Lecturer at Rancho Santa Fe event aims to put Russian actions into historical perspective

Reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a psychological disorder don’t hold water, according to a veteran Canadian diplomat who spoke recently at a public forum in Rancho Santa Fe.

“I don’t think he’s nuts. I think he’s extraordinarily vain,” said Jeremy Kinsman, who met the autocratic Russian leader in 1995, when Kinsman was Canadian ambassador to Russia, and Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. “He’s a showman.”

Kinsman retired from the Canadian Foreign Service in 2006 after a 40-year diplomatic career. In addition to his service as ambassador to Russia, he was his country’s top representative in London, Rome, Brussels and a number of former Soviet republics.

A resident of Vancouver Island with his wife, Hana, Kinsman has continued to lecture and write about foreign policy since his retirement, and has served as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and Ryerson University in Toronto.

Kinsman spoke at the Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe as part of the Viewpoints lecture series, which is co-sponsored by the church and the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation. An audience of 240 listened raptly to Kinsman’s talk, which touched on a century of Russian history as a window to understanding the current mindset and motivations of the country and its leaders.

During a question-and-answer session after Kinsman’s talk, the retired diplomat discounted rumors that Putin was behind the recent assassination of a prominent opposition figure.

“(Putin) didn’t order the killing of Boris Nemtsov,” Kinsman said. “I think he was shocked by this. He’s a control freak, and this is something he doesn’t control.”

According to Kinsman, Nemtsov was marginalized, and didn’t pose a direct threat to Putin, at least in part because he didn’t have access to television networks, which are heavily controlled by the state.

More likely, Kinsman said, Nemtsov was killed at the behest of ultra-nationalists who objected to his protests regarding Russian military action in the Ukraine, Islamic jihadists focused on his Jewish heritage or his comments about terrorist killings in France, or possibly even rich Russian businessmen infuriated by his anti-corruption stance.

Whoever was behind the killing, said Kinsman, a well-organized hit can be arranged fairly cheaply and easily in Moscow.

Nemtsov was shot in the back near the Kremlin on the night of Feb. 27 as he walked home from dinner with his girlfriend.

Russians endured many traumatic and destabilizing events during the 20th century, including a communist revolution, two World Wars, repression and genocide by dictator Josef Stalin, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As the Cold War ended, Kinsman said, “Russians felt like losers.”

Putin came to power in 2000 promising to restore stability and security, and “he delivered,” which is why his approval ratings still stand at 85 percent among Russians.

Although Putin is highly intelligent, “He does have flaws that Shakespeare would have gone after like red meat for a new play.” For example, although the Russian leader is very competitive, he doesn’t want people to compete with him, which is why he cracks down on opposition leaders.

Regarding Russia’s military aggression in response to unrest in Ukraine, Kinsman said, “He saw (the protests) as being mostly stimulated by outside forces to try to remove Ukraine from Russian influence,” and was concerned such protests might migrate to back to Russia.

Essentially, he said, neither side — Russia or America — understands the other.

Going forward, he said, Russia and Putin — or his successor — will have to decide whether or not to engage with the West on such issues of concern as Syria, Iran and Islamic State terrorism.

Among the audience at Kinsman’s talk were Bill and Kathryn Gang of Rancho Santa Fe, who lived in the former Soviet Union around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, when Bill Gang was part of a joint U.S.-Soviet business venture.

The Russians are “wonderful people,” Bill Gang said, but “It was a hard place to live. You couldn’t buy food.” The couple were fortunate to be able to order supplies from Helsinki, Finland, during their stay.

Kathryn Gang said she appreciated how Kinsman put current events in historical context.

“He was trying to give a perspective of why the people are like they are,” she said. “It makes sense if you understand their history.”

The Viewpoints series was launched four years ago, and three or four lectures are held each year, said Christy Wilson, executive director of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation.

Kinsman’s talk was timely, and on point with the objectives of the lecture series, Wilson said.

“The mission is to inform, inspire and impact. This was a really good example of that mission,” she said.