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The Putin Playbook
March 23, 2018
by J.A. Young
While it would be fair to assume that no one person's name is on the lips of more people around the world than that of American president Donald Trump, it is a safe bet that Vladimir Putin is in a close second. Direct connections between the two aside, the Russian president has been re-elected yet again and the United States' investigation and international scrutiny concerning Putin's foreign policy continues to snowball.

Adding to the general rise in interest regarding Russia's autocrat is the most recent news breaking out of the unsuspecting English village of Salisbury, where former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were recently poisoned with what has now been identified as a Soviet-era nerve agent. In light of the most recent developments, it seems a perfect time to put some of Putin's chess moves into historical perspective.

To start, there is no better place to begin a discussion of Putin's political legacy than with PBS Frontline's recent film "Putin's Revenge". This sobering and starkly insightful piece walks viewers through Putin's humble beginnings as a KGB spook in East Berlin, through his rise to political power in the wake of Boris Yeltsin's 1999 resignation, to his relationships with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama; all the way to Russia's most recent moves into the Ukraine and against the political institutions of countries such as the United States.

One vital piece of information that can be gleaned from the documentary is that while Putin is as shrewd, calculating and power-hungry as any of history's great dictators, the foundations of his politics are not staggeringly complex.

As noted in the film, Putin is a man who, like so many of Russia's oligarchs, bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as one of history's great tragedies. In some ways, it seems as though every move he makes is a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the long lost communist empire and to reinstitute Russia's rightful place on the world stage. Informed by the tactics and training of his KGB background, he is a man who now strives to pursue two goals simultaneously at all times—securing his own political power on the home-front as well as chasing every avenue available to return Russia to its former glory (while likewise undermining democracies and opponents abroad).

The Putin playbook opens up with brutal and brazen strategies to maintain his grip on power in Russia, and follows through with more subversive ways to strengthen the country's position abroad, using a wide range of tactics that include hard power, espionage, assassination and delegitimazation of political institutions all across the world.

These are the core tenets of Putinism, and while the scale and scope of how these goals are achieved is tremendous and continues to evolve and change with every news cycle, we know that Putin's major actions are all some how tied back to one of the two sides of the same coin. The history bares that out.

To run the most recent headline through this twin-pronged ideology, we come to a simple conclusion. While it remains to be universally confirmed that Skripal was indeed poisoned by Russian agents, that is now the position of the British and American intelligence services, and the historical pattern is clear. While many of Putin's enemies have simply been dispatched with bullets to the head or orchestrated defenstration passed off as suicide, there is a long and terrifying list of poisonings linked back to the Kremlin and the tradition started at the poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services, also known as 'Kamera', which translates to 'the Cell'.

One of the primary goals of the Kremlin's poison lab was to concoct new and unknown neurotoxins and poisons that could be used on Soviet opponents, making identification by NATO forces difficult and deniability simple.

This tradition carried over from the 1970s through to the 1990s with the FOLIANT program, which was likewise created to develop new chemical weapons that would fit the various requirements of KGB and FSB hatchet jobs.

As of the most recent information that has been released by the British government and Prime Minister Theresa May, there is no question that the poison that crippled the Skripals as well as responding officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (contaminating hundreds of civilians in the process) is indeed a Novichock (Russian for newcomer) agent developed from the FOLIANT program.

To take a brief look back at similar incidents, in 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who sought asylum in the United Kingdom after authoring critiques of Putin, was suddenly struck ill before passing away three weeks later. Upon investigation it was determined that Litvinenko had been poisoned with polonium-210, a highly radioactive isotope that could only be produced by highly advanced state-run laboratories like the former Soviet poison lab.

A similar fate befell former Ukranian President Viktor Yushenko, who was dosed with hazardous amounts of one of the world's most powerful dioxins in 2004, only to survive the attempt on his life.

The list of suspected Soviet poisonings stretches far and wide, reaching all the way back to 1971 when

Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was nearly assassinated after being dosed with ricin.

In the mind of someone like Putin, obscure poisonings are a perfect tool to deal with enemies of the state who have gone abroad, and ideal for deterring would-be political opponents or meddling journalists speaking out against his regime.

Unlike the quick death offered by a pistol, death at the hands of a poison or nerve agent is agonizing, allowing the victim time to think about their misdeeds, and to wonder about exactly what noxious fate awaits them. One imagines the life of a Russian turncoat as truly frightening, where every cough and phantom pain could leave one thinking about the symptoms of the world's most deadly toxins.

Simultaneously these murders also offer the Russian government a pseudo-deniability on the world stage, where everyone understands who was responsible but the consequences remain pedestrian.

The most recent response to the 'Salisbury incident' has been the expulsion of Russian diplomats from London, hardly a fair trade for the use of chemical weapons by a hostile foreign power.

In a nod to their common history with the KGB, Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, was assassinated by North Korean agents in Malaysia in February of 2017 with VX, one of the worlds most powerful neurotoxins.

News headlines were quick to point out the similarities between Kim's death and the tactics used against many of Putin's opponents.

While many remain in denial or sanguine about Russia's history of poisonings, there is also plenty of cloudy thinking about possible Russian motives to interfere with the 2016 American presidential election. Putin's history on this topic is exactly as transparent as is his penchant for assassination. Any tools, whether they be the basics of propaganda, social media influence or digital fraud, that can be used to weaken opponents and democracies will be used.

The worldview that fits in Putin's Russia depends upon exposing democracies as fraudulent systems that don't ever really work. One of the best ways to do this is to widen partisan divides during periods of strife and especially during elections, to ensure that factions within democratic systems become more and more antagonistic. To take a cynical but not exaggerated view of Russia's foreign policy, one might say that 'what is bad for democracy is good for Russia.'

As a result, you have undeniable evidence of Russian trolls and Facebook advertisements stoking the fires of American issues like gun control, social justice and police brutality during the most recent presidential election.

It makes perfect sense that news websites, online trolls and hackers connected to the Kremlin would want increase tensions across Europe and the Unites States, promoting conspiracy theories and pouring salt into whatever wounds are the most severe. Perhaps one of the media's biggest failures in recent years has been to portray this sort of backroom foreign policy as a completely new and unforeseen saga of history.

The precedents begin all the way back in East Berlin where Putin first cut his teeth in counter-intelligence.

Whatever may come of the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling, and the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, we will be best served to remember who is really behind all of this.

Russia's dictator is repeatedly portrayed as a master strategist, someone playing chess while the rest of the world plays checkers around him. While there is a grain of truth to that description, and the Kremlin has been extremely effective at playing this sort of game in recent years, the motivations will continue to stay the same. Putin will do anything to maintain his own power, no matter how brazen the crackdowns appear, and will continue to strive for Soviet-style Russian hegemony. The sooner we remember that next time we read a headline with his name, the better off we'll all be.

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