How Russian Come-Back Kid Vladimir Putin Stays Strong

Audie Cornish speaks with Politico's Susan Glasser about Russian leader Vladmir Putin's return to the presidency and how he has re-asserted himself on the domestic and international stage.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"We must stop using the language of force, and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement." So writes Russian President Vladimir Putin in "The New York Times." The opinion piece is both a defense of the United Nations, and a critique of President Obama's address to the nation Tuesday night; specifically, the moment Obama argued America's exceptionalism. Putin writes: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional."

A remarkable bit of scolding, and just the latest example of Putin asserting himself on the world stage. For more on the Putin doctrine, we spoke with Susan Glasser. She's co-author of the book, "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the end of Revolution." And, she says, though Putin left the presidency in 2008 and only returned last year, he's always been in charge.

SUSAN GLASSER: My own view is that he never really went away; that Vladimir Putin has remained in control of the Russian government since he was tapped for the presidency by Boris Yeltsin right on the stroke of New Year's Eve 2000, that it really has been Vladimir Putin's Russia ever since then.

It is true that during the period when Dmitri Medvedev had the title of president - that in that period, Putin stepped back somewhat from the international stage and allowed Medvedev to be the front man; but that in reality, the policies that they pursued were never really different as a result of that.

CORNISH: So Susan, that line that we mentioned in our intro, where Vladimir Putin says, "We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement" - talk a little bit about what you saw in this op-ed.

GLASSER: Well, in addition to being a fairly savvy political move by Vladimir Putin, the piece in "The New York Times" today is a fairly aggressive rewriting of history, especially coming from a leader of Russia who came to power after prosecuting a very bloody war inside his own borders, in Chechnya, and a real belief in the use of force.

It was just a few years ago - in the summer of 2008 - that Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia. And so - you know, it is kind of striking to any Russia-watcher, to watch Putin claim the moral high ground, which is a very unusual position for him to be in.

CORNISH: Susan Glasser, how much of Putin's pushback here, over the Syria matter, is also about well founded Russian fears that turmoil in Syria could lead to increased extremism there versus - you know, what we're all talking about, this kind of desire to make life politically difficult for an American president.

GLASSER: Well, listen, this is something that concerns the Russians in a very basic and existential way; very much so. Remember that they've gone to war not once, but twice with Islamist rebels in their breakaway southern province of Chechnya. That's how Putin came to power. He's very conscious of that. Afghanistan, which is a big concern of theirs - it lies just to the south of Russia, and instability there threatens their neighborhood in a way that is very immediate.

And from the beginning of the Syria crisis, the Russians have been making the argument that you risk this kind of instability in the Middle East that can provide a safe haven for al-Qaida and its affiliates. And so from the beginning, they have tweaked and prodded the Americans with their view that we've been very naive in seeing the Syrian rebels as sort of freedom fighters and democracy advocates when to them, it's about the rise of potential Sunni Islamic terrorism in a region where no one wants that.

CORNISH: In the end, what do you see as Putin's doctrine? I don't know if you see it in this op-ed, or something you've seen in your research.

GLASSER: The Putin doctrine is a very interesting question. When it comes to internationally, the Putin doctrine is all about make Russia a great power again. When it comes to domestically, the Putin doctrine is really, how to maintain and keep power and to institutionalize this ruling regime. But internationally, it's very much about making Russia a great power again.

CORNISH: Susan Glasser, thanks so much for speaking with me.

GLASSER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Susan Glasser - she's co-author of the book "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution," and also editor of the forthcoming Politico magazine.

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