Is Vladimir Putin bad, sad or mad? Is he a sinister and effective tyrant, cleverly taking advantage of the West’s weakness? Is he balancing precariously at the head of a failing state, desperate not to end up dead or in prison? Or is he delusional, like the villain in a bad Hollywood film?
The short answer is that we don’t really know. We don’t know how Putin thinks. We don’t know what information he gets. We don’t know whose advice he takes, if any. We don’t know what he really fears, or what he really wants. As Europe’s security rockets up the international agenda, Kremlinology, as we used to call it, is back.
A prominent advocate of the ‘bad’ camp is Walter Russell Mead. In a widely read recent article in The American Interest, he argues that Western Putin-watchers make a huge mistake in assuming that the Russian leader is like them.
There are three subjects on which virtually everybody in the Western policy and intellectual establishments agree: think of them as the core values of the Davoisie: The first is that the rise of a liberal capitalist and more or less democratic and law-based international order is both inevitable and irreversible. The second is that the Davos elite—the financiers, politicians, intellectuals, hautejournalists and technocrats who mange the great enterprises, institutions and polities of the contemporary world—know what they are doing and are competent to manage the system they represent. The third is that no serious alternative perspective to the Davos perspective really exists; our establishment believes in its gut that even those who contend with the Davos world order know in their hearts that Davos has and always will have both might and right on its side.
Putin, by contrast, sees things differently, Mead argues:
He thinks the whole post-historical Western consensus is a mix of flapdoodle and folderol. It is, from his perspective, a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy, and he wants no part of it.
That helps explain what to many outside eyes seems a preposterous penchant for aggression. How on earth can Russia, with a GDP of a bit more than $2 trillion and a population of 140m, expect to challenge the West (Europe and North America have a combined GDP of more than $40 trillion and a population of 800m)?
The answer is simple. Putin thinks that the West is both a threat to him, and also in serious trouble. So he wants to exploit its woes.
From Putin’s viewpoint, Mead argues, Germany is overstretched in trying to manage the stricken European economy—trying to build a new Europe “in defiance of the facts.” The point is not Russian weakness, but the West’s. Germany cannot save Ukraine whether oil is $100 a barrel or $25. All Russia has to do is to keep Ukraine broken and bankrupt.
The other target, he writes, is “strategically clueless” America.
President Obama is amusing himself with various pursuits and his incoherent and crisis-ridden Middle East mix of policies gives him no time to think hard about Europe; Congress lacks the cohesion and the constitutional means to force an alternative on him.
A response to Mead’s article came from Sam Greene, a veteran Russia-watcher now at Kings College London. He is in the “sad” camp, and skeptical of attempts to seek a window into Putin’s mind:
We cannot possibly know what he’s thinking, but we do know what his incentives are. And if we stop deluding ourselves with ad hoc psychoanalysis, we might actually figure something out.
How can Putin be anti-Western, Greene asks, when he has spent the past 15 years capitalizing on Russia’s ties with the West? And how can he be so good at understanding the West (and Merkel in particular), when he signally failed to spot that sanctions would result from the war in Ukraine? Greene argues that by simply looking at what Putin does, one can see that his aim is simply to stay in power, and all his foreign and domestic policy is directed towards that simple aim. “Lacking in institutional power and the benefits of economic growth, he must continually shore up his symbolic legitimacy,” while keeping everyone guessing about what the next move will be. That is a recipe for conflict and uncertainty—but within limits.
A third take—the “mad” interpretation—comes from Brian Whitmore, the veteran Russia-watcher at RFE/RL and editor of the Power Vertical blog. In a post called ‘Putin’s Fantasy Island‘, he notes the increasingly bizarre statements coming from the Kremlin, such as the idea that the Ukrainian armed forces are in fact a ‘NATO foreign legion’. This is worse than the normal ‘whataboutism‘ of Kremlin propaganda. “If Putin really believes his own hype, then we’re in a very frightening place, indeed.”
It is not just Putin, of course. The Russian media is working itself up into a state of alarming hysteria about the supposed threat the country faces from the West. Try, for example, this particularly appalling segment of theVesti TV show on January 29th (watch from 31 minutes in) which suggested that Russia would be justified in invading the Baltic states and Poland on the grounds (I exaggerate only slightly) that “Ces animaux sont très méchants. Quand on les attaque, ils se defendant.”
Mead and Schindler are right about Western cluelessness, though I also agree with Greene that Putin often misreads the West and Whitmore is right about the increasingly deranged Kremlin world-view.
The former intelligence officer and expert Europe-watcher John Schindler reconciles the “bad”, “sad” and “mad” theses, arguing that Putin is doomed to lose eventually, but he will inflict great damage first. The Russian leader, he writes, is:
a Chekist functionary, not a deep thinker, a man of limited experience of life outside Russia and the KGB cocoon. His brand of Tsarist-era nostalgia, fueled by nationalism and Orthodoxy, has nothing to offer non-Russians, and is not even wanted by some of Russia’s many minorities. Putin, like Hitler, lives in a mental time-warp that was outmoded already in 1914 — see his strangely 19th century views on diplomacy — and would be laughably obsolete now, were it not so dangerous. Moscow’s imperial experiments past all failed, thanks to the limited appeal of the Kremlin’s political program to millions of non-Russians, and this one will too, eventually.
Schindler picks up what to me is one of the most interesting weaknesses in Putinism: that the Russky Mir(ethno-nationalist) element of Putinism is inherently contradictory to the supranational Eurasian project, which is a kind of ‘Soviet Union lite.’
Putin’s neo-imperial project is doomed to fail. Its inherent contradictions are great, to add a fleeting Marxist note. It is an intensely Russian project and the very things that make Putinism intoxicating to Russians — its nationalist politics and religion, its paeans to Muscovy’s heroes and greatness past — render it toxic to foreigners. For all its ambitions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, Putinism has nothing to offer non-Russians except vassalage.
That is no reason for complacency. An excellent piece (by a colleague) in this week’s Economist highlighted the increasing thuggishness and recklessness of the regime, ending with a chilling warning from Igor Ivanov, a former Russian foreign minister, of the danger of a nuclear confrontation.
The last word to Schindler:
Putin’s dream of a Russian Empire over Eastern Europe will fail, as all preceding efforts of this kind did. NATO and the EU, with American help, have the power to determine how long it takes for Moscow’s fantasies to turn to dust, and how many countries and lives are destroyed before that happens. Let us hope they use it, soon.
Edward Lucas is a Senior Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).