Vladimir Putin and I are about the same age and we went to college about the same time. As a matter of fact, we went to college together. No, really.
Putin attended Leningrad State University, graduating in 1975. I was there for a semester in 1972, one of a small number of American undergraduate exchange students living in the "international dormitory," six to a room, across the Neva River from the Hermitage Museum.
I can't say Vlady and I were buddies. OK, I can't say we actually knew each other. Leningrad State (rah, rah, rah!) was a big school. He was in the law department, studying who knows what, heading for an illustrious career as a KGB spook. I was in the philology department, studying language and literature, heading for I knew not what. But Russian literature was majestic, and we read a lot of it. Soviet literature was abominable, and we read a lot of that, too. Anti-Soviet literature was riveting -- we were not even to discuss that.
Our free time was spent in more informal educational pursuits, mostly talking until the wee hours, over warm vodka and strong coffee, with whichever Russians were willing to put up with our bad grammar and vulgar accents -- in other words, dissidents and KBG agents pretending to be dissidents. (So maybe I did know Putin, after all?) In those days, there was still talk of the "New Soviet Man." Spawned by communist culture and consciousness, he was to be, as the Communist Party phrased it, "a harmonic combination," a superior creature, fit and healthy, unsentimental and street-savvy, a proud proletarian, loyal only to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.
Back in the day, Putin probably thought of himself as a New Soviet Man. Today, I see him as a Neo-Soviet Man, by which I mean possessing all of the above attributes except for the Marxism-Leninism which has been replaced by réchauffé Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, authoritarianism and machtpolitik.
Do President Barack Obama and his advisers get this? I'm not confident. "I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise," Secretary of State John Kerry said during the discussions in Geneva last week.
Allow me to offer an alternative theory: Putin is deeply committed to winning, to beating Obama like a rented mule, to diminishing the United States, exacting a little revenge for all America did to undermine the Soviet empire, and for inviting former members of the Soviet bloc to join NATO after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As for the gassing of women and children by Syrian leader Bashar Assad -- Russia's friend and Iran's loyal servant -- I think Putin will leave it to bourgeois humanists to shed the salty tears.
Putin is a man with a plan: He wants to show the world that Russia is a steadfast ally, in contrast to the U.S., which has the bad habit of throwing allies under buses. He wants to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East. The fact that Assad provides Russia with a Mediterranean port is icing on the babka.
There are those who believe that Putin is now acting like a statesman, riding to the rescue -- shirtless, no doubt. Putin is "giving the United States everything we need and more ... he helped deliver," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., enthused on Fox last Sunday. I would ask those who buy this thesis: Did you read Putin's op-ed in The New York Times last week? Putin warns that a U.S. strike against Assad would "unleash a new wave of terrorism." In other words, should Assad's state terrorism be punished, the response will be more terrorism ordered by Assad, his Iranian sponsors or Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanon-based terrorist proxy. Apparently, Vlad has no problem with that.
He asserts that the use of force by the U.S. must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council -- neglecting to mention that Russia can veto such authorization and, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power noted, has blocked even statements "calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria." Putin asserts: "We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement." It's an astonishing statement from the man who crushed Chechnya, invaded Georgia, is supplying conventional weapons to Syria and nuclear weapons facilities to Iran.
Our professors at Leningrad State must be so very proud of him.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.