MIDDLE ISRAEL: Person of the year - Vladimir Putin

The former KGB agent established himself in 5778 as the century's most effective statesman.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen as he visits the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria (photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/REUTERS)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen as he visits the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria
Our Person of the Year 5778 is not an Israeli.
No Israeli dominated the year the way, for instance, Stanley Fischer did when this column crowned him its Person of the Year 5768, after he shepherded Israel to economic safety through global financial tempest.
The elapsing year also did not generate a sacrificial role model, like last year’s choice, Shas lawmaker Yigal Gueta, who chose to attend his nephew’s gay wedding despite the knowledge it might cost him his Knesset seat, as it indeed did.
Obviously, the year did produce eligible Israeli candidates.
The main contender was Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose effort to reverse justice Aharon Barak’s 26-year-old judicial revolution has been civil, systematic, effective, and respected even by its opponents. Yet we can’t say she dominated the year or steered the country in a new direction or symbolized something larger than herself.
Two feel-good options were runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter and singer Netta Barzilai.
The skeletal and charming Chemtai Salpeter, who won the 10,000-meter gold medal in the 2018 European Athletics Championships, inspired many not only for her athletic achievement, but for the social journey she made from rural Kenya to the Jewish state. Yet such a choice would have implied that the attitude toward our African population is the idyll that it is not.
Barzilai’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest was equally inspiring, for the character she displayed in defying prejudice against the obese, and in her song’s feminist battle cry. However, Barzilai cannot claim to have led, let alone pioneered, the struggle she so admirably served.
Indeed, Barzilai’s musical achievement, like Chemtai Salpeter’s athletic accomplishment and Shaked’s political imprint, could have produced our Person of the Year, had events abroad not overshadowed our travails.
Yet out there, in the big world that sprawls beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, one man loomed this year as the unfolding century’s most effective statesman. His name is Vladimir Putin.
THE MAN whose rule of Russia turned 19 last month emerged in the international arena during the heady Clinton years, when the West seemed to have floored Russia on every front, from political thought and economic system to cultural values and global sway.
Russia was understood, and treated, as a declining power, the deceased Soviet Union’s geographically clipped, politically devalued, and economically impoverished orphan.
Two decades on, Russia is no longer poor, its superpower status is recovered, and its political confidence is restored.
The ostensibly declining power that NATO thought it could ignore when it bombed Libya is now a geopolitical turbine that deploys warships across the Mediterranean, armor through Ukraine and fighter jets atop Syria, while signing multibillion-dollar arms deals with veteran American clients Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even NATO member Turkey.
Not only has Putin restored Russia’s global standing, he has inspired a political counterrevolution that first blocked, and then began reversing, democracy’s march across the post-Soviet world.
The jailing last decade of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who financed opposition politicians, was a thinly veiled assault on judicial independence and political freedom.
Mysterious murders like those of physicist and political dissenter Boris Nemtsov, shot in the back while crossing a Moscow bridge; investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot in her apartment building’s lobby; and double-agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with radionuclide polonium, animated the restoration of the authoritarianism that Russia had known uninterruptedly since the Middle Ages, except the brief years between Communism’s decline and Putin’s ascent.
The former KGB officer who lived for five years in East Germany as a Soviet spook never saw the merits, or inevitability, of the Soviet Union’s collapse, calling it in a speech in 2005 “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the 20th century.”
As Putin sees things, Russia’s democratic experiment in the 1990s produced chaos, and that chaos led Russia to the brink of the calamity that he, Putin, prevented. That assessment is, of course, debatable, though it should be noted that it is shared by Mikhail Gorbachev and also by Henry Kissinger, who has written that the West has demonized Putin.
In terms of this column’s dilemma, Putin’s moral record is beside the point. Previous persons of the year included Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad. What we ask is not whether Putin was pious, but whether he was effective, and the answer is that he was – big time.
Putin brought what the four American presidents and multiple European leaders he faced lacked: a reading of history and a political road map. He was there not to respond to events, but to shape them.
That is why he outsmarted the European leaders who thought they would cripple him economically, only to see him endure their sanctions, and then help swamp them with refugees and fracture their union.
This sobriety is also what made Putin use his land’s wealth of commodities to fill Russia’s coffers and finance his imperial expeditions. That is also what made him nurture the Church, cultivate a class of millionaires, and turn an ailing farming sector into a world-leading wheat exporter. Focused, calculated and stealthy, Putin restored the czarist social order’s three pillars: the peasantry, the nobility and the clergy.
NEXT WEEK, as Jews worldwide whisper “who by fire, who by sword,” the fate of three million people in Idlib, the Syrian rebels’ last stronghold, will be in the balance, as Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops target them from the land, the air and the sea, in what they plan as the Syrian civil war’s grand finale.
Political commotion as this showdown approaches involves the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the European Union, the United Nations and half a dozen Arab states. Just how events will unfold there is anyone’s guess, but what is clear already now is that when this battle’s dust settles, one man will tower above its mound of skulls as the undisputed winner of the century’s most gruesome war: Vladimir Putin.
That is why he is our Person of the Year 5778.