The Obama Administration has argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing 19th-century policies in his foreign adventures, implying thereby that Putin is playing a losing hand. The Administration is right that Putin belongs to the 19th century, but that does not necessarily mean that he is bound to lose in the contest for more global influence. In order to beat him, the West needs to consider what a 19th-century mindset amounts to, most especially a Russian one.
Above all, Putin’s reign is reminiscent of the czardom of Nicholas I, who ruled successfully from 1825 to 1855. Thirty years is a long time to be on the losing side of history. Like Putin, Nicholas ruled with an ever-stricter and more powerful secret police. The Czar’s ideological foundation was the famous triad of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality,” and this is the same formula Putin uses to rule Russia today. As in the 19th century, that approach bears key implications for the entwining of domestic and foreign policy.
As Professor Richard Pipes has noted, in patrimonial Russia the Czar owned everything and could dole out whatever he wanted to his friends—again, exactly as Putin does. Karen Dawisha calls Putin’s regime a kleptocracy and that is apt; but Putin may call the immensely rich dynasty that rules Russia today just a contemporary form of rather ordinary czarism.
Putin cherishes some history lessons. In early 1904, before the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, the czarist minister of interior Vyacheslav von Plehve famously said: “We need a small victorious war.” That war, of course, was neither small nor victorious, but Putin has built his successful career on a skillful application of Plehve’s insight: Use foreign policy boldness to sustain political power at the center.
Thus, in 1999, Putin rose to popularity by promising to kill Chechens in response to a number of house bombings that were not actually carried out by Chechens. His second successful war was a figurative one against oligarchs in 2003-4, when he confiscated Russia’s biggest private company, Yukos, without legal ground. In 2008, Putin launched his short, ideal war for five days against Georgia.
In 2011-12, massive winter street protests from the new middle class seriously challenged Putin just as he formally reassumed the presidency, and that created a new set of problems. Putin’s foreign policy ever since (if not also before) has focused on the domestic challenges he faces, as several observers have remarked. Having neglected the need for a periodic war, Putin quickly recuperated with an aggressive policy against Ukraine—a conflict presented to him on a proverbial platter, it is true, by a combination of EU diplomatic naivety and American passivity. In February-March 2014 that policy led to another small victorious war in Crimea, which he annexed to Russia in March 2014 with a popular approval of 88 percent. With such high support for the annexation, Putin arguably reached the zenith of his political success.
But then, our hero made the mistake of trying to start a bigger war in eastern Ukraine. The conflict became a bloody war in the country’s most easternmost parts, and was neither small nor victorious. The Ukrainians united as a serious nation, defending themselves impressively. Few locals or Russians supported the Russian annexation of the Donbas region, and the West imposed serious economic sanctions against Russia just as global oil prices tanked.
Clearly, Putin did not know what to do. He even disappeared for several days, causing many people to worry and others to hope. Then, full of energy as ever, he retried all the old Soviet tricks from the 1980s. He violated airspace wherever he could, and he sent submarines into Swedish waters, an old classic. He also innovated: He kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer on Estonian territory just two days after President Obama had visited that country and soundly guaranteed its security.
After a fair amount of trial and error, Putin made his choice: Syria. He had repeatedly lamented the death of Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, blaming U.S. special forces for Gaddafi’s death, a rather original interpretation. Now he decided to salvage another likeminded dictator, Bashar Al-Assad. And external developments again made the timing propitious. Putin could not move effectively in Syria without Iranian cooperation, but the Iranians needed to wait until after the nuclear deal with the P5+1 was signed to engage safely in a new adventure. Hence in the run up to his Syria action, Putin first consorted with Iran and established an intelligence center in Baghdad, preparing to snatch Iraq out of the jaws of the Americans. Not bad for an offensive backed by such meager resources.
Deliberately, over several weeks and with all desired transparency, Russia sent plenty of military equipment and troops to Syria, about which we all could read in our newspapers. Seldom has a military intervention by anybody but the United States been so well advertised. Evidently, no Western power was going to do anything about it. Just in case any American opposition might exist, Putin ran his plans by President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
Apparently, he perceived Obama’s answer sufficiently clearly: The U.S. Administration would not lift a finger. Putin started bombing the U.S.-supported and supplied Free Syrian Army two days later. According to newspaper reports, about 90 percent of the rather intense Russian bombing has been directed against the peaceful parts of Western Syria that many Westerners wanted to turn into a no-fly zone to safeguard the population. Now, many of these peaceful Syrians have fled at great speed to Europe.
Needless to say, the Europeans—without strategy, coordination, defense, or foreign policy—have been at a loss to respond effectively, and they are likely to remain so for some time. It is what they seem to do best. In the end, they may turn to Russia for negotiations, and then anything can happen, as Putin well knows.
Even better for Putin, the massive inflow of political refugees into Europe may break the Schengen Zone, one of the most attractive features of the European Union. Sweden and France have already introduced temporary border controls, and few measures are as long-lasting as “temporary” ones—as Adam Ulam liked to say, in international politics “nothing endures like the provisional.”
An additional bonus to Putin is that the many pro-Putin anti-immigration parties in Europe that usually receive 10-20 percent of the vote are on a steep rise, as the traditional centrist parties have no clue what to do about the wars in the Middle East and the resulting flows of refugees. Voters want politicians to know what they are talking about, or at least to act. This was true before the November 13 attacks in Paris, and since then it has become exceedingly true.
A reader may object that Putin risks terrorism at home with his policy in Syria, but that is no risk at all as far as Putin sees it. Just think of Russia in the 19th century: The only Czar who was murdered was poor, liberal Alexander II, while the solidly reactionary czars Nicholas I and Alexander III died agreeably in their beds. For Putin domestic terrorism is a nice excuse for more repression. After all, in the North Caucasus, where Wahhabi-related terrorism thrives, Putin regularly wins elections with at least 100 percent.
And now France and the United States are contemplating an alliance with Putin against the Islamic State? How very 19th century . . .