Russia’s Finest Hour


The essential fact about Vladimir Putin is his remarkable ability to grow.  The consummate statesman, respectful and yet firm with his opponents, who has dominated both the world stage and domestic politics these past three weeks is worlds apart from the hesitant and inexperienced newly minted President of Russia who famously responded to Larry King’s question about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the tight-lipped remark: “It sank.”


Russia’s Finest Hour

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


 Vladimir Putin’s 11 September essay in the New York Times is a remarkable document well worthy of analysis in its own right for what it tells us about the thinking processes of its author. Many commentators have concentrated on the essay’s tactical intent, to influence American public opinion on the urgent issue of a potential military attack by their government on Syria now that the ultimate decision of war and peace was put back in the hands of Congress by President Obama.

In this context, members of the American elite expressed outrage, none more vividly and less diplomatically than the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who had successfully steered the President’s resolution on use of military force through the skeptical questioning of his colleagues only to see Russian diplomacy change the script and his President make a U-turn. Menendez was quoted by CNN as saying Putin’s essay ‘made him want to vomit.’

Foreign Affairs magazine has taken slightly higher ground by opening the pages of its 20 September online edition to a Texas professor who explains with reference to American history why outsiders rarely succeed in changing public perceptions by their efforts at speaking directly to the American people (Jeremi Suri, “Offensive Charm). It is difficult to gauge to what degree Babbitt-ry is a trait of today’s American public or just of its leadership. But in any case this is to ignore the effect Putin’s brilliantly-argued message to America might have on the rest of the world, enhancing America’s self-imposed isolation and appearance as a rogue state.

Putin’s essay also must be read for its strategic content. In it, he is pursuing doggedly the fight against United States unilateralism which he initiated behind closed doors at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, denouncing hegemony by the world’s sole remaining superpower and promoting a multi-polar world in which Russia plays a leading part.  Now he edged a step further in taking on the notion of American exceptionalism which underpins the arrogant American overseas behavior that Putin finds so repugnant.

At the same time the thought piece in the New York Times must be seen within the continuum of a hyperactive period of three weeks for Russian diplomacy and exercise of soft power. It all began with Putin’s stewardship of the G-20 conference in St Petersburg on September 5-6 where he facilitated a civilized discussion among world leaders of the Syrian crisis and made it obvious to all but the blind that there is no consensus of the “international community” under American leadership, and that in fact many countries, representing a substantial part of the world’s population, oppose military intervention by the Western powers.

The initiative moved on to gain traction on Monday, 9 September, when the Russians took up Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand remark about Syria turning over its chemical weapons to international control and destruction and made the Obama Administration an offer it could not refuse, thereby taking the crisis from the military plane back firmly into diplomatic channels with Russia as key participant. 

Putin’s NYT piece two days later hammered home the constructive and principled role Russia is prepared to assume in resolving international tensions and guarding the peace.

And the charm offensive has continued right up to Putin’s keynote speech on 19 Septemberat the festive tenthanniversary session of the Valdai Discussion Club, where he delivered a tour d’horizon of the principles of domestic harmony, of the humanistic ideals that he seeks to further in the Russian Federation during his presidency, with outreach to opposition leaders and to minorities, while staying clear of political correctness and frankly looking after majority interests. This was done in the presence of unusually high level foreign guests on the dais and in the hall; and, for the first time, the proceedings were broadcast live and in full on state television, carried globally via satellite.

It would be no exaggeration to say that September 2013 has seen the most intense burst of Russian diplomacy since September 2008, when, in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian War, the country marshaled all its resources to lock in relationships with friendly governments around the world in the face of threats by US Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to subject Russia to the world’s opprobrium, to isolate it and punish it for alleged aggression.

But where the hyper-active September of 2008 was an exercise in self-preservation, the activity of 2013 has served to project Russian statesmanship and responsibility. It has been a demonstration that Russia also can stand tall, see further and resolutely defend international law and shared values.

Whether out in front as the author of the op-ed page piece in the NYT or standing back somewhat as the father of the diplomatic solution over Syria now being implemented, Vladimir Putin’s persona has been in the world news daily and has forced the attention of pundits everywhere.  It is entirely in line with this preeminence that the latest issue of Time magazine, has placed Putin’s portrait on its cover (in all but the US edition).

Some commentators have retreated into their ad hominem attacks to avoid facing facts which might overturn their Russophobe prejudices. In this regard, Newt Gingrich with his casual dropping of the words ‘dictator and thug’ in his television interview was not alone. Others have sought to suggest that what was attractive in Putin’s message had been purchased from a Western PR agency.


But still other American thought leaders have, like some of Putin’s domestic opposition at Valdai, grudgingly conceded that there is magnetism about the man, a strength that is hardly seen among other world leaders. As an example, I would point to Fiona Hill’s article in Foreign Affairs of September 11th, “Putin Scores on Syria.” Hill seeks to understand the sources of this strength, of this successful statecraft, and identifies Putin’s practice of judo and martial arts since childhood. 

In this regard, looking to the distant past to understand Putin today, Hill is close to the standard American media script on Putin, where every article on the man necessarily reminds the reader that he once was ‘a KGB spy.’ 

All of this peering into the distant past misses what I believe is the essential fact about Vladimir Putin: his remarkable ability to grow.  The consummate statesman, respectful and yet firm with his opponents, who has dominated both the world stage and domestic politics these past three weeks is worlds apart from the hesitant and inexperienced newly minted President of Russia who famously responded to Larry King’s question about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the tight-lipped remark: “It sank.”


And let us be very clear about the meaning of the foregoing remarks:  such an ability to grow intellectually, and, as we saw most persuasively in his Valdai speech, spiritually and morally, as well as to become a grand master in the skills of statecraft, to deal easily with fellow world leaders in periods of great tension just as on the sporting field, is a very rare trait.  Other world leaders have tread water before our eyes, Angela Merkel coming firmly to mind.  Then there are those, like our own President Barack Obama, who has become steadily smaller and regressed in office. It was painful to recall that we elected an editor of the Harvard Law Review when on September 6th we saw him mishandle his press conference following the conclusion of the G-20 meeting. Anyone watching his stumbling and offensive response to a question about NSA spying on the Brazilian president must regret the course of America’s political fortunes under his inattentive watch.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013




G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.