A transcript of the interview is available below:
ROSE: Tell us, Professor Kotkin, who is Vladimir Putin?
KOTKIN: Vladimir Putin is the kind of guy where if you had a whole bunch of 25-year-olds sitting around a table in Burbank and they were trying to figure out what was the ideal villain for a movie, this is for central casting, and they began to throw ideas around the table, how about KGB? KGB? How about a permanent scowl? Permanent scowl. And they went on and they went on, they would produce a figure like Putin.
ROSE: Some people say that he’s just a nonentity. He’s been riding the forces of history and is not really a driving player himself. Do you buy that?
KOTKIN: Yes, this reminds me of what the Trotskyites used to say about Stalin, the outstanding mediocrity of the party. Here’s a guy, Putin, who’s been in power for, what, 15 years now with no end in sight. It’s very hard for a nonentity to last that long at the top of any political system.
ROSE: Where does Ukraine in the current crisis fit into all this?
KOTKIN: The most important thing you could say about Ukraine is that it was wrecked before Putin got his hands on it. Ukrainian elites, pro-Western, pro-Russian, north, south, east, west, they ruined that country well before Putin seized Crimea. It has been a tragic history, a history of unbelievable corruption, shrinkage of GDP.
It was a difficult inheritance, what Ukraine got from the Soviet Union. The post-1991 Ukrainian story is not enviable, but unfortunately wrecked, as I said, by the elites. And Putin gets into the picture and he causes additional damage.