Putin's Labyrinth

An inside look at the Russian leader's autocratic regime and his turn away from the West
Jason Holley

In 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin, an all-but-unknown former KGB officer, as his successor. Putin imposed a discipline on Russia that had been absent since the Soviet Union's collapse, and he ushered in the beginnings of prosperity thanks in large part to a spike in global oil prices. But he also became one of Washington's harshest critics abroad and an autocratic ruler at home whose enemies often met with violent deaths. BusinessWeek (MHP) correspondent Steve LeVine, in this excerpt from his new book, Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, unravels some mysteries of the Putin presidency.

The fresh pride that Vladimir Putin instilled in his people bore a resemblance to the feel-good mood that Ronald Reagan inspired in many Americans with a famously successful political slogan. Putin created what a clever Moscow ad man might have marketed as "It's Morning Again in Russia."

The more confident Putin became about Russia's ascendancy, the more willing he seemed to rattle Europe occasionally and poke America in the eye with some frequency. He bluntly criticized the invasion of Iraq and complained about U.S. unilateralism. His assertiveness drew occasional scolding from the U.S., which seemed to say, well, what can one expect of those impossible Russians? But Putin's increasingly disagreeable manner was not simply a Russian being difficult. It was at least in part a result of the West's condescending attitude toward Russia when it was still deep in economic crisis.

Putin had begun his presidency ready to find a way to reconcile Russia's profound differences with the West and develop friendly relations. As they did with his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, the policies of NATO would become an irritant for Putin. When the West, in the 1990s, began proceedings to absorb Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Baltic states into its military alliance, Russia objected. In nationalist circles, the NATO expansion was seen as a potential move to blackmail Moscow militarily should it mount any serious challenge to Western aims in the region. But Putin regarded the NATO dispute differently. He thought Washington simply didn't understand the basis for Moscow's opposition, according to a Kremlin insider I consulted who asked not to be identified so he would not jeopardize his access. I'll call him Viktor. If he was patient and made every effort to explain, Putin told his aides, "they'll see we're normal people, and we'll have a different relationship," Viktor recalled. So Putin sat for hours with major and minor Western visitors—a government minister, a vice-minister, whoever was willing to hear his thoughts on Chechnya, NATO, and energy.

By the beginning of 2000 the NATO expansion was well under way. Putin met with President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, and floated a question: What would be the West's attitude toward Russia's applying to join NATO? Putin was serious, according to Viktor. He saw dual benefits to NATO membership: Russia could integrate more tightly with the West, and, more important from Moscow's point of view, have an opportunity to "reform" the Cold War-era organization from within. Like the other 19 NATO members, Moscow would wield a veto. Among other things, it could stop the alliance from repeating acts Russia opposed, such as the bombing of Serbia.

As Viktor recalled the strained moment, Berger suddenly found a fly on the window to be extremely intriguing. Albright looked straight ahead. Clinton glanced at his advisers and finally responded with a diplomatically phrased brush-off. It was something on the order of, If it were up to me, I would welcome that.

Not dissuaded, Putin's entourage raised the idea again with visiting congressmen. They reacted similarly, getting "this tricky expression on their faces and saying, 'Ah, you want to destroy NATO from within,'" Viktor recalled. The congressmen had a point, of course. If Russia had been a NATO member in 1999, for example, Serbia would have simply overrun Kosovo as it and its surrogates had previously done with Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Viktor was offended by the U.S. suggestion that Russia's motives were disingenuous. So, too, apparently, was Putin.

A truly serious outrage came after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., Viktor said. Putin was among the first to reach President George W. Bush with condolences and an offer to provide any needed assistance. It wasn't long before Bush requested that Russia acquiesce to the establishment of a U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, from which an offensive would be mounted against the Taliban-ruled government in Afghanistan. The American President promised that the bases were temporary and only for the Afghan attack, said Viktor. He recalled Putin giving a positive response, saying: "We've got to help our friends."

A year and a half later, the active phase of the Afghanistan campaign was concluded. The Kremlin asked when the United States intended to withdraw. Viktor paraphrased the American reply: "This is a zone of our strategic interests, and we're not leaving."

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a dapper 51-year-old historian and Kremlin insider, said America's assertion that it intended to stay in Afghanistan pushed Putin beyond his threshold of patience. "I heard it from the Kremlin, 'We're fed up,'" Nikonov told me. "It's 'You guys do what we Americans want or the relationship is terrible.'"

And that was the end of Putin as sometimes-friendly interlocutor. Putin told off Washington, saying it had "overstepped its national borders in every way." When the U.S. said in 2007 that it would install antimissile devices in Poland and the Czech Republic, Putin's commander of missile forces threatened to re-aim Moscow's nuclear rockets at the installations. Then Putin struck the West's true soft underbelly: energy. He forced both Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) and France's Total to sell controlling shares in their Russian oil properties to state-run companies at low prices and warned that a similar fate might await Britain's BP (BP) and the biggest company of all, ExxonMobil (XOM).

Meanwhile, a series of ugly events caused even greater consternation among Putin-watchers. Most prominent was the slaying of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence agent living in political exile in London, who in November 2006 was poisoned by persons unknown with Polonium-210, a radioactive isotope.

Putin's fingerprints were not on every untoward event. They didn't have to be. Rather, it was the complicity of his inaction. A high-profile murder can go unsolved anywhere. A hostage situation—as with the 2002 Chechen terrorist seizure of the packed Moscow theater where the musical Nord-Ost was playing—can go awry even when police are highly skilled. But after the third, fourth, or fifth such outrage, it becomes clear that something fundamental is amiss. At the very least, in Putin's Russia the state cannot be counted on to protect the lives of its citizens. At worst, hired killers and those who employ them have reason to believe that they can carry out executions without fear of the law. I came to view Litvinenko's assassination in particular—and the spectacular use of polonium to kill him—as emblematic of the dark turn that Russia had taken under Putin's rule.

I don't mean to suggest that other countries occupy a higher moral plane than Russia. The post-9/11 world has upset many people's presumptions—including my own—that the West can lay claim to generally noble status. In fact, a comparison of contemporary events in Russia, the West, and elsewhere in the world suggests that distinctions between countries and cultures have become barely discernible.

Except that they haven't. Notwithstanding America's image problems abroad during the George W. Bush years, the U.S., Europe, and large swaths of Asia are not places where journalists such as the crusading Russian writer Anna Politkovskaya are freely assassinated, defecting spies poisoned, or theatergoers gassed to death by their own police, as was the audience of Nord-Ost.

If you are a citizen of Russia, you are more likely than a person in any other G-8 nation to die a premature death, and to do so in a bizarre or cruel way. When I say premature death, I'm not thinking disease, infant mortality, or an automobile accident—though Russians die at a far higher rate in all these categories than citizens of the other seven countries. I mean the kind of death experienced by Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, and the 129 victims of Nord-Ost—all deaths that were countenanced or at least tolerated by the Russian state.

Excerpted from PUTIN'S LABYRINTH by Steve LeVine. Copyright © 2008 by Steve LeVine. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Publishing Group.

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