PUTIN’S PERSONALITY WILL SIGNIFICANTLY AFFECT JAPAN-RUSSIA RELATIONS
Russian President Vladimir Putin will arrive in Japan soon to discuss territorial and economic issues with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. They will first meet on December 15 in Abe’s hometown of Nagato City in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and then move on to Tokyo the following day.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited St. Petersburg December 2 to confer with the Russian leader in the run-up to the summit. But the reception he got was cool, to say the least.
After having been kept waiting for nearly two hours, Kishida met with Putin for 30 minutes, delivering Abe’s personal message, among other things. The following day, Kishida conferred with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavlov for 2 hours and 40 minutes in Moscow. In a joint news conference that followed, Lavlov presented a not-so-promising prospect of an early settlement of the dispute over the southern Kurile islands the Soviet Union occupied at the end of World War II.
This will be the backdrop to Abe’s meeting with Putin. There has been much in the news about the prospects of the two nations reaching an agreement on Japan’s economic cooperation with Russia. But little has been reported on a possible signing of a peace treaty that would officially end hostilities between the two nations and return the northern islands to Japan. Even sources close to the inner circle of the Abe administration are in the dark as to the outcome of the summit, noting that only Abe and Putin can tell what will come out of it.
How will Putin deal with Abe’s “new approach” to Japanese-Russian relations? The outcome of the summit will be left entirely to the two leaders.
Will Putin be able to render a difficult decision seemingly almost impossible for other world leaders to make—a decision under which he would clearly return sovereignty over the islands to Japan? In the first place, what type of human being is Putin? What are the factors, political and otherwise, that drive him? And, what are his values? Two excellent books by Hiroshi Kimura, honorary professor at Hokkaido University, provide intriguing answers. Each exceeding 600 pages, the books are: Putin The Man (Fujiwara Shoten, Tokyo; 2015) and Russia under Putin (Fujiwara Shoten, Tokyo; 2016). The author, a leading expert on Russian affairs, offers an unrivaled account of Putin and the nation of 145 million population he leads.
Kimura aptly describes Putin as a “real charmer.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Putin began working for the KGB after college in order to become an intelligence agent—a spy, to put it simply. Putin himself has said a group of KGB officers collectively called the “Chekists” trained him, hammering into his head the ways of becoming “a human relations professional.”
Bush Caught on Putin’s Hook
Ms. Yelena Tregubova, Putin’s archenemy and reporter for the prestigious daily Kommersant, has this to say about his personality: “Despite our grave differences, he somehow made me feel as if he and I were on the same side sharing a common interest.”
Prof. Kimura depicts how former President George Bush became totally enchanted by Putin during their first meeting. The anti-Soviet, anti-Russian Bush, who did not want to meet Putin immediately after he assumed office in January 2001, eventually met him in Slovenia six months later on June 16. At the time, Putin reportedly showed Bush a cross his mother had given him when he was young and quietly reflected on his baptism, which he said had been made possible through her arrangements. Russian Orthodox beliefs and practices were prohibited at the time in the Marxist nation.
Fascinated by the story, Bush was quoted as remarking: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
British journalist Angus Roxburgh writes that Bush was caught smack on Putin’s hook, observing: “With President Bush, I think he exercised that, sort of, almost control over him.” Kimura quotes Ms. Nataliya Gevorkyan, who co-authored Putin’s self-portrait First Person (Public Affairs, New York: 2000), in introducing another aspect of Putin much different from the charmer: “Putin is the type of person that puts priority on his and his family’s survival and security.”
Kimura adds that “there obviously is a strong instinct for survival running through his basic being.”
Putin likes to have videos taken of him stripped to the waist and riding a horse, or enjoying game fishing. But Kimura believes that, quite contrary to his outward “macho” image, Putin is an “extremely prudent man to the point of timidity.”
Therefore, continues Kimura, Putin makes it a rule to not put absolute trust in anybody. Instead, he makes it a rule to put a wager on several parties simultaneously—especially when the on-going situation is fluid.
With such a mindset Putin has cautiously endeavored to control three elements in Russia—(1) general public opinion, (2) opposition forces, and (3) the elite members within his natural base of support.
He has managed to control the first element by nationalizing the media, including newspapers and television networks and staffing them with Putinists who disseminate information and news favorable only to Putin’s leadership. As of 2014, Russians obtained 60% of information through television and 23% through the Internet.
Putin controls the second element—opposition forces—through harsh, persistent, and ruthless measures, sometimes going so far as to take lives. One case in point is Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service and KGB, who died of radiation poisoning induced by polonium-210 in London in 2006. British police attribute his death to Russian agents who followed him to Britain, which had granted him political asylum in 2001.
The toughest situation for Putin to deal with would be a palace coup instigated by the third element, the elite within his own base of support. Should such a contingency arise, the central force would undoubtedly be the “Silovikis”—politicians from the security or military services, including the KGB. In the unlikely event of such a revolt, Putin would do everything in his power to nip it in the bud. With this in mind, Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard last April—a bold decision that surprised all parties concerned. The new outfit is on no small scale.
Staffed by 400,000 men and women who have been transferred from other units—roughly half the regular Russian Army—the new force is headed by Viktor Zolokov, Putin’s former bodyguard. His appointment is viewed as a reward for his “selfless devotion” to Putin.
A public opinion poll conducted last March against this backdrop showed 82% of Russians supporting Putin, with the same percentage replying that their nation is faced with a serious economic crisis. In any other country, such a crisis would quickly lead to harsh criticism of its leader. But not in Russia. Why?
Even when they have little to eat for a day, Russians will be satisfied so long as Russia can demonstrate its presence in the international community and regain its glory as a great nation, according to Kimura. In addition, Putin routinely blames foreign adversaries for Russia’s economic ills, taking a hard line externally to increase the power of his domestic leadership at home.
The “small wars,” such as those in Crimea and Syria, help invoke nationalism among the Russians. If the US and EU nations impose sanctions on Russia because of those adventures, Putin will freshly wage another small war elsewhere to appease the dissatisfaction of the people.
The Russian president is trapped in the middle of a bona-fide vicious cycle. One cannot but wonder to what extent he is ready to deal squarely with Japan’s legitimate claim over the four islands in the Kuriles. Will the Abe-Putin summit create a new vision for a settlement that transcends the rigid posture which Lavlov displayed in preliminary negotiations? I am watching the results with bated breath.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 733 in the December 15, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)