School of Law," March 5, 2012.)

Holder offered this remarkable observation during a landmark speech that provided the Obama administration's justification for why U.S. citizens can be killed, and why secret Executive Branch discussions are sufficient to deprive a citizen of his Sixth Amendment right to due process.

5. White House spokesperson Jay Carney: "We have eyes, we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made a -- what's called a ‘breakout move' towards acquiring a weapon. So we have the capacity to judge that as the regime, the sanctions regime, continues to be implemented. (Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Aug. 10, 2012.)

Months earlier, a senior administration official stated: "I have zero doubt that if Iran attempted a [nuclear weapons] breakout, we'd see it." In 2013, if pressure builds in Tel Aviv or Washington for the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program, reporters would do well to recall these statements and ask officials if Iran has made a "breakout move."

6. Representative Tom Graves: "Does the federal government have the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on United States soil or just overseas?"

Director of the FBI Robert Muller: "I have to go back. Uh, I'm not certain whether that was addressed or not.... I am going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice." (Hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, March 7, 2012.)

Mueller has been the FBI director since the week before Sept. 11, 2001, and has been intimately involved in virtually every significant counterterrorism policy decision since. If he does not know if U.S. citizens can be killed by the federal government within the United States, it is hard to imagine who would. The Obama administration has never confirmed if the federal government can kill U.S. citizens at home, though Holder claimed that there are no limits to "the geographic scope of our ability to use force."

7. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: "Any government that kills its own people loses its legitimacy as a government." (Statement on Syria before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 7, 2012.)

Later, during this hearing, Senator James Webb asked Panetta if his standard would have applied to the Chinese government's violent crackdown against Chinese citizens around Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. Panetta replied: "My personal view would be that that was the case there."

8. Sen. Charles Schumer: "Unlike President Bush, [Obama] said the drones could go across the border into Pakistan." (ABC News, "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," March 11, 2012.)

Actually, President George W. Bush authorized CIA drone strikes across the border into Pakistan roughly 45 times during his presidency -- the first in June 2004.

9. Representative Adam Smith: "I mean, imagine in your own community if every day you had foreign troops rolling down the streets as if they own the place." (House Committee on Armed Services, March 20, 2012.)

To quote President Bush regarding a different U.S. military occupation in April 2004, "[Iraqis are] not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either," and in May 2004, "Who wants to be occupied? Nobody wants to be occupied."

10. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh: "I have never changed my mind [regarding targeted killings]. Not from before I was in the government -- or after." (Tara McKelvey, "Interview with Harold Koh, Obama's Defender of Drone Strikes," Daily Beast, April 8, 2012.)

On the faculty of Yale Law School for a quarter century before joining the State Department, Koh in 2002 said the problem with the Bush administration's "legally undeclared war" was that it blurred the distinction between enemy combatants and other nonstate actors: "What factual showing will demonstrate that they had warlike intentions against us and who sees that evidence before any action is taken?'' Apparently, Koh is satisfied with the facts he has seen to justify the Obama administration's targeted killings -- and believes that only the Executive Branch should see such evidence.

11. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker: "Attacks planned and launched from Pakistan target civilians, international forces and Afghan security forces, and we have the right under the United Nations charter to respond to those attacks -- and we will." (Dion Nissenbaum, Taliban Hit Tempers Obama's Afghan Visit, Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2012.)

This is an interpretation of the U.N. Charter that few legal scholars agree with, and not one that has been made by any other U.S. official. Article 51 of the charter allows for the "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations," which "shall be immediately reported to the Security Council."

12. Jake Tapper: "There are reports that some of the rebels in Syria are affiliated with al Qaida, are extremist. Are you not concerned at all that arming these rebel groups in Syria could end up having a horrible blowback effect?"

Sen. John McCain: "Well, I don't know what horrible blowback effect there would be, besides the fact that extremists may take it over." (ABC News, "This Week," May 6, 2012.)

13. Senator Lindsey Graham: "The existential threat we are facing from a rogue regime [Iran] that denies the right of Israel to exist, that has killed over 2,000 Americans in Iraq, that has been a proxy for evil throughout the planet." (Senate Legislative Session, May 17, 2012.)

It was less remarkable that Graham contended that a country that spends 3 percent of what the United States does on its military and has no nuclear weapons threatens the existence of America, than it was that his comments went unnoticed by the Washington press corps or pundits.

14. Question: "After warning against a North Korea third nuclear test, North Korea officials yesterday said they are going to strengthen its nuclear deterrent. Do you think this is going to [be] a vicious circle?"

Victoria Nuland: "Frankly, I'm not sure what they mean by that. So obviously there's nothing to deter in this case, so I'm not sure what they actually had in mind." (U.S. Department of State Daily Briefing, May 22, 2012.)

What the North Koreans might have in mind are the nuclear-weapons powers that surround their country or the almost 60-year armistice that it has with its neighbor to the south.

15. Senator McCain: "I think for example the elimination of [suspected al Qaeda members] is perfectly unclassified information and is important information." (CBS News, "CBS This Morning," June 7, 2012.)

McCain was asked if the White House should tout the killing of a suspected al Qaeda official. The previous day he had stated the opposite on the Senate floor regarding the revelation of an Obama administration kill list: "Such disclosures can only undermine similar ongoing or future operations and, in this sense, compromise national security. For this reason, regardless of how politically useful these leaks may be to the president, they have to stop."

16. Secretary Clinton: "Some believe that when it comes to counterterrorism, the end always justifies the means; that torture, abuse, the suspension of civil liberties -- no measure is too extreme in the name of keeping our citizens safe. But unfortunately, this view is short-sighted and wrong. When nations violate human rights and undermine the rule of law, even in the pursuit of terrorists, it feeds radicalization, gives propaganda tools to the extremists, and ultimately undermines our efforts." (Opening Remarks at the Global Counterterrorism Forum, June 7, 2012.)

17. Senator Graham: "The biggest bipartisan accomplishment we've had in recent memory is to destroy the Defense Department." (Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 13, 2012.)

As proof of this destruction, Congress recently authorized the Pentagon somewhere between $525 billion [House] and $527.5 billion [Senate] for its base budget for fiscal year 2013, an inflation-adjusted cut of less than 3 percent from $531 billion last year.

18. Government Accountability Office: "These include concerns about privacy relating to the collection and use of surveillance data. Currently, no federal agency has specific statutory responsibility to regulate privacy matters relating to [drones]."(Use in the National Airspace System and the Role of the Department of Homeland Security, July 19, 2012.)

For maps of where drones are currently authorized to fly in the United States by the Federal Aviation Admimistration, see here from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

19. Special Operations Task Force South East, Afghanistan, Commander Mike Hayes: "Nations are really good at starting wars and really bad at ending them." (Maria Abi-Habib, "Seals Battle for Hearts, Minds, Paychecks," Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2012.)

An insight worth bearing in mind before the next war.

20. Representative Paul Ryan: "Peace through strength is not just a slogan. It's not just something we say, it's what we do. It's our doctrine." (Mitchell Landsberg, "Paul Ryan Fires up Colorado Crowd with Focus on Military," Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2012.)

This statement perfectly captures the foreign policy of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images