Putin and Russia’s Push for Power

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Putin and Russia’s Push for Power

MP3 Audio (18.48 MB)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. A former lieutenant colonel of the once-feared KGB secret police, the current president of the Russian Federation heads up what The Economist magazine calls a mendocracy—a society ruled by liars. Following a meteoric rise to power as Boris Yeltsin’s national security adviser, Putin has reigned atop Russia’s government since 1999.

In the past few years, Putin has vividly grabbed world attention by dramatically transforming Russia’s behavior and in the process destabilizing whole regions. What have we seen? CIA-supported evidence of cyberwarfare against the United States. An invasion of the former Soviet Georgia. The illegal seizing of Crimea in the Black Sea. Provoking aggression on Ukraine’s eastern border. Expansion of mobile nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russia that emerged from the ashes appeared to be a new friend to the world community—not any more!

And that’s just for starters. While provocatively parading flagship elements of the Russian Navy through the English Channel earlier in 2016, Putin’s Russia established a key military base in chaotic Syria, supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and helping to perpetuate a complex and bloody civil war that has cost the lives of half a million people—including thousands of innocent children. 

Contrast this current massive instability with the time when Putin first rose to power. When the Soviet Union dramatically collapsed a little over a quarter century ago, the Russia that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Communist Party astonishingly appeared to be a new cooperative friend in the world community. Not so today. The world is again on edge about Russia’s agitation and aggression. 

“Iciness and controlled contempt”

How has this come about, and why should we care? Twisting a phrase from President Donald Trump’s election campaign, Putin appears to be set on a path to make Russia great again.

Critical hints of Putin’s nature that appeared early on have meaning for us today. Following is an important backstory.

In 1999, NATO had gone to war collectively, for the first time in history, in the Kosovo War. American B-52 bombers were pounding areas of Yugoslavia. A shaky cease-fire was subsequently declared, surprisingly engaging Russia.

As the embers of war cooled, a major Russian tank force suddenly destabilized the already-wobbly Kosovo peace. Ambassador Strobe Talbott, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was in Moscow and called for an emergency meeting with then-Russian President Yeltsin to try and set things right. Talbott was told that Yeltsin was “indisposed.” As he later wrote, “I knew what that meant: the Russian president’s alcoholism was perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world.”

Denied a meeting with the Russian president, Talbott was ushered in to meet Vladimir Putin, who had rocketed to power in Moscow from an obscure post as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Talbott’s impression of Putin was not good. He recorded his first meeting with Putin in Politico magazine: “His manner was superficially cool, professional, and courteous, but iciness and controlled contempt were just under the surface” (“The Making of Vladimir Putin,” Aug. 19, 2014).

Here’s the main takeaway from Talbott’s first encounter: “What really struck my colleagues and me was the aplomb, smugness and brazenness with which Putin lied” (ibid., emphasis added). Eight weeks after Talbott’s meeting, Yeltsin stunned the world by appointing Putin as prime minister and designating this former KGB lieutenant colonel as his successor.

Putin formally rose to the all-powerful Russian presidency on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin resigned, later winning his first presidential election in 2000 with 53 percent of the vote.

Initially he embraced his predecessor’s friendly approach of Western cooperation. During his first decade in power, Russia’s economy boomed for eight straight years. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP), as measured in consumer purchasing power, increased by an incredible 72 percent. Putin was hailed as an economic savior, bettering the day-to-day life of the Russian people. The result was a very high approval rating by the Russian people, a level he has largely continued to enjoy.

But Putin’s negative character traits like lying, first seen publicly in the Kosovo negotiations, have since resurfaced many times. Following the global economic near-collapse of the Great Recession, Russia has since once again become a paranoid, belligerent, insensitive and badly behaved bully.

A new escalation in tension—fueled by Russian state-backed cyber-hacking—erupted in 2016 between the United States and Russia. Today, aggressive rhetoric keeps everyone on their toes with threatening speeches from key Russian leaders punctuated with reminder statements like “Remember, we’re nuclear.”

What’s next?

In 1990 the Russian-led Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had a total population of 286 million. When it finally collapsed and Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the former superpower’s population was reduced overnight to 148 million. Since then Russia’s population has actually further declined by about 5 million people. A non-Soviet Russia lost good access to the Baltic and Black Seas, and importantly lost its sole warm water military port, which it later recovered with the 2014 Crimea invasion.

Today Russian pride stings from humiliation. The former republics of the Soviet Union now smugly require visas for Russians to visit their previously Soviet-enslaved countries. The proud Russians are not letting this escape their attention.

The decaying relations between Russia and United States today have followed a serious decline. Relations were at their very best after Bill Clinton became president in 1993. Clinton wanted a friendly and stable Russia as a foreign policy showpiece. Yeltsin needed American financing to avert economic disaster. It was the best of all worlds, and it worked for a time.

In the 1990s Clinton suggested that Eastern European countries join NATO, and Yeltsin did not object. But today this formerly friendly Russia now threatens NATO with sword-rattling nuclear exercises.

Under a quasi-democracy and later in the early days of Putin’s presidency, windfall gas and oil production from Siberian reserves was transferred to private enterprise. Production rose to where Russia briefly became the largest exporter of oil in the world, at one time surpassing even powerhouse oil exporter Saudi Arabia. An energy-hungry Europe became a welcome customer, along with the closer Chinese market. 

Now, with current Russian belligerence, it’s important to understand that a new class of economic strata exists. In the 1990s a new class of wealthy oligarchs arose from the ashes of the former Soviet Union. Some even quickly became billionaires, an unheard-of status in Communist Russia. With the relaxing of former Communist restrictions, Russians were then able to travel and be seen all throughout the world.  These “New Russians” were investing heavily outside of Russia, notably by buying real estate in New York, London and other places.  

But this wealth came at a price. The Russian economy became increasingly dependent on crude petroleum priced well above $100 a barrel, an economic vulnerability that sent the Russian economy spiraling further into deep recession after oil prices collapsed in 2014. Russian reforms earlier allowed it, in 1998, to join with the influential G7 (Group of 7) nations—the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy—as the G8. However, with the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russia was kicked out of the group, which is again the G7.

Yearning for the past

Today, many older Russians feel deeply wounded from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of population, resources and influence. Russia is basically a second-world nation that bristles with deadly nuclear weapons and highly advanced military forces.

In spite of current economic troubles, Putin remains bent on pursuing the path of restoring Russia’s greatness. And, given his continued popularity levels, he still has the Russian people behind him. On occasion Putin’s national approval rating has topped 80 percent.

For 15 years in a row he has been named Russia’s “Man of the Year.” For several years now a popular calendar displays Putin across all 12 months of the year. Some images are glamour photos, including a popular photo of a shirtless 60-year-old Putin riding a horse. Russia has indeed created an all-new cult of personality, in spite of his major setbacks in Western diplomatic and national circles.

Shortly after “liberating” Crimea in the Black Sea and restoring Russian’s lost warm-water port, Putin made it clear in a public address that he was reestablishing Russia’s place in the global order. Other nations had to accept what Putin saw as obvious: Russia is and will remain an independent and active participant in global affairs.

Putin cares not that his invasion of both the Crimea and eastern Ukraine are condemned by the Western powers, whom he views as largely toothless.

With Russian hegemony unchecked, Putin has been effectively emboldened to expand further. Now he is taking dangerous gambles and creating an environment of hostility that is bringing on angry reaction from Europe and the Middle East. Tense European nations work to avoid a massive nuclear confrontation, which would be devastating to civilization as we know it. 

Russia spends between $50-66 billion annually on its military, which is the largest in Europe. Defense analysts note that Putin’s shrinking economy (which contracted by a painful 3.7 percent last year) cannot sustain this level of expenditure. Under Putin, Russia has invested heavily in hypersonic technology, including the PAK-DA hypersonic stealth bomber that is only a few years away from prototype production. That could be put on hold in 2017.

Perhaps the proposed cuts in Russian defense spending will lead to a closer relationship between Putin and President Trump. Yet such a relationship would not be universally well received in many international circles.

Relations between Russia and China remain tense along their common border, which runs 2,615 miles. Over the years occasional firefights between Russian and Chinese soldiers have broken out. There’s no love lost between these two countries. China’s population is 10 times that of Russia, and China also possesses advanced nuclear weapons and missile delivery platforms.

However, for the moment the Chinese are quiet as they buy a lot of Russia’s Siberian petroleum. Also, the two are partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s president last year spoke of forming an alliance between Russia and China against NATO.

As this is being written, Putin has backed off on further incursion into Ukraine, beyond what his armies presently occupy in the east. It remains in an uncertain ceasefire, with multiple daily violations. It could flare up again at any time.

A surprising source of inside information

In the days and years to come, the world scene will be dominated by not only nations vying for recognition, but leaders driven by dangerous bravado. As history shows, pride and bravado often make national leaders careless. Dire international consequences can arise from underestimating formidable power.

Given Putin’s background, what is his future focus for the world? Before we consider that, allow me to explain a few things. As you may have discerned, as a Beyond Today writer I pay close and intense attention to these matters. As I have served nearly half a century as a Christian minister, you may also wonder why I and others write on geopolitical topics, particularly in a publication that primarily addresses biblical and spiritual topics. 

I invite to you consider this important fact: The Holy Bible chronicles in deep detail the affairs of human government and how people should treat each other. The Bible speaks authoritatively on matters that have and should influence the daily conduct of government. You’ve likely read for yourself how the American Founding Fathers openly spoke of the influence and impact of biblical teachings.

The Bible is also plain about how God Himself intervenes and blesses nations whose citizens collectively seek and obey His ways. Whether ancient or contemporary, nations who follow God are supernaturally blessed. Nations—and the people who make up those nations—who openly scorn and trample divine principles revealed in the Bible will ultimately find themselves subject to divine wrath. 

You need to understand what the Bible has said about nations historically and prophetically, including international alliances that arose before and others that are still yet to come. Around a third of the Bible relates to issues of prophecy, of authoritatively foretelling the future. A key to understanding Bible prophecy is realizing that much of it reflects the collective results of breaking God’s law, which includes lying and fostering national diplomatic untruths.

A key end-time prophecy

Prophetically the Bible speaks from what geographical directions contemporary superpowers of today will ultimately collide in battle. The grandest of all prophetic collisions are those of “kingdoms” (a phrase used commonly in the Bible to refer to specific national governments or nations) coming to fight one another from the north and the south, and others coming from the north and east. The geographic center of these prophecies is the Middle East—specifically Jerusalem. You may have heard of a place called Armageddon in the Bible, the hill of Megiddo and its adjoining plain north of Jerusalem, where invading armies will eventually gather (see Revelation 16:12-16).

Here is one of the notable Bible prophecies to be fulfilled in the future time of the return of Jesus Christ. Many Bible passages should be carefully studied to completely understand what is to come, but here we find a short summary, with the Bible referring to compass directions from the perspective of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (modern Israel):

At the time of the end [the time shortly before and leading up to the return of Christ] the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. He shall also enter the Glorious Land [the Holy Land, today’s state of Israel], and many countries shall be overthrown” (Daniel 11:40-42, emphasis added throughout).

What the Bible reveals here is the definite and specific alignment of nations who exist in areas to the north and south of Jerusalem. From the north a massive army will come from what we understand will literally be the final revival of the ancient Roman Empire, this time centered in Europe (northwest of Jerusalem).

If you’re a regular reader of Beyond Today, you know that we have been tracking that potential coming geopolitical union for many years. Some current NATO countries appear to be among those of this prophesied final alliance. These NATO countries presently help maintain a balance of power against a militarily reawakened and aggressive Russia.

The book of Daniel, just quoted, reveals much about the final assembly of national armies and alliances and future battles they will fight. This book, coupled with other critical biblical passages, foretells a northern alliance of nations that will be “troubled” by activity from the east. Could that involve Russia?

Jesus Christ directs all of us to study these things carefully. The Almighty God has a specific plan that is presently unfolding, and He reveals it through the pages of the Bible. Importantly, the Bible lists specific events that signal the coming end of this age of human misrule and the return of our Savior Jesus Christ. As Jesus Himself said, “When you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!” (Matthew 24:33).

Continuing, Jesus firmly noted about the time of His return and the final sequence of events, “Of that day and hour no one knows . . . but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36). However, we can discern the times and the general events that indicate the time is short. This is why Jesus specifically warns us to “watch”—to be alert and spiritually vigilant (Matthew 24:42). 

Is the stage being set?

When he campaigned for office, Donald Trump made statements that led some to worry that the United States would become isolationist, leaving Europe to defend itself. In 2016 the United Kingdom voted to pull out of the European Union. That accelerated fears that NATO itself could collapse.

As Putin’s Russia continues its renewed belligerence, will that help galvanize Europe into the more powerful union the Bible shows it will be? Could a worried Germany lead a European effort to assemble a continental military that could be armed with its own nuclear weapons? Again, the Bible gives us specific markers for which to watch in observing these events.

The Bible does show Russia and other major powers from the east eventually coming against Europe and the Middle East.(To learn more, please download or request our study guides The Middle East in Bible Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled for more detailed explanation.) 

What’s the point of prophecy?

As we contemplate Putin’s future actions and how they could bear on the fulfillment of the foretelling passages of the Bible, let’s consider the actual point of biblical prophecy. Bible prophecy is much more than charts and graphs and speculation.

Biblical prophecy has one overarching purpose—to encourage and direct us to focus on the greatest future event of all time, which is the return of Jesus Christ.

This time Jesus will come as a conquering Messiah, as King of Kings. When He returns to earth in power, Jesus will set up the very real (not allegorical) Kingdom of God. That divinely led government will replace all human governments (Revelation 11:15). As opposed to portraying a wrathful God who lashes out, prophecy gives us real hope that our loving God will not permit humanity to perish at its own hands. The Bible reveals that at the precise moment when all seems lost, God will intervene and intervene mightily.

Biblical prophecy portrays an active, caring and powerful God who has a timetable for humanity. Prophecy shows that He is in charge of events. It shows how God will pour out His love for all with the final defeat of death and all evil, whether it be from Russia or any other country.

We live in dangerous times. But we need not fear. God remains in control. We do need to be on spiritual high alert, as Jesus Himself directs us: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass” (Luke 21:36).

President Putin is indeed focused on making Russia great again—but at the expense of neighboring countries and anyone who stands in his way. However, it is God who will have the final word!



A Personal and Deep Interest

Why should Christians and those living in the West be concerned about Vladimir Putin and Putin’s Russia? Allow me to make a personal point. I’ve followed Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European matters with deep interest for decades. Through the pages of this magazine and various humanitarian efforts, I have long written and spoken of the need to be vigilant and to seek peaceful change. Why? Because I have firsthand knowledge of what is going on and what may soon come to pass in this region.

As regular readers of Beyond Today may recall, my Ukrainian parents were teenagers in the Soviet Union who were forced by the Germans in the 1942 Barbarossa offensive to work as slave laborers in factories. After the war they became refugees in a United Nations camp in Allied-occupied Germany. In 1949, as international war refugees they found a new home in the United States. I was then two years old.

All of my immediate family members became citizens of the United States while living in Minnesota. As you can imagine, none of them forgot the mind-numbing atrocities first forced upon Ukrainians by German Nazi armies, then by Russian policies of lethal starvation under Stalin.

My family understands the character flaws that led to people like Putin. Most importantly, over time I was able to study the Bible and learn exactly why and how despotic nations like Russia can wreak such havoc. As a minister of Jesus Christ for nearly half a century, I humbly understand how certain mindsets can horribly twist the free will granted to us by God.

I’ve been privileged to gain much insight since 1967, when I first began traveling to Russia and its now-former republics working with both humanitarian and church groups. And I’ve journeyed there many times since. I traveled with historians through many of the Soviet republics during the 50th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. And I subsequently led educational tours to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Volgograd, some with American elected officials. 

My interest in informing people about Russian and potential Russian ambitions stems in part from my direct experience with formerly persecuted religious groups in Ukraine. For more than two decades I and others have supported a children’s clinic in Chernihev, a city situated a very short distance from the Russian border and Chernobyl, the site of the legendary nuclear disaster. We have also peacefully helped refugees from Russian-induced fighting in eastern Ukraine with food and clothing. Through the children’s clinic we have helped rescue more than 400 children from the stricken cities in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.  

My life’s work helping people in Ukraine and Russia, and also in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, have all contributed to the worldview I share here. I write this so readers will know that I hold more than a mere academic interest in Russia and its current destabilizing nature.