From the beginning, the West has gotten Vladimir Putin dead wrong, because even many seasoned Russia experts have a hard time understand the way he thinks. This essay in the Financial Times by Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer is as good a guide as any to trying to understand the man:
To outsiders he looked isolated at November’s summit of the Group of 20 leading economies; the Russian leader himself probably wonders which of his peers has done better since he took power 15 years ago.George W Bush left the US presidency under the cloud of two unfinished wars and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair, tarnished by the Iraq war, earns money helping autocrats burnish their credentials. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder is a retainer for Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian gas company. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy is living out his days in disgrace after his embarrassing court trials. Jacques Chirac of France, Jean Chrétien of Canada and Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi are fading from memory. Mr Putin alone remains at the helm, with domestic approval ratings above 80 per cent.Russia’s economic progress probably does not look too bad either when Mr Putin compares it with other leading powers. Who has done better in the past 15 years? Gross domestic product has increased sixfold. Income per head has risen sevenfold. Never before have Russians seen such prosperity. More currency reserves would be good, but $200bn is available immediately; and, by conservative measures, the same has been put in rainy day funds.
The one thing the piece misses is Putin’s dark vision of Russia’s future—a future that can only be avoided, he thinks, with quick and vigorous action. He is a bit like Robert E. Lee, knowing that his only hope is to out-think and out-general the other side. He needs some razzle dazzle. He knows that a cautious, plodding Russian foreign policy will sooner or later end in Russia’s permanent marginalization, caught between a Europe taking shape around Berlin (and backed by the United States) and a rising Beijing. Russia has to change the direction of history or it will inexorably decline.Putin is fighting this trend in history, and he knows that this means he has to take bigger risks than stand-pat powers. Like Frederick the Great, he has to hunt for opportunities and jump in with both feet when he sees them (see: Georgia, Ukraine).Marry this sense of a desperate need to change the momentum of history to a contempt for the weaknesses of the chief obstacles in his path (the EU as a crippled dwarf, unable to act decisively, committed to progressively eliminating what little military strength it retains, unable to function as a genuine state; Barack Obama’s America, braggadocio on things like human rights mixed with deep reluctance to fight or spend money) and a respect for and fear of the power of a rising China, and his foreign policy starts to make sense.The oil price meltdown this year has been a shock to him, but it won’t change the way he thinks. He has been too successful for too long rebuilding Russian power by following his vision to want to change now.