Putin is a formidable foe indeed. He is not a transitory danger to the West, for Putin intends to stay in power for the next sixteen years at least. But Western characterizations of Putin, and of Russia, are really caricatures that prevent an accurate reading of Russia’s role in the world.
For much of the world, and especially Americans, Russia appears to be a mysterious and dangerous country, difficult to understand, a rogue state bent on doing mischief, particularly if it is harmful to their foes in the West. The image of Russia is reduced to its leader, Vladimir Putin, who in turn is reduced to a soulless KGB agent, trained as a spy and prepared to use any means necessary to promote Russia’s fortunes. Putin has been compared to Hitler and Stalin, a man without a soul, perhaps even crazy. Angela Merkel famously said that Vladimir Putin lives in a different world. He has tried to undermine democratic elections in the United States and other countries, sent his agents to poison his opponents, and, in the latest accusation, he authorized payments to the Taliban to kill NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
Liberals and the leaders of the Democratic Party, the opposition to the current regime in Washington, are among the most vocal demonizers of Putin and Russia. Certainly, the most extreme and bizarre accusation against Russians was expressed by Susan Rice, former national security advisor to President Obama, who told Wolf Blizer of CNN that “based on my experience” the violence in the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd was “right out of the Russian playbook.” Blitzer agreed: “You're absolutely right on the foreign interference, because we know for decades, the Russians, when it was the Soviet Union, the communist, they've oftentimes tried to embarrass the United States by promoting the racial divide in our country, but what you are suggesting, Ambassador is that they're still trying to do that? Is that what you're saying?” Encouraged, Rice continued: “Well, we see it all the time. We've seen it for years, and, frankly, every day on social media, where they take any divisive painful issue whether it is immigration, whether it is gay rights, whether it is gun violence, and always racism, and they play on both sides. Their aim is not simply to embarrass the United States, Wolf. Their aim is to divide us, to cause us to come into combat with each other. To disintegrate from within, and I would not be surprised to learn that they have fomented some of these extremists on both sides using social media. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they are funding it in some way, shape or form.” For Trump and many of his supporters, the protestors were anarchists and terrorists and the police were good people not to be confused with a “few bad apples.” For Rice the protests were legitimate demonstrations of outrage but that rage was then manipulated from Moscow.
Putin is a formidable foe indeed. He is not a transitory danger to the West, for Putin intends to stay in power for the next sixteen years at least. But Western characterizations of Putin, and of Russia, are really caricatures that prevent an accurate reading of Russia’s role in the world. Those who have dealt with the Russian leader concede that Vladimir Putin is intelligent, competent, calculating, and can be brutal in both word and deed. But he is neither Hitler nor Stalin, neither a fascist, as has been claimed on the op-ed page of the New York Times, nor a communist. He does not aim at recreating the Soviet Union or destroying the European Union. He has stated publicly that he is not interested in making Russia a Great Power again, a statement that should be taken with a large grain of salt, though he is certainly interested in making Russia “Great Again.” A consummate politician, he is skilled both in the domestic intrigues of bureaucratic politics and in the strategic thinking of an international statesman.
"A tsar, must conduct himself like a tsar"
The last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, once lamented that his mild, democratic approach to governing had led to his ultimate failure and the disintegration of his country. “A tsar,” he said, “must conduct himself like a tsar. And that I don't know how to do.” Putin, on the other hand, from the time he ascended to power had his own clear idea of what Russia required after the collapse of communism and the disastrous decade of Boris Yeltsin’s rule. He limited free speech, tamed the oligarchs and the Russian parliament, muzzled his most vocal critics, and crushed the rebellion in Chechnya. Unlike Gorbachev, Putin benefitted from high oil prices and increased his popularity by improving the living standards of most Russians. Rather than the social democratic state that Gorbachev hoped to found, Putin built an authoritarian capitalist state.
Vladimir Putin is a realist playing a relatively weak economic and military hand vis-à-vis the United States, NATO, and the European Union. Vulnerability more than a desire for territorial expansion better explains his ill-considered and precipitous gamble in annexing Crimea in 2014. In the panic that followed the replacement of a more pro-Russian government in Kiev with a pro-Western one, Putin suddenly, rashly abandoned his earlier, more pragmatic policy toward Ukraine. He had tried either to win over Ukraine or render it neutral. But after what he described as a coup d’état in Kiev, he quickly annexed Crimea to Russia, fearing a NATO takeover of its naval bases on the peninsula and perhaps to appease Russian nationalists at home. As a consequence, he turned Ukraine for generations to come into a more nationalist anti-Russian state. Russia self-destructively propelled itself into an untenable position. Politically Crimea cannot be returned to its earlier status within Ukraine without the Kremlin bosses losing the favor of most Russians. Moscow is stuck with Crimea, an example of imperial overreach that defies easy digestion and serves to confirm the West’s worst suspicions about Putin’s intentions.
Russians overwhelmingly share Putin’s view that Russia has been mistreated by the West, humiliated repeatedly, and their interests not taken seriously in Washington and Brussels. In this Manichaean vision most countries are hostile to Russia, and Russia’s international behavior is benign and accommodating. Russians admire the West, wish to live like Europeans and Americans, desire to be part of “the family of nations,” and resent being treated as uncouth barbarians. They blame almost every problem -- from the expansion of NATO, global electronic surveillance, the threats of cyber warfare, and the crisis in Ukraine to the price of cheese -- primarily on the United States and its perceived global ambitions to render Russia weak and isolated. The discourse on talk shows is so inflated that many ordinary Russians have turned off, even as public statements escalate the fear of war. The palpable material hardship caused by economic sanctions and Russia’s failure to diversify and build infrastructure in the flush years when oil and gas prices were high, along with fatigue at the lack of effective reform and meaningless elections without real choices, have combined to produce a rumbling discontent. Even the nationalist fallback position – “Well, at least Crimea is ours!” -- has begun to sound hollow. People vote for Putin, but at the same time express the wish that he would step down.
"Security, prosperity, good life"
Like people in many nations, Russians wish for security and prosperity, the good life, even more than the elusive benefits of liberal democracy. There is fear that in Putin’s absence oligarchic elites might tear the country apart fighting for the spoils of the stagnating economy. While Americans and Europeans, particularly in Eastern Europe, believe American power to be indispensable and NATO expansion a positive contribution to strategic stability, Russians genuinely feel threatened. The memories of Poles, Czechs, Estonians, and others of long years of Soviet domination of their countries is mirrored by Russians’ remembering the colossal destruction they suffered from European invasions in the twentieth century’s two world wars.
Russia is actually relatively weak both militarily and economically compared to Europe, China or the United States. Russia spends less than ten percent of what the West spends on defense, and the Russian economy is eight times smaller than that of the United States or the European Union. California’s gross domestic product is almost twice the size of Russia’s, which ranks twelfth among nations. Instead of being able to confront the West directly, Russia resorts to muscle flexing, including both pinprick annoyances like overflights in the Baltic region or the northern Pacific, and more serious threats like placing Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave. Skillfully playing his weak hand, Putin has successfully driven the Americans out of Syria and Libya, and his principal rival in those two countries is now Turkey.
More and more Americans are coming to believe that their president has been outplayed by Putin, that Trump fawns at the strength displayed by the man in the Kremlin. They are perplexed by his affection for and trust in Putin. Despite the overheated rhetoric in the mainstream and social media, both presidents have repeatedly indicated that they admire each other and have refrained from the hyperbolic rhetoric of more establishment foreign policy experts in the United States and pundits in Russia. They appear to want to work together but are stymied by those around them and popular opposition to cooperation.
In February 1998, as Bill Clinton was preparing to strike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended Washington’s planned actions. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.” Setting aside the one-sided arrogance of those remarks, we should realize that at this moment the United States and Russia are both indispensable nations, each in its own way. Both are required to stabilize the international order and solve global problems like the flow of refugees, climate change, and terrorism. The current climate, with accusations flying from both sides, is hardly conducive to fresh starts in improving East-West relations. In order to move forward, Washington and Moscow would have to consider the interests and insecurities of the other side.
Stronger player has to take first move
To cool the current exaggerated tensions between Russia and the West, the stronger player has to make the first move. Washington, convinced that the United States has interests in all parts of the globe, must take seriously Russia’s more immediate and regional perception of its interests. President Obama once dismissed Russia as a “regional power,” but from such condescension he was forced to recognize Russia as an “important” power. A global hegemon should be able uneasily to inhabit the same world as a relatively weak regional hegemon. A shift from dominance by a single hyper-power to a more multilateral and consultative international order is not only an essential first step but is probably inevitable in the near future as the power relations between the most economically prosperous states change. Coexistence as unequal rivals and wary partners requires more carefully formulated understanding of the other than the current rancor allows. Differences need not necessarily lead to conflicts, and conflicts need not inevitably lead to violent confrontations. Words matter, however, and shifts in language, and a willingness to listen to your adversary, is essential in order to ease the way to cautious cooperation.