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More filters. Sort order. Putin, still a painfully awkward speaker at the time, was seven years into his now nearly two-decade reign. Eighteen years prior, in , he had been a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, East Germany, shoveling sensitive documents into a furnace as protesters gathered outside and the Berlin Wall crumbled. Not long after that, the Soviet Union was dead and buried, and the world seemed to have come to a consensus: The Soviet approach to politics—violent, undemocratic—was wrong, even evil. The Western liberal order was a better and more moral form of government.
For a while, Putin had tried to find a role for Russia within that Western order. Bush, hoping to impress on him that they were now allies in the struggle against terrorism. He tried to be helpful in Afghanistan. But in , Bush ignored his objections to the invasion of Iraq, going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power. But to Putin, it was something more: Under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights, Washington had returned to its Cold War—era policy of deposing and installing foreign leaders. Even the open use of military force was now fair game.
In , speaking to the representatives and defenders of the Western order, Putin officially registered his dissent. This was the protest of a losing side that wanted to renegotiate the terms of surrender, 16 years after the fact. Nonetheless, Putin has spent the decade since that speech making sure that the United States can never again unilaterally maneuver without encountering friction—and, most important, that it can never, ever depose him. Russia had been written off!
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And Putin committed a mortal sin in Munich: He told the truth. The U. American consultants had engineered painful post-Soviet market reforms, enriching themselves all the while, and had helped elect the enfeebled and unpopular Yeltsin to a second term in Some of those same NGOs had ties to the so-called color revolutions, which toppled governments in former Soviet republics and replaced them with democratic regimes friendly to the West.
Through this prism, it is not irrational to believe that the U. In , the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak stepped down following protests the U. Then there was Libya. Putin had always been suspicious of democracy promotion, but two moments convinced him that America was coming for him under its guise. The first was the nato intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. The second moment was in November , when young Ukrainians came out onto the Maidan—Independence Square—in the capital, Kiev, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulling out of an economic agreement with the European Union under pressure from Putin.
The demonstrators stayed all winter, until the police opened fire on them, killing some people. The next day, February 21, , Yanukovych signed a political-reconciliation plan, brokered by Russia, America, and the EU, but that night he fled the capital. To Putin, it was clear what had happened: America had toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself.
The presence of Victoria Nuland, a State Department assistant secretary, handing out snacks on the Maidan during the protests, only cemented his worst fears. But he went on offense after the Maidan. The gloves were off, in a way. To Putin, Ukraine was such a part of Russia that he took it as an assault on him. Putin and Lavrov were known within the Obama administration for their long tirades, chastising the American president for all the disrespect shown to Russia since —like the time in that Obama listed Russia and Ebola as global threats in the same speech.
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It also led inexorably to Russian meddling in the U. For Russia, a country relentlessly focused on its history, was a big year. November marked years since the Bolsheviks, a radical minority faction of socialists, brought guns into a fledgling parliament and wrested Russia onto an equally radical path.
That bloody experiment itself ended in , with the collapse of the Soviet Union; December marked its 25th anniversary. Both anniversaries were largely ignored by the Kremlin-controlled media, because they are uncomfortable for Putin.
Bolsheviks were revolutionaries and Putin, a statist to his core, loathes revolutions. Putin governs with the twin collapses of and at the forefront of his thinking. He fears for himself when another collapse comes—because collapse always comes, because it has already come twice in years.
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He is constantly trying to avoid it. The exiled oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has publicly spoken of deposing Putin, and until recently did not eschew violent means. People like Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader, openly talk about putting Putin and his closest associates on trial. The Russian opposition gleefully waits for Putin to fall, to resign, to die. Every misstep, every dip in oil prices, is to them just another sign of his coming personal apocalypse. The hungry anticipation is mirrored in the West, especially in the United States. Fear of collapse is also why Russian propaganda is intent on highlighting the bloody aftermath of revolutions the world over.
Many Russians remember the last one personally.