Strelkov, Putin’s Other Rebellious Child
“The irony is that the increasingly inconvenient Strelkov is one of the best modern examples of this idealized Homo Putinicus.”
I’ve written already about the ‘defense minister’ of the equally air-quoted ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, Igor Strelkov, nee Girkin, and for what he seems to stand. Now that the Kremlin appears to be uncertain quite whether he in an upstanding patriot or an inconvenient maverick–although the terrible downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is likely to force the issue and require Moscow to distance itself from the very men it armed–it is also worth dwelling on what Strelkov may mean to Vladimir Putin, and what the contrast between the two of them suggests.
Putin’s macho persona is to a considerable extent just that, a persona. There is, after all, more that something of the wannabe about him. After an admittedly scrappy childhood, he did not serve in the military, had what appears to be an undistinguished record in the KGB. Yes, he is a keen and by all accounts aggressive judo fighter, but judo is hardly sambo, let alone UFC. It is a martial art, carefully calibrated to balance combat practice and civilized norms of safety and an etiquette intended to turn ruckus into recreation. Likewise his other macho theatricals are carefully staged to portray a man of action while minimizing any of the risks and costs of that life. Even failure is not an option in Putinland. Going scuba diving off Greece? Of course a couple of “ancient amphorae” can be planted for you to “discover”! A prowling tiger to be tranquilized? Well, it might just turn out to have been a tame zoo one after all. (And don’t try and tell me that Putin does not travel at all times cocooned in concentric zones of heavily armed and humorless security officers.)
In fact, the real Putin is clearly a cautious, in some ways even paradoxically timid figure in his aggressions. He is not a romantic gambler, happy to wager on a throw of the dice. Instead, he tries to ensure that he only moves when he is ready and as confident of success as can be. Likewise, he has that characteristic of the bully, happy to scrap when he knows all the odds are on his side, from the robust treatment he metes out to journalists andofficials alike. None of this, though, says risk taker, none of it speaks to a willingness to put his beliefs, his ambitions and his prospects at risk.
Putin-the-man is greatly at odds with Putin-the-myth, who is a fierce and forceful titan shaping the world in the name of Russia’s greater destiny.
In this respect, Putin-the-man is greatly at odds with Putin-the-myth, who is a fierce and forceful titan shaping the world in the name of Russia’s greater destiny, heedless of the odds and able to bring about extraordinary results through discipline, passion, skill and will alone.
The irony is that the increasingly inconvenient Strelkov is one of the best modern examples of this idealized Homo Putinicus.
He is undoubtedly committed to a vision of a greater Russia in every sense of the world, one granted its due in world affairs, embracing territories ethnically and historically part of its patrimony, and achieving some unclear and protean but nonetheless to him undeniable destiny. Although he may still be connected to one of Russia’s collection of security service (he reportedly claims the FSB, the Federal Security Service, but I agree with the EU that his career trajectory suggests the GRU, military intelligence), it seems clear that he is no simple salary-man there because his line managers sent him. Instead, he himself talks of the “gunpowder poisoning syndrome” that drives him from one nationalist battleline to the next.
Strelkov is a disciplinarian—he has, after all, revived a WW2-era law and on that basis had an alleged looter shot for stealing a couple of shirts—but who appears to believe that discipline also applies to himself. There have been some spiteful hints from one of the Kremlin’s pet ultra-nationalists that he has been skimming some of the funds provided to the insurgency for his own gain. No serious hint of that has emerged, even from the government side. Whereas Putin and his closest cronies talk the talk of national mission while living a pampered life of opulent comfort, gleefully profiting from gifts and kickbacks, Strelkov is instead at war, fighting an unequal fight against an enemy which regards him as a war criminal and moving from one besieged city to the next.
Strelkov is in some ways every bit a product of dramaturgy as Putin.
Strelkov is in some ways every bit a product of dramaturgy as Putin. The neatly trimmed mustache and tidy uniform, the clipped manner, the military re-enactor is carefully emulating a bygone breed of officer, who frankly could as easily be a stiff-upper-lipped product of Sandhurst holding the line of the British Empire as a tsarist empire-builder eagerly teaching a lesson to the Turk, the Chechen or the Uzbek. But he has made the drama his life, from serving in unclear—but almost certainly active and front-line—capacities in Chechnya, Transnistria and Serbia to his latest adventure.
He is also proving quite good at it, at least on the battlefield. He may not be the Russian answer to Aslan Maskhadov, the brilliant victor of the First Chechen War, but he managed to parlay relatively small forces (and a great deal of confusion and demoralization on the other side) into some dramatic successes. Even the fall of Slovyansk, while undoubtedly a serious defeat, was handled well; realizing that there was no point in sitting still be being pounded by government artillery and airpower—against which, at the time at least, the rebels had no real response—he withdrew his forces in good order, living to fight another day. Will, wit and discipline have certainly given him more impact that sheer firepower alone would imply.
Let me be absolutely clear, none of this is to exalt or exonerate one of the prime movers behind a toxic insurgency responsible for this miserable conflict, especially not in light of the shoot-down of MH17, which is almost certainly the responsibilities of the rebels (even ifprobably a tragic and murderous blunder rather than a deliberate atrocity). Instead, it is to point out the paradox that what Putin creates, he then fears.
What Putin creates, he then fears.
He first located his power base amongst some of his children, the aspirant, modernizing middle class, then found himself alienated from them as he failed to live up to his own rhetoric and their expectations. Instead, they became if not a threat, but certainly an irritant. Likewise, Putin first turned to Russian nationalist ideologues and adventurers, Strelkov chief among them, as his chosen allies and proxies in eastern Ukraine. Strelkov certainly seemed to epitomize the Putinist virtues of nationalism, discipline, confidence and commitment. However, as the conflict dragged on and Kyiv failed to come duly humbly to the negotiating table, these other of Putin’s children likewise began to become a challenge and an embarrassment. Putin turned his face from them, for a while at least, and they responded with embittered dismay and growing anger.
In Greek myth, the titan Cronos deposed (and castrated) his own father, Uranus. Hearing that he was fated to be overthrown by his own sons, he devoured all he could find, but he failed to consume Zeus, who ultimately would bring him down. Like Cronos, Putin—who may not have deposed Yeltsin but certainly went back on his word and humbled and emasculated his ‘Family’ of allies and supporters—now seems destined to eat his own children in the hope. The question is whether it is the liberal modernizers or the nationalist revanchists who will play the role of Zeus in this final act of drama.