Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation spotlights Putin and Ukraine

Stanford University Professor Norman Naimark, Ph.D., shed light on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the historical and geopolitical forces that have made the Ukrainian crisis such an enduring problem in his Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “Putin and Ukraine,” April 18.

Naimark is an author, professor of Eastern European Studies and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received Stanford’s Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Naimark provided an in-depth profile of the formidable leader of Russia. Born in 1952, Putin grew up poor in a tough neighborhood. He was, according to Naimark, “a big talker and a big fighter,” who, though a Christian, “doesn’t believe in turning the other cheek.”

Raised with a patriotic, military education, Putin believed in the glories of the Soviet Union and bought into all of the propaganda about the evils of capitalism. As a youth, he dreamed of joining the KGB. He be- came a committed officer and his skills led him to be assigned to East Germany, where he recruited spies.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin returned to St. Petersburg and was soon working for Russian President Boris Yeltsin. By the end of the 1990s, both Russia and Yeltsin were in bad shape, and in 1999, Putin became acting president. He has maintained power ever since. Naimark attributed Putin’s rise to several factors: He kept quiet, did his job and didn’t drink.

Battling for control

In explaining why Putin has risked sanctions from the West over his desire to retake Ukraine, Naimark handed out a map of the country to show its importance geo-strategically. Ukraine is the fifth-largest country in Europe and borders seven different countries as well as the Black Sea.

Both Russia and Ukraine claim Kiev, once known as the “Golden Capital,” as originally theirs. When the Mongols destroyed Kiev, Naimark said, some of the residents fled to the West, others to Moscow, which became the new center of the Russian Empire.

The split in loyalty remains and has created what Naimark referred to as a “schizophrenic” nation. While many Ukrainians identify as European, majorities in the eastern provinces align more closely with Russia.

Naimark said Viktor Yanukovych, elected president in 2010, promised he would join the European Union but reneged on his vow when Putin offered him a generous bribe to align with Russia instead.

Cold war mindset

Naimark said he could offer no optimistic prognosis for the turmoil in Ukraine. Putin views Ukraine as his “sphere of interest,” he said, and is likely to continue stirring up unrest in the eastern provinces.

He did offer more encouraging comments about the West’s commitments to protecting the Baltic States and Eastern European countries, which are worried about the threat of Russian encroachment. U.S. President Donald Trump has reversed his earlier stance in praising Putin, and Naimark believes that the U.S. will continue to stand with Europe in protecting those countries from Putin’s imperialistic designs.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methwodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. New members are invited to join. For membership details and more information, visit

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