How Putin's KGB Training Influenced His Approach to Orban and Trump
'Working with people' is how Putin divides the West
In June 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a special press event for the heads of U.S. news bureaus in Moscow. The journalist Christian Caryl, then Newsweek's bureau chief, asked what part of his KGB training was most valuable in his role as Russia's new leader. Putin answered: "[The] main thing is working with people." He continued: To "work with people," one needed to make people "an ally" and convince them they have "common goals." He said this "most important skill" was "not so removed from the first order of business in international affairs." The Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, authors of the 2013 psychological biography of Putin, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, defined this skill of "working with people" or "communicating with people" as studying the minds of targets, finding their weaknesses, and figuring out how to use them.
Fast-forward 22 years later, Putin is using his skill of "working with people'' to divide the West in his bid to win the war in Ukraine, despite massive losses on the battlefield and no major territorial gains since the early weeks of the war. The strategy of dividing U.S. and European leaders has a chance of working, given that Ukraine is reliant on Western aid to survive. Two of Putin's targets in his bid to "work with people" are Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the likely GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
At a year-end EU summit, Orban, one of Putin's targets, blocked some 50 billion Euros in financial aid to Ukraine. While the Hungarian leader relented and allowed the start of EU accession negotiations with Kyiv, talks will take years. The blocking of aid is much more immediate. Ukraine is relying on the U.S. and Europe to plug about half of its $43 billion budget deficit next year.While the EU has approved some aid already, the new package would provide financial support for Ukraine from 2024-27. European leaders have voiced optimism that 26 out of 27 members can go around Orban and approve aid in late January or early February; however, doing so would also prove that Europe is fragmented in its fight against Russia. (The EU aid is all the more urgent because another aid package is floundering in the U.S. Congress.)
Under Orban, Hungary has continued to import Russian oil and gas, as well as nuclear fuel, while other EU countries have weaned themselves off of Russian energy, causing energy price hikes and inflation. This energy alliance has helped Orban at home: for example, the Hungarian leader secured another parliamentary supermajority in 2014 after Gazprom made a one-time price cut for Hungarian consumers. Orban also shares Putin's worldview: they both share a disdain for European institutions and democratic institutions like NGOs and the judiciary. Orban has even continued to meet with Putin in person after the invasion, unlike other EU leaders.
A second Trump term would potentially tilt the War in Ukraine -- and the European security environment -- in Putin's favor. Trump would likely make a serious bid to leave NATO, which would leave much of Europe as vulnerable to Russian military threats as Ukraine was in 2022. In his first term, Trump's national security adviser from 2018-19, John Bolton, wrote in his memoir that he talked Trump many times out of leaving NATO; in a second term, Trump would be unrestrained by longtime national security hands like Bolton, the so-called "adults in the room." According to a report in the German tabloid Bild on Russia's battle plans for Ukraine, which include capturing more Ukrainian territory, Russia is banking on a U.S. president being elected in 2024 who dramatically reduces or stops U.S. aid to Ukraine, e.g. Trump.
Ahead of the 2024 election, Putin is flattering Trump. In September, Putin called Trump's legal cases "politically motivated persecution," and praised Trump's oft-mentioned secret plan to end the war in Ukraine in "24 hours." At a Dec. 16 campaign rally in New Hampshire, Trump quoted Putin's line about "politically motivated persecution." Hill, the coauthor of the Putin biography and former top adviser to Trump on Russia, told Public Sphere in 2021: "[Putin] would try to win Trump over by flattery, even at the same time as he was trying to push his buttons. I saw him do that with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, on multiple occasions."
The transatlantic order is not workable for Putin. The war has -- aside from the likes of Trump and Orban -- united the West and caused leaders in France and Germany to conclude that there is no working together with Putin again while importing Russian energy. U.S. President Joe Biden has given Ukraine massive amounts of military aid, and, unlike his predecessors, did not come into office trying to mend the U.S.-Russian relationship. Putin's hope for 2024, therefore, is that a new order comes to power in the U.S. and Europe, one that he can work with.
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