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As Moscow Beefs Up Its Border Presence, What's Driving Putin?


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The West is watching with alarm as Russia once again beefs up troop numbers along its border with Ukraine. NATO estimates there are some 20,000 Russian troops there now. This is happening days after the U.S. and E.U. step up sanctions on Russia. And less than three weeks after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17. And the question remains, will Russia invade Ukraine as it did earlier this year in Crimea? With that as the backdrop we're joined by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. In this week's issue Remnick writes at length about what he calls, Vladimir Putin's raw and resentful anti-Americanism and his neo-imperialist aspirations. David welcome back to the program.

DAVID REMNICK: Good to talk to you.

BLOCK: And much of the story that you tell here comes through interviews that you did with the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. He left Moscow earlier this year and he told you flat out about Vladimir Putin, I think he does believe that we are out to get him. What's at the root of that?

REMNICK: Well, I think he, meaning, Putin has seen one revolution after another both in the former Soviet Union and in the rest of the world, in which authoritarian leaders end up in prison or worse and he thinks to his soul that the United States is behind these rebellions and above all they're out to get him.

BLOCK: Was it really a different Vladimir Putin in his first years in power? We'll remember President Bush's famous line about looking into his eyes and feeling he could see into his soul.

REMNICK: Well, one of the more ridiculous statements by a public official in recent years, but I think there is a difference. I don't think anybody has any illusions that Vladimir Putin was a great Democrat when he started out or that he was absolutely in love with the West. But when he did start out he even talked about joining NATO, having Russia join NATO. When he started out his main goals were the reestablishment of order, the reestablishment of the Russian state and above all a functioning economy. None of those things were present in 2000. And by 2006, 2007 his popularity rating was in the eighties as it is now because for the first time really in history there was a middle class in Russia, built for a number of reasons but not least the price of oil and gas and people were very appreciative. His faults are manifest but there was a very high rating. Now his opinion polls are based not on the economy, which is at a growth rate not of 7 percent but of zero practically, but rather because of this kind of nationalist fervor that he's whipped up in its place.

BLOCK: You do talk, in your story, to a number of very powerful Russian broadcasters - hardliners, one of whom tells you this, Putin is comparable among his predecessors in the 20th century only with Stalin. And you add, he meant it as a complement. So, what was he getting at there?

REMNICK: Well, this is Dmitry Kiselyov who is the presidentially appointed head of Russia Today, which is a huge state run news agency. This is the same guy who said that the - reminded everybody that Russia's the one country capable of reducing America to nuclear dust. It's a level of propaganda that in its anti-westernism and in its ferocity is really - I haven't heard since the - I think as far ago is the 70s. And it's very worrying. Look, the West is not blameless, neither in the Ukraine crisis nor in it's behavior toward Russia since 1991. But the - somehow the idea that the West is encroaching on Russia in this horrible way is absurd. And the one thing constantly left out of this discussion about Ukraine is Ukraine is a sovereign nation.

BLOCK: And yet there is, as you describe it, a potent strain of neo-imperialism, a vision of greatness for a resurgent Russia. Which has very much to do with former Republics - the phantom limb syndrome you describe, of things that were a part of the Soviet Union that are no longer part of Russia.

REMNICK: I think it's important for us to remember that the phantom limb syndrome, when an empire collapses is not unique to Russia. Overnight on Christmas night, 1991, the Soviet Union just was signed out of existence. And the ramifications of this are many and there is this notion for some Russians, Putin among them, that somehow Moscow must remain the protector of all Russian speaking people. There is that kind of rhetoric.

BLOCK: How much does that resonate among the people of Russia and in particular among people who might not be in that hard-line camp? Might even have been members of the liberal left, people you knew 20 some years ago when you were in Russia?

REMNICK: Well, some people have gone from being liberals to something else for cynical reasons. Whether there's financial gain in it or status gain, but some people are very sincere and I should tell you that a lot of liberals that I know for all their persistent liberalism on so many subjects, think the annexation of Crimea by Russia is a wonderful thing. And that's independent of propaganda as well.

BLOCK: And would they feel the same way about an invasion of Ukraine?

REMNICK: I think that's quite different, I think that's profoundly different and the damage that can be done is far deeper. Remember Russia is part of the world. It's got tremendous oil and gas reserves, but the only way that they make a big income is by selling them to the rest of the world. It is part of the global economy and if their actions are so rash and so outside the realm of norm that that price could be paid. It's not isolated, it can't afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world the way it did in Stalinist times.

BLOCK: David has the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine changed Russia's stance in any way? Does it affect the balance here?

REMNICK: Well, strategically or tactically at least it might. It certainly didn't do anything for the international image of Russia. But I've got to tell you that the propaganda machine is so effective, that the vast majority of Russians don't believe that Russian separatists in the Eastern Ukraine shot that plane down. Most people think that it was done by Ukrainian Army with backing from the USA. You don't have to talk to, you know, lunatics to find this out, this is a pervasive notion of what happened.

BLOCK: David I'm curious, you were based in Moscow more than 20 years ago. You've gone back many, many times since then. In your most recent visits have you seen anything that seems to you like progress? Seems to you like a positive sign of what's going on there or is it all seemed to be a downward spiral?

REMNICK: No, I don't. I think we've gone backward. Look, the political arrangement early on Putinism was if you stay out of politics, we will stay out of your bedrooms and your businesses and yes, we are a rough country and so on, but we will leave you essentially alone. You can travel abroad, you can go on vacation, you can read what you read, nobodies going to stop you from reading Solzhenitsyn or Brodsky or whatever it is. This was unprecedented, this is getting to be quite different now and it's alarming.

BLOCK: David Remnick, thanks very much.

REMNICK: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker. His article in this week's issue is titled "Watching the Eclipse."

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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