Archive for June, 2013

The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

This is how it happens: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila go out for a quiet evening at the ballet and, in an interview with a camera crew in a hallway with fake plants, announce that they have gotten a divorce, a month shy of their thirtieth anniversary.

And yet, it’s the happiest we’ve seen Lyudmila in years. In part, that’s because we haven’t seen much of her in years. She was conspicuously absent from this year’s official Easter service, prompting jokes that Putin had made the mayor of Moscow his wife. There were rumors that she had been locked into a convent in the western Russian city of Pskov, there were rumors that she was drugged, rumors that she was dead—which, when you saw her stand swaying and blankly blinking through Putin’s third inauguration last year, were more than believable.

For many years, it was an open secret in Moscow that Putin had taken up with former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. A few years ago, she had a son—which she recently claimed was her nephew—and there were reports in January that she’d had a baby daughter, presumably with Putin. Then, of course, there were the rumors that Putin had moved on from Kabaeva to a former basketball star. Putin’s athleticism, it seemed, knew no bounds.

It did not appear to have been a happy marriage. There were stories from Dresden, where Putin had been stationed as a middling KGB agent during the ’80s, of abuse and philandering. When Putin was named Yeltsin’s successor in January 1999, Lyudmila was said to have cried through the night. Her fears seem to have been realized today when Lyudmila said that one of the reasons for the divorce was that “Vladimir Vladimirovich was always working” and that “we hardly ever see each other.”

An odd moment in the announcement came when Putin mentioned his confirmed children, two adult daughters whom we’ve never really seen, though there were reports in 2010 that one of them was marrying the son of a South Korean admiral. (You’ll notice that this very article is riddled with the words “rumors” and “reports,” which is indicative of how different a role—from our American expectations—the first family plays in Russia.) Putin volunteered that his children “got their education in Russia and live in Russia permanently.” It was a strange statement for the president of a country, unless that country is Russia, where children of the elites tend to live in Europe. Their fathers’ occupation—plundering the country—is a dangerous one, and tends to make Russia poor and thus not a great place to live for anyone. And it’s just more convenient to have your wife and kids living near your money, safely stashed in a Western bank.

Which brings me to my last point. By Russian law, half the wealth accrued in a marriage goes to the wife in a divorce. Vladimir Putin, by most accounts, er, rumors, is one of the wealthiest men in the world. But there are a couple sticking points here. A Kremlin pool reporter once told me that Russian oligarchs are not truly oligarchs, “they merely work as oligarchs.” Meaning, they are human offshores for Putin’s wealth. (They also pay dividends, but in a “Sopranos”-style fashion, buying him yachts and chipping in for his billion-dollar beach house. Rumoredly.)

Officially, of course, Putin made just $177,000 last year. And Lyudmila Putin, as the old Russian saying goes, will never see that money just like she’ll never see her own ears.

The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage [TNR]

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of State

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Today, Barack Obama stopped the music on yet another round of cadre-shifting musical chairs. And this time, the reshuffle left Special Assistant to the President and former journalist Samantha Power in the U.N. ambassador’s chair, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the national security advisor’s chair, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon with no chair at all. Billed by the Times as “a major shakeup,” this round was wholly predictable.

In fact, it had been scheduled back in December, when Susan Rice, then the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, pulled out of the running amid a storm of controversy over Benghazi. Back then, Rice, who was essentially eased out of the pre-nomination process by the White House, told me that she had “had a warm conversation” with Obama, which made her feel better. White House advisors were openly talking even then about Rice getting the national security post. In the months since, that chatter, from people in the White House and close to Rice, has only intensified. One source close to Rice told me that they were simply waiting for Donilon to get up out of that chair.

The more ironic twist in this is that this job, now seen by everyone as Rice’s consolation prize, was actually the job she had wanted way back in early 2009. She had been one of the founding members of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, having thrown in her lot with him early despite her deep ties to Clintonland and that going with Obama then seemed like a career-ender. As I recount in my December profile of Rice, she was none too pleased.

But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)

But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Rice has had to wait four years to get the job she wanted four years ago. Most everyone who has dealt with Rice, while acknowledging her brilliance and awesome work ethic, has noted, as one foreign policy insider told me, “Every job she’s had, she’s had four or five years too soon.” This is more than a sexist remark about a young overachieving black woman. The speed of her ascent is, in part, what has made her the polarizing personality that she is today. For example, when she first worked at the State Department from 1997-2001 as assistant secretary for African affairs, she may have been one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, but she had a hell of a time inside the Department.

Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.

National security advisor is the perfect job for Rice in large part because she is so much like Obama. Like him, she works with a tight inner circle, and politicking does not come naturally to her, according to her family and colleagues. Like Obama, she prefers the data and wonkery to grand theories. This has made her flexible and pragmatic, and, for her critics, frustratingly hard to predict. (She has been labeled, derogatorily, both an interventionist and a non-interventionist.) In this, she is just like her boss, in large part because she’s helped shape Obama’s foreign policy views. Rice, who has become a friend and a fixture inside the Obamas’ inner sanctum, was advising the President even when he was a Senator. She was also one of the architects of the Phoenix project, a white paper that laid out Obama’s foreign policy views early in the campaign. Given that her views and Obama’s line up in a kind of perfect policy eclipse — heck, she made his views — working together this closely will likely be a breeze.

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of [TNR]