For years now, Vladimir Putin has been the most talked about leader in the West. He is on the covers of popular magazines; he is the hero or villain of numerous essays and books; he has an army of spectators waiting for the next detail to add to their Putin-centric narratives. Hardly any other Russian leader (with the exception of Stalin) has commanded so much attention. True, in most of the portraits he is depicted as a dark personality, or even as the embodiment of evil. But I would bet that the Russian leader doesn’t mind being the villain; certainly it’s preferable to being ignored. I imagine he even took a certain pride in the latest cover of the Economist, which shows him with a devilish face and glowing red fighter jets for eyes. The global attention not only feeds his vanity (who among world leaders doesn’t have this particular character trait?); it also helps him pursue his survival strategy, which relies on evidence of the West’s hostility to justify a policy of containment. Besides, Putin has to know that, after wrecking the world order, he can hardly play the part of a global hero.
The West’s view of Putin and Russian reality matters for us Russians. Watching from inside Russia often limits one’s capacity to remain objective, and elicits bitterness and other emotions that are hardly solid and unbiased foundations for political study. Western experts can say what we don’t have the courage to say or don’t find appropriate for various reasons. In any case, it is often helpful to watch phenomena from a distance. Occasionally as I read Western commentary I find myself saying, “That’s it! How did I miss that angle?” But such feelings are rare. More often than not, the Western brands of Putinalia provoke consternation: Why are they drawing such caricatured portraits of Putin, Russia, and Russians? Where do they get this stuff? Are they serious?
Putin’s Western shrinks have CAT-scanned his skull from every possible angle, it seems, studying his views, speculating about his intentions, probing for weaknesses and strengths. Why, then, after having spent so much time and effort deciphering the Russian leader, has the West been so unprepared for the Kremlin’s actions, and so predictably wrong in its forecasts of Russia’s trajectory? Europe pursued its strategy of Partnership for Modernization with Russia just as Moscow had stopped pursuing reforms and started thinking about how to weaken the European Union. The United States offered Moscow a “reset” when the Kremlin was working on a containment doctrine. The Western community, steeped in Putinology, failed to predict Russia’s wars with Georgia and Ukraine, its gambit in Syria, its recent nuclear blackmail, and was totally unprepared for the “Russian factor” in the U.S. elections. Now it is racking its collective brain about where Putin will go next.
And as it does so, the Western political world continues to repeat “Russian axioms” that have already been proven either obsolete or idiotic. “Putin’s blackmail was triggered by Russia’s weakness”, chant respected Russia hands. Yes, to some degree. But Putin’s blackmail was triggered by Western weakness, too. “Putin is testing the West.” Yes, and the results of these tests must have been encouraging, because he continues to probe. Another axiom: “Putin and Russia have been humiliated by the West; that is why we need to accommodate them.” I personally never noticed that the Russian leader looked humiliated (or am I missing something?). On the contrary: Putin never misses an opportunity to jab his Western counterparts. As for accommodation, has that not been Western policy all along? Putin is “saddled with an inferiority complex.” Really? Then apparently this complex does not prevent him from being assertive.
“Putin is steeped in Russian history and the Soviet experience.” I would argue that Putin’s rule is undermining several Russian and Soviet traditions, including the tradition of keeping siloviki under control and following the Westphalian rules of the game. “Putin is a former KGB man,” and this supposedly explains the system that has emerged in Russia. Wait a minute; it’s not that simple. First, the Russian system of personalized power was built by Boris Yeltsin; Putin only added an authoritarian substance to an extant framework. Second, Putin and his cohort would have never ascended to rulership without the staunch support of Russia’s systemic liberals, who guarantee the system’s economic survival. Putin “has a clearly defined strategy.” I wonder what it could be. “Putin’s Russia is a spoiler.” Too easy! Putin “dreams of another Yalta conference.” I can’t guess at his dreams, but it looks like such a Yalta conference would not impress the Russian leader: He wants not an agreement about rules, but global consent for his right to undermine them. “His policies have been aimed at boosting his personal image at home and Russia’s international standing abroad to deflect attention from the country’s economic woes.” Again, this was apparent long ago. So what?
Putin’s incursion in the Middle East has helped Putin to “appear to be more powerful than he was, and that was primarily for the benefit of his public.” Why underestimate Putin’s intelligence, and ours too? In order to play macho, Putin could have chosen a much less complicated scene, and he certainly understands that Russians are not interested in another Afghan war! The Syrian “project” was meant to return Russia to a dialogue with America and put Ukraine on the back burner. Wasn’t that clear enough already?
Does any of this chanting help us to understand the Kremlin’s next step, how far it might go, or how sustainable and resilient the Russian system is? Does Putinalia have anything to say about the levels of Russian society’s patience and approval? One can’t escape the impression that this caricatured narrative is motivated by a desire to give simple answers to complicated questions without overtaxing one’s intellectual and political resources.
One can’t escape the impression that Putin, and Russia as personalized by Putin, are sometimes consciously demonized by Western political forces in order to distract attention from their problems, or that they use the “Russian factor” in their own games. To be sure, attempts to “rattle the mechanisms of American democracy” line up with Kremlin tactics for discrediting its civilizational opponent. But would hacking mischief during an American presidential election be so damaging if, first, there was nothing untoward to hack, and, second, if both presidential campaigns hadn’t tried to use the “Russian factor” to undermine one another?
The West’s latest recipes for dealing with Russia are as exciting and constructive as the previous recipes, which didn’t prevent the Kremlin from stirring the Western pot. Those recipes, to date, have advised Western leaders to invent something between containment and cooperation, or some form of balance between containment and cooperation. We should cooperate on the issues of importance to us, advise the Western gurus, and stop pressuring Russia and post-Soviet states on democracy. But hasn’t this been the policy of the past several years? And what has the result been?
I would hazard a guess that the analytical failures of Putinalia are, to a certain degree, the result of the expert community’s exaggeration of the leadership role in Russia. One might also add to this explanation the fact that Western observers, even the most intelligent of them, have always felt a certain attraction to the Leader who walks the Kremlin’s corridors. Dark power and omnipotence—there is definitely something seductive about interpreting Russian reality through the lens of its leader’s actions, especially one with such a devilish reputation.
Indeed, Russia has a system of personalized power: The leader concentrates the key resources in his hands and has the ability to push through his decisions. But the system of personalized governance at its present stage of decay (along with an emergent plurality of interests) is no longer functioning like a traditional despotism and today presents numerous constraints and conflicts for one-man rule. Authoritarian symbols and repressive actions, combined with society’s patience (or perhaps the illusion of patience?), create a misleading picture. The renowned Argentinian expert Guillermo O’Donnell coined a term for such systems: “Impotent Omnipotence.” This is exactly what the Russian personalized power system represents today. On the one hand, one sees its authoritarian style; on the other, there are myriad cracks in the personalized power system that make it brittle. Russia’s leader can’t stop the economic recession and social frustration; he can’t coopt the elites and population without paying for loyalty, and the resources for handouts are shrinking. He hardly knows the real situation because his lieutenants usually prefer not to upset him; he has difficulties controlling the national republics and is dependent on their treacherous obedience. He is more and more isolated and increasingly reliant on his praetorian guards. He is lonely, suspicious, forced to play the lion to keep the hyenas at bay, and can trust no one. Yes, he can change the international landscape around him and make hostages of neighboring states, but he has himself become a hostage of Russia’s vulnerabilities. How could one hope to penetrate Putin’s state of mind without grasping the situation around him? And what is the balance between his leadership and the iron logic of a system in decline?
Moreover, how one could be certain that one is seeing reality amidst the postmodern fuzziness and ambiguity that have become the Russian system’s refuge? What is real in the kaleidoscope of misleading bluffs, blusters, and imitation? Are we seeing the real Putin, or just another deception?
To understand Russia’s trajectory one has to: look at economic trends (the real numbers, not official statistics); analyze the social mood (without putting too much stock in Putin’s approval ratings); watch the balance of nationalistic and imperialistic feelings; analyze the population’s readiness to adapt to falling living standards; study the state of healthcare, jobs, transportation, regional budgets, and so forth. The Russian leader is already buried under the weight of problems that he can’t solve, and that is why he has to re-energize his political support with one geopolitical conflict after another. He still has the wherewithal to kick over another chessboard somewhere in the world—but not in Russia. He is more cautious with Russia than he is with the outside world. The fact that he has become a global arsonist proves that he is cornered—only in Russia, of course, not on the global scene.
There is one more factor influencing the Kremlin leader that Western pundits often prefer not to notice: the role of the West. If one looks at the updated Russia Foreign Policy Doctrine and at Putin’s actions after 2004, one would see that the Russian leader has hardly any respect for or fear of the West. The Kremlin’s “grievances” theory is designed mostly for propaganda purposes as a means of justification. The way Putin acts around his Western partners (with perhaps the exception of Chancellor Merkel) suggests a confidence on his part that they will back down when threatened. And this, indeed, is how he has acted: strolling across their “red lines” and probing even further. Thus it isn’t just Putin’s KGB background or Russia’s vulnerabilities that have shaped the Kremlin’s gambits, but the weakness of the West and readiness of its establishment to be manipulated by the Kremlin as well (consciously or unconsciously—does it matter?). Putinalia would have advanced the conversation in the West if it had focused on this aspect of reality.
Putinalia can be exciting, and it can be useful…sometimes. But it has trouble explaining the unfolding drama of a lonely leader lost in the Kremlin’s corridors. Nor can it explain the convulsions of a state-civilization called “Russia” that is coming to the end of its old trajectory but still hasn’t decided on a new one—not only because it lacks vitality, but also because the West seems to lack it too.