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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin plays a pivotal role in many world conflicts. His support of Syria’s president and seizure of territory in Ukraine puts him in direct opposition to the West. He has a reputation in the U.S. and Europe as a ruthless authoritarian leader. Yet he retains widespread public support in Russia. In a new biography of Putin, reporter Steven Lee Myers aims to explain the motivations of this complex leader. The former New York Times Moscow bureau chief argues that Putin came to power almost accidentally, surprising even Russia’s political insiders.
- Steven Lee Myers reporter, New York Times
MS. MELISSA BLOCKThanks for joining us. I'm Melissa Block with NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's off today. President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a tense face-to-face meeting this week at the UN. The decision to meet with Putin signaled a break from the Obama administration's efforts to isolate Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Obama advisors still distrust Putin who is widely popular in Russia, despite his ruthless reputation abroad.
MS. MELISSA BLOCKIn a new biography of the Russian president, New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers explains the evolution of Putin's world view and what drives him. Steven Lee Myers joins me here in the studio. Welcome. Thanks for coming in.
MR. STEVEN LEE MYERSThank you, Melissa. It's great to be here.
BLOCKAnd we will be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. We'd like to hear from you. Steven Lee Myers, your book is "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." And there is a lot to talk about this week with the Russian action, the airstrikes that are ongoing in Syria.
BLOCKWe've just been looking at images from the Russian war planes showing the bombing targets, showing these airstrikes from above, which is something you say you haven't seen before, ever, from Russia.
MYERSYeah. I think the military action that's underway right now really is a culmination of Putin's presidency. It's something that he's been building towards, working for in terms of modernizing the military, but also asserting Russia's right to intervene in the world, not just in the former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine and Georgia, which we've seen before, but also further abroad. You know, Russia has, in the last few months, telegraphed this very much and stepped up the warnings about what was happening in Syria, their view of it, their opposition to the American end coalition intervention in Syria and, you know, all but warned that they would intervene the way they have.
MYERSWe don't know exactly what Putin told Obama in the meeting on Monday, but it looked very tense and, you know, the next day, they began launching strikes.
BLOCKBegan launching strikes, ostensibly against ISIS targets, which is what they have said they wanted to do. But according to the Obama administration and others and folks on the ground in Syria, in fact, Russia has been targeting the Syrian opposition backed by the United States and the West.
MYERSYou know, I think there's been some confusion about that from the Russian point of view at least. They certainly cited the threat of the Islamic state, but in their mind, the distinction between these various rebel groups in Syria make little difference. They see anyone opposing the Assad government, certainly anyone taking up arms against it, as a terrorist by definition. That's a view they have inside their own country as well and in others.
MYERSSo yes, they cite the threat of the Islamic State because the world is very much seized by that at the moment, but in their mind, they're intervening on behalf of the Syrian government, in their view the legitimate Syrian government, and they're going to attack its enemies, all of them.
BLOCKWhat do you see Putin's intentions being in Syria? There's been a lot of discussion about that and confusion about just what he wants to do there.
MYERSYou know, I think it is a little bit simpler than people think. Maybe they're over-thinking the problem. He's very much concerned with the Assad government being overthrown. It's as simple as that. And this summer, you began to hear murmurings in Russia that they were nervous. You know, the Assad government has withstood the civil war now for three or four years. It's getting worse and there have been moment when it looked like they were teetering and I think that that sense that it could topple is what motivated Russia to intervene more forcibly.
BLOCKAnd why should Russia or Putin, in particular, be concerned about an eventual fall of the Assad regime in Syria?
MYERSYou know, there are a number of Russian citizens who have taken up arms and joined the fight against the Assad government. You know, Russia grapple with its own Islamic insurgency, which he, Putin, more or less defeated in the second war in Chechnya. But it's still there. I was in the caucuses last year and I saw evidence of it still ongoing and he looks at it as being a vacuum that was created for radical Islamic groups to take more territory commit more terrorist acts.
MYERSThe way the same -- much the way that the rest of the world has looked at it, whether it's in Libya or in Iraq now, but also Syria. Syria has a longstanding relationship with Russia. It goes back to the Soviet times so I think there's an element that it's the closest ally that Russia has in the Middle East and they certainly want to maintain that. But I think what really motivates him is the notion that the Islamic threat, you know, could expand beyond the borders of Syria, as it already has in some ways and expand to Russia itself.
BLOCKShould we look at this in a broader context, though, in terms of Russian power throughout the world in the same vein that we might look at the Russian invasion of Crimea and the annexation back of Crimea? Should we look at it in a bigger frame of how Putin sees Russia and in world power?
MYERSAbsolutely. I think for a lot of years -- and we've misunderstood that in the West, that Russia felt humiliated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was weakened. It fell apart. It lost territory. It splintered into the separate sovereign states. And for the Russians, it was an extraordinarily difficult transition and Putin, when he first came to power in 2000, set about to restore the state, to restore the authority of the central state and to do that in a very heavy-handed way, of course, increasingly so.
MYERSBut ultimately, I think it was to also restore Russia as the super power that the Soviet Union has been, to live up to its status on the United Nations security council, for example, to be able to assert its influence, certainly in the near abroad, you know, in the regions it considers vital to its interest in the same way that the United States has. And you often hear Putin talk about a sense of grievance that the United States has almost single-handedly been able to throw its weight around the world, you know, ignoring United Nations resolutions or working around the United Nations.
MYERSAnd I think he viewed the intervention both in Libya and with the NATO air campaign, but then also against ISIS as one more example of, you know, the sole super power, you know, getting its way in the world. And he's very much interesting geopolitically, I think, in saying, wait a minute, you know. Russia can do this as well.
BLOCKMy guest is Steven Lee Myers with The New York Times. His new book is "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." And let's talk about the rise, going back to the early days and what shaped Vladimir Putin growing up and lead him to be the leader that he is now. You write in your book about the legacy of World War II in particular, known as The Great Patriotic War in the then Soviet Union and how that started to frame how he looks at the world.
MYERSYou know, his parents lived in Leningrad when the war broke out in 1941 with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and as you know, Leningrad endured one of the most horrific sieges in modern warfare. His parents, his father fought in a battle called (word?) which is on the outskirts shortly after the Nazi army had completed the encirclement of the city. He was very badly wounded. His wound saved him because his entire unit was destroyed and he was evacuated before that happened.
MYERSIt was a catastrophic battle for the Soviet Union, failed to break the siege. More than 300,000 Soviet soldiers died in this tiny little patch on the Neva River.
BLOCKAnd there would have been no Vladimir Putin if...
MYERSThere would've been no Vladimir Putin.
BLOCK...if he had died there.
MYERSAnd this is -- his mother is -- the stories that he tells, you know, she endured the famine inside the city. He tells a very vivid story and he's told it in various versions, but -- of his mother having been left for dead, at one point, from starvation, you know. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation during the first winter, especially. And, you know, growing up, he was born after the war, of course, seven years later, but that experience from the war, from the city under siege is something, obviously, left an indelible mark on him.
MYERSAnd the entire war, the Great Patriotic War, obviously affected the Soviet Union greatly. They lost 27 million people and it became, you know, part of the Soviet ideology, really, the defeat of fascism. And it affected so many people's lives in ways that still resonate today. I was on a trip up in the Arctic recently and a very young guy who's, you know, in his 30s so somebody who's, you know, far removed from the war was taking me around. We were looking at various things for an article I was working on.
MYERSBut he was pointing out to me the various places where the Nazis had bombed, where the Soviets had had an airfield. This is up by (word?) where there was quite a lot of fighting in the Arctic. And so it's something that's conscious more, maybe even subconscious as well.
MYERSIn the Soviet and now Russian mentality. One other important point on that is that the 20th anniversary of the war was in 1965 of the victory. And Victory Day has become an enormous celebration every May 9 since then. At the time, you know, Putin was 13 so he was very much somebody as a young boy who grew up with his parents' stories, but then also the state ideology. For a time after the end of the war and after Stalin died, with a new Soviet leadership, under Khrushchev, there was, I think, some uneasiness about how to deal with the war's legacy, but by the time he came on, by the time the anniversary came.
BLOCKComing up, more of our conversation with Steven Lee Myers.
BLOCKWelcome back. I'm Melissa Block with NPR news sitting in for Diane Rehm. And my guest today is reporter Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times. He has a new book out on the rise and reign of Vladimir Putin. I want to ask you about -- I was really fascinated to read in your book about the conditions under which Vladimir grew up in Leningrad.: A tiny, tiny apartment, no hot water.
MYERSThat's right. He grew up in a communal apartment, which was very common, of course, in the Soviet times. But after the war, his parents had been assigned to one as a family. They had one room. They shared a kitchen. The toilet was down a hallway. People who were there, who visited him -- one of his schoolteachers described it as just horrid conditions.
MYERSIt's not clear that he really understood the depravation that he experienced at the time. But it was clearly a very humble beginning. And even as he grew up and, you know, conditions improved, you know, especially after the war, the rebuilding that went on, he didn't have a room of his own until he was a grown man.
MYERSSo he lived in a very confined space that was, you know, by any Western standard, quite deprived.
BLOCKAnd it didn't seem like anybody back then would have pegged him as the man who would go on to be the all-powerful ruler of Russia.
MYERSOn the contrary. I don't think anybody -- even when he grew up and became an officer of the KGB -- that either he had the ambition or anyone would have seen in him that kind of ambition to become a political leader in the country.
BLOCKIt does seem very much a fluke that he ended up joining the KGB. As you write about it, it was a film -- a five-hour film, "The Shield and the Sword" -- it came out in 1968, I believe -- that he saw and convinced him that he wanted to be -- he wanted to be a spy.
MYERSYou know, again, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the war, the KGB began to see -- to use the war experience...
MYERS...as something that they could use to bolster the image of, you know, a service that was, you know, frankly terrifying to many Russians and, you know, it was seen as the instrument of the great terror and so forth in the '30s and even after the war, the purges that happened. So there was an effort to kind of, you know, buff the image of the KGB a little bit. And one of the outcomes -- one of the results of that was this film, which is really quite a terrific film, black and white, very moody. Putin, to this day, can sing the theme song.
BLOCKDoes he really?
MYERSHe can, yes. He's done it on occasion, even played it on the piano...
MYERS...once at a charity auction. And it had an indelible impression on him as a young man. You know, when it came out, he was a teenager. And as teenage boys often are, they can be quite moved by...
MYERS...something that's as romantic as this. The basic story is of a KGB officer who goes deep undercover as a German speaker and essentially begins as a driver and then infiltrates the ranks of the Nazi military command.
MYERSAnd as a result, is, you know, decisive in the war effort. And he saw this and, as he tells the story and as one of his friends did the next day, he decided he was joining the KGB...
MYERS...and even went audaciously to the KGB headquarters to volunteer essentially.
MYERSAnd, you know, they -- that's not how it worked with the KGB apparently. So they turned him away. But the officer who was there was very patient and said that, if you want to do that, you should go to university, you should study law, which is exactly what he did. He was very committed to the idea, once he embraced it.
BLOCKHe does become a KGB functionary, not terribly high level, as you describe it. And I want to fast-forward to 1989. He's based in East Germany for the KGB. What happens? How did -- what happens in 1989 when the Berlin Wall falls, East and West become fluid, people going back and forth across, Soviet influence there has gone away -- how did he respond to that and what did he take from it?
MYERSHe watched, as an officer in an outpost in Dresden -- it wasn't the main headquarters for the KGB...
MYERS...which was in Berlin, of course -- but he watched the events unfolding. He said, later, that he could see it coming. And his job as an intelligence analyst in the Dresden KGB office would have been to see it coming and write reports back home on it. Unfortunately, we don't have a record those...
MYERS...partly because they said they burned a lot of them.
MYERSBut the, you know, his job there was to, you know, conduct counterintelligence, you know, to recruit agents supposedly. We don't know a lot about what he did. But he was certainly there when the events in 1989 began and the protests began and it led eventually to the Berlin Wall coming down. The Soviet leadership at the time, under Gorbachev, had decided essentially that they were no longer going to be able to support the Warsaw Pact countries. And then, as you know, during that incredible fall, they all spun-off.
MYERSAnd he was there the night in November 1989 when -- after the Wall had already come down -- when German protestors in Dresden had essentially stormed the Stasi headquarters -- the headquarters of the East German secret police -- who were even more dreaded than the KGB were.
MYERSAnd the KGB villa was just across the street, you know, a couple hundred feet away. And once they had essentially stormed, broken into the Stasi headquarters, they -- a group of them, not all of them -- came over. Because it was clear that this other villa where Putin had served for five years at that point...
MYERS...was, you know, part of the apparatus. And Putin describes -- again, going back to this sort of humiliation that greeted the collapse of the Soviet Union -- he wanted orders. He couldn't find his boss at the time. He wasn't the senior -- ever the senior officer in this small outpost. They couldn't find his boss who was somewhere out in town. He called to the military base, because of course the Soviet Army had enormous bases in East Germany. They said they couldn't respond because -- and it's a phrase that seared in his mind -- Moscow is silent.
BLOCKMoscow is silent.
MYERSAnd he didn't know what to do. His instinct was that he had to protect this -- not just the villa and the handful of officers that were with him -- I think the most reliable story I've been able to put together is that there were four other officers with him, junior to him -- and, you know, he was worried about the files inside.
BLOCKWell, he had seen the Stasi headquarters get ransacked, right?
MYERSYou know, I mean, from where he was -- from the balcony where he was -- from his building, he could see what was going on. And, you know, protestors -- jubilant protestors were pouring through the files at this Stasi headquarters, which was almost like a compound in itself. And he was very much concerned that they would come through and they would get the files that had the names of the agents...
MYERS...and so forth. And so he, in a very bold act, walked outside and confronted this crowd that had gathered in front of the villa. And some people have described this in almost mythical cinematic terms. But, in fact, he went out alone, unarmed, and in perfect German -- that surprised at least one of the people out there that I talked to -- told them to go away. That he had orders, which he didn't, to open fire if anyone tried to enter the compound, that it was a diplomatic facility under the protection of the Soviet Union.
BLOCKHe was bluffing.
MYERSHe was bluffing. And, you know, outside, the description I heard is that everyone thought, well, you know -- it kind of changed the mood. You know? They were ebullient, they were happy, they were confrontational. But then they thought, You know, we've got enough over here to deal with.
BLOCKYeah. Got plenty to go through from Stasi.
MYERSAnd it worked. And a couple hours later, finally the army sent a couple of armored vehicles and soldiers over. But by that point, you know, they had secured the building. But for Putin it was doubly humiliating and doubly disturbing. One is that the mob had taken over, in his view...
MYERS...you know, the masses, and hysterical masses in his mind. But also that, like, his government -- the government that he had served so loyally, you know, in that same kind of romantic way that he -- that inspired him to join as a teenager, had completely failed him.
MYERSAnd the experience in the next few weeks, when he was essentially packing up to leave, when they were burning a lot of the files that they had -- not just in the KGB villa but also in the military parts of Dresden, the military bases of the Soviet Union -- and then retreating back, leaving behind Stasi friends.
MYERSBecause he only hung out with Stasi friends or KGB friends. I mean, that was his world. You know, it's a very secretive world, of course. And in his mind, they just abandoned -- they, the Soviet Union -- abandoned their allies in Eastern Europe. And that was something that gnawed at him. One of his oldest friends told me that he almost blamed himself for that.
MYERSAnd he thought it was a humiliation for the Soviet Union to have done that the way they did.
BLOCKWell, as you think about how Vladimir Putin has ruled in Russia, how do you see those echoes of that -- that humiliation, as you call it, that abandonment that he felt -- shaping how he's governed?
MYERSI think, from the beginning, his goal has been to restore the power of the state, the central authority of the state. When he was plucked from relative obscurity by Boris Yeltsin to become first prime minister and then acting president on New Year's Eve 1999, from the moment he took office, in a period of great chaos, he felt like his mission was to somehow put the country back together again -- not the Soviet Union, as many people feared -- and still fear -- but to right the state and to stop the chaos.
MYERSAnd it's a motif that he talks about and it comes up over and over again in the propaganda, in his speeches and in the biographies that are written about him in Russian, that he is the guy whose mission it was to return Russia to its rightful place on the world stage. He know -- especially in the beginning, he understood the weaknesses that Russia faced. And he benefited greatly from the rising oil prices after the 1990s, after the financial crisis in '98, when Russia defaulted on many of its loans. And he was able to use that rising prosperity to essentially reassert political control that had been weakened under Yeltsin, especially at the end when he was sick.
MYERSAlso reassert control over the economy, state corporations, giant energy companies that are owned by the state.
MYERSAnd in his mind, this was ending this disintegration that had continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- threatened to continue. The War in Chechnya was another example of -- he responded so forcefully because he saw that as yet another chunk of the country falling off.
MYERSAnd so this idea that at some point some other agent somewhere would call Moscow and Moscow would be silent, he was not going to let happen.
BLOCKYeah. Should we look at the rise of Vladimir Putin to the role he holds today and being accidental. We've gotten several tweets from a listener who goes by idominguez saying there is nothing accidental about Putin's rise to power, although it may appear that way. Did he harbor dreams of greatness all the way along, do you think?
MYERSI don't think so. And when I say accidental, I believe there's a lot of truth in that. Because any number of turns could have happened. And, for example, when he returned from East Germany, he ended up becoming an aide first and then deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, who was one of the early Democrats in the new Russia -- an ally of Boris Yeltsin for a while, somebody who was seen as leading Russia to this new Democratic future. And I believe firmly that he would have stayed and worked for that man if he had not lost his reelection campaign in 1996. Putin -- it was another searing experience for Putin, one that I believe soured him on Democracy very early on.
MYERSBecause how could such a great man -- he adored this man, it was like a father figure to him, certainly a political mentor -- and he -- one of the other deputy mayors challenged him in the election, which he thought was traitorous, he called him a Judas...
MYERS...and then beat him in what was a fair election. After that, the deputy, who apparently had enormous dislike for Putin, refused to hire him. He, at one point, said he would never work for him anyway.
MYERSThough apparently he had tried. He had no job afterwards. He was sort of out on his luck in '96. And it was only another former aide from St. Petersburg, Alexei Kudrin -- who had moved to Moscow and taken up a fairly low job in the presidential administration -- who helped him find a job in Moscow. He stayed on his couch. So this is not somebody who was, you know, on a path to glory at that point in his career. I think, when he arrived in Moscow, later in '96, he took up some jobs within the administration. And he showed himself to be fairly competent and fairly loyal. And that loyalty attracted him to Boris Yeltsin. And I think, from there, his rise was extraordinary and completely unexpected...
MYERS...even to him.
BLOCKHas he talked about that? That he didn't expect it?
MYERSHe has. And so has Yeltsin. Yeltsin tells the story -- when he first, in his, you know, feeble last years, when he was lurching about, crippled by scandal, crippled by ill health, incredibly paranoid -- that his opponents would be elected and put him in jail. And he looked around and saw in Putin somebody that he felt like he could trust and that would ensure his security. And when he asked Putin, when he broached the idea that he was going to make him prime minister, Putin's first response was, I'm not ready for this.
MYERSAnd I believe he wasn't ready. And I believe he didn't expect it. And I can tell you, when Yeltsin appointed him in August of '99, no one politician in Russia believed he would make it to the next election scheduled for later that year.
BLOCKHmm. So he didn't think he was ready. What ultimately do you think changed his mind, or what series of experiences was it that led him to think, I'm ready and this is my time?
MYERSI think probably the most important development, which again surprised the political class in Russia, was his reaction to the war in Chechnya. There are people who will argue -- and there's some evidence to believe -- that a series of attacks that happened in Moscow and other cities might have been a trigger to start a war. But nonetheless, the first Chechen war had ended in essentially an impasse and an uneasy ceasefire. And the second one erupted when, you know Chechen rebels had invaded the region next door. There were a series of explosions that were very mysterious. And no one in the political elite was -- really had the stomach for another war in Chechnya. The first one had killed tens of thousands of people.
MYERSAnd Putin's reaction to that was completely unexpected because, again, as I was talking about, he's not going to let the disintegration continue. And he responded forcefully when the war began and excessively. You know, the capital of Chechnya was leveled by the end of the year. And I think that that was when he felt like he needed, and he demonstrated the leadership.
BLOCKKeep that thought. We'll be coming back with your calls and questions for Steven Lee Myers about Vladimir Putin. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
BLOCKWelcome back. I'm Melissa Block with NPR News, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest this hour is Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times. We're talking about his new biography called "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." And we invite you to join the conversation by phone or by email. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll take your comments and questions also by phone at 800-433-8850. Or you can join us on Facebook or on Twitter.
BLOCKI want to ask you, Steven, about an email we have gotten from a listener named Jake who asks, what's going on in Russia's domestic front? The police are corrupt, their economy is in tatters, and Putin's appeasement of Russian hyper-conservatives is increasing social oppression. He concludes, I can't help but feel Russia is heading down a path to a civil uprising in a generation or two. Steven Lee Myers, what do you think? I mean, that certainly would be Vladimir Putin's fear, and it's certainly how he -- has motivated him, I think, in cracking down in dissent in the opposition.
MYERSYou know, everything Jake said is true. They have moved in very conservative direction, politically, especially since he returned to the presidency in 2012. You've seen that in the cultural and political initiatives that have been launched, increasing hostility towards the United States in particular but also in suffocating the opposition that does exist. In Russia, there were protests that greeted the elections before he returned, both the parliamentary and his own presidential election, and that seemed to suggest that there was a sentiment out there that was not happy with him coming back to power after he had handed off the presidency for four years to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev.
MYERSI think the key thing that Jake also mentioned is generation.
BLOCKYeah, or two.
MYERSBecause there were people then in 2011 and '12 who thought Putin was on the ropes. He looked weak. He looked weakened, at least. Certainly the Medvedev government did in the face of those. But also he acted forcefully to reassert control, took the crackdown, unfortunately, on the people who were peacefully protesting, as well as some who were more violently protesting and echoes of which you see in his response to Syria, by the way.
MYERSAnd all through that time, especially in Moscow, it seemed like there was, you know, a kind of shuttering of the system of the political elite, and I believe there was. And yet at the same time his popularity was still hovering around 60-some percent, which would be the envy of most leaders. Since then, even as he's cracked down, he seems, as he did with the war in Chechnya, to have surprised people by the appeal that that tougher line seems to be having with at least a large part of the Russian population.
MYERSThere's still opposition to Putin. There are many people, even within the political elite or within the system, who are concerned about this hyper-religious, hyper-nationalistic rhetoric that you see coming up. There are many who are concerned about Crimea despite its popularity, the annexation.
BLOCKYou're talking about the Russian annexation.
MYERSOf course, and there are people who are worried now about the intervention in Syria. And yet I think that the tougher he is, it seems the more solid his control and his popular control, his popular support is.
BLOCKIt is an interesting question about how we assess Vladimir Putin's popularity at home and whether public opinion polls can really be trusted. We have an email from Randall in Buchanan, Michigan, who asks, Russia is by any measure a dictatorship. How can we believe Putin's popularity figures when it would be dangerous to vote against him? So of course there are two questions there, the voting results and then whether people like the guy or not.
MYERSThere's no question the tabulation of the elections that they still have are fraudulent to some degree. I've also wondered about polls. When a stranger calls you, and you're a Russian, and asks you what you think of the president, I'm not sure there are many people who are going to be willing to say they don't like him to a stranger on the phone. I think that definitely skews the results. I'm actually impressed, and I remember Gary Kasparov (PH) saying this once, too, who are the 14 percent of people who are brave enough to say that they don't support the president.
MYERSBut, you know, there's no question, however, that there is a certain popularity there, and I do think it's exaggerated. I do think it would unravel if there were a plurality of views allowed on the media. I think if the -- the media is so controlled now by the state, especially television but even other parts, newspapers, that unless you really make an effort, you're not going to find, you know, a contrarian point of view about where things are going. It exists, there are opposition newspapers, there are websites that have certainly brought a lot of attention to what's going on.
MYERSIf you want to find criticism of Russian policy, it's possible to do that, but it's hard, I think, for anyone to challenge -- to use the information to challenge the system. You know, people like Alexei Navalny are trying to do that through sort of crowdfunding and Web campaigns, and they've had some success.
BLOCKHe's an active dissident journalist?
MYERSHe is. He's probably now the most prominent opposition leader.
BLOCKWho's been arrested many times.
MYERSHe's been arrested. He actually has a suspended sentence hanging over him. He can't get a passport to leave the country. So is it a dictatorship? By many measures, yes. It's still at this point a soft dictatorship. People can travel, except people like him, but it's not a completely totalitarian state at this stage.
BLOCKLet's go to the phones and bring in a call from Jim in Canton, Ohio. Jim, you're on the air.
JIMYes, sir. I have a question about Ukraine, something Putin said about Ukraine crisis on Charlie Rose the other day, but first I'd like to comment on what you just said about his popularity because it's -- I wonder if you might agree, knowing the history of the second world war, that they would fear, the Russian people would fear an invasion from the West more than anything in the world. I mean, that's got to be their greatest concern.
JIMAnd it seems to me that looking at foreign policy in Syria and Libya and Iraq and so forth, Afghanistan, it seems to me that they might see us kind of in the same way as they see, as they saw Hitler, as being very aggressive militarily and very much a threat to them and getting closer and closer to that border. And Putin said on Charlie Rose that he has proof, he's able to prove, that U.S. and NATO overthrew the government of Ukraine and installed this fascist dictatorship that's in there now.
JIMAnd I wonder what you have to say about that.
BLOCKOkay, Jim, thanks for your call. Steven?
MYERSYou're absolutely right that one of the driving forces in Russian history is the fear of the invasion, you know, Napoleon, Hitler. So it is something that resonates very much. You know, as I said earlier, the experience of the war was profound experience for the people of the Soviet Union and the leadership and something that Putin grew up with. The events in Ukraine, they have in fact, the Russians and the Kremlin, portrayed that as a fascist coup.
MYERSIt was not. There was an uprising there. There was turmoil. There was a disputable removable of the president, though he also fled after having agreed to a deal for a political transition. In Putin's mind, as he said on Charlie Rose on Sunday, as he said at the U.N., diplomatic, international, diplomatic forum, that the events in Ukraine were an external coup, that unfortunately overlooks a lot of the facts of what was really happening in Ukraine.
MYERSAnd it's telling that he is unable to see the expression of popular dissent, which is what unfolded in Ukraine not for the first, by the way, against the president there. He cannot imagine that that would be genuine, that that would be grassroots.
BLOCKOr that's the version that he holds privately, but to say that publicly would be...
MYERSNo, I believe he's not -- he's not giving you a spin publicly. He sees it this way. And he believes that the expansion of NATO is the equivalent of the march of Napoleon or the Nazis. Of course NATO doesn't see it that way. I don't think anyone in government in this country envisions invading Russia. And yet that is such a central part of their thinking and their strategy.
MYERSAnd so when we think of NATO expansion being a benign commitment to collective security that in fact has made Europe more stable since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in their mind it is encroaching on the border.
BLOCKAlong those lines, let me run this by you. We have an email from a listener who goes by AR, who asks, what do you think are the biggest mistakes the U.S. has made in dealing with Putin?
MYERSThat's an excellent question because a lot of people will say that NATO expansion was a mistake. I don't think many people in the United States would say that, I mean as a matter of policy, because you can also look at NATO expansion as having been a stabilizing force, as in bringing former Soviet satellites like Poland, like the Baltic states, into the alliance. It's made them more democratic. It's made them more transparent. And that is not seen from our perspective as a threat to Russia or as a threatening move to them.
MYERSRussians see it that way. So that -- I wouldn't argue that that was a mistake, but...
BLOCKPeople see it as a mistake.
MYERSI can say that people have pointed to NATO expansion as something that has provoked Russia. Another one is the missile defense issue and that, you know, it was a dream of the Republican Party especially and under George Bush, they abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty. It was sort of a lynchpin of Cold War security because on the premise that if you have missile defenses that can eliminate the nuclear deterrents of either side, then that is destabilizing.
MYERSAnd the Bush administration very much wanted to build a missile defense system and therefore backed out of the treaty. And Putin, who had invested a lot of energy early on into his relationship with George Bush, who had agreed to share intelligence after 9/11 to help the United States when it attacked Afghanistan, who allowed air space to be used in that campaign, he really felt that he could persuade Bush to back off this plan. And all he got out of the United States at that point was the courtesy of a couple weeks' notice that they were going to break the thing.
MYERSSo again, a lot of people would say a missile defense is in our national security interest, and we should pursue it, but in the Russian point of view, that was something that was seen as provocative, an effort to weaken Russia.
BLOCKMy guest this hour is Steven Lee Myers, a two-time bureau chief in Moscow for the New York Times. His new biography of Vladimir Putin is titled "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." That question of -- when you called him the new tsar, why don't you explain how you came up with that title and what that signifies for you.
MYERSYou know, it goes back to the question of, you know, the autocracy or dictatorship. You know, you can -- you can say that he's a duly elected president. He served his first two terms and under the constitution was limited to those two terms. And rather than change it, which he could have done, he agreed to step down or at least to hand off power to -- it was a very managed transition to a very close ally of his, a protégé of his. He remained as prime minister. But it was important to him to follow that letter of the law and the constitution.
MYERSThey've since changed the constitution, which he said should never be done because it would be destabilizing, so that the terms are longer now. When -- after four years as prime minister, it was clear that Medvedev assumed he was going to stay on.
MYERSAs president for a second term, be allowed to run. And again, these aren't open and fair elections, but they are elections. And I think when he declared singlehandedly, called in Medvedev and said that he was going to, you know, take the number one chair again, it ceased to even be a pretense of a democratic process. And I think that the notion that -- you know, again, I don't think it's a Stalin-esque dictatorship at this point, thankfully. Perhaps it will be. But it's clear in my mind that he has embraced the aura of the ultimate leader that's more than just being the elected president. And that's why I thought the title was appropriate.
BLOCKI'm Melissa Block, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Steven Lee Myers, it's an interesting proposition to think about, the myths that have arisen around Vladimir Putin as people consider everything from his early life to where he is now and the sort of the stagecraft that surrounds him, the photographs that have launched 1,000 Internet memes of him riding shirtless on horseback or diving for buried treasure. Talk about the myths around Vladimir Putin and how hard it's been for you as a reporter to sort through what the reality actually is.
MYERSYou know, he is somebody who is, in some ways, incredibly public about what he says and what he does, but almost everything that you see does come through this prism of a very managed message. And this is true of politics in a lot of places. But given the control that the Kremlin has of the narrative, through its control of television and most of the media in Russia, they're able to portray him in these almost mythic ways.
MYERSAnd I remember early on, he flew to Chechnya during the war, and he flew on a fighter jet. It was a two-seater, but the way that it was shown on television, you'd have thought he flew it. And often people would say he piloted a jet. I mean, you know, he may be a great president, but he doesn't know how to pilot a jet. But those distinctions are lost. There was this moment when, right before he was coming back to the presidency, where he went diving in the Black Sea and pulls up these two amphorae, these ancient vases that just happened to be where he was diving in an ancient site.
BLOCKLook what I found.
MYERSAnd, you know, he comes out in his tight wetsuit, and it was impossible to believe that, and the -- his spokesman finally acknowledged that, well, of course they were planted there. And it's almost as though everyone knows it's an act, so it's difficult sometimes -- I mean, those examples I think are fairly obvious, but some of the other...
BLOCKBut do Russians buy into that, do you think?
BLOCKDo the Russians buy into that? Do they accept the myths, or do they see through the myths?
MYERSIt's really quite extraordinary how much they resonate with people. One of his early spin doctors who broke with him when he came back, described him as a zero. He said he's like a screen that we project our hopes and our fears on and that he no longer was a real person. He had this great line about the leader went to the movies and never came back.
MYERSAnd it reminded me of him as a kid, you know, that in his own mind, you know, he was living this cinematic dream of his by joining the KGB. And that continues to this day.
BLOCKSteven Lee Myers, it's been a pleasure having you here. Thanks so much for joining us.
MYERSThank you for having me.
BLOCKSteven Lee Myers is with the New York Times. His new biography is titled "The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin." Thanks to all of you for joining us. I'm Melissa Block with NPR News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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