Putin’s Game: How did so many in the West get Russia so wrong?

Despite high ideals, dealing with Putin requires some flexibility and an acknowledgement of the nineteenth-century origins of his twenty-first-century threats.
russia crimean war
Illustration of the Siege of Sevastopol, 1854-55. Credit: INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo
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This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Identity and Misperceptions in US-Russia Relations’ in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019

When the then president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, attempted to retake the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008, his costly miscalculation marked a watershed in post-Soviet history. Overconfident that Tbilisi’s alliance with Washington would help guarantee his country’s independence in a globalising world, he underestimated Russia’s readiness to break with the West in order to maintain influence in its former Soviet vassal states.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, proceeded to upend European security by invading a sovereign country on the continent. He has since gone further, dismembering the Ukraine and launching a bombing campaign in Syria that has inserted Moscow into a conflict threatening the underpinnings of the European Union. More than carving out a sphere of influence in Eurasia, his overarching aim is to destabilise the transatlantic alliance along with European unity. In this way, he hopes to establish himself as leader of an international coalition that would limit American power by undermining Washington’s ability to determine the principles of international law and human rights. An ancillary goal is to ensure that the US does not control access to the global economy. Propaganda, espionage and subterfuge, energy politics, backing right-wing European groups and cyberwar are all part of Moscow’s ‘hybrid war’ tactics.

A quarter of a century after the communist collapse prompted many Russians to hope for Western integration, what encouraged them to change their minds? And how did so many in the West get Russia so wrong?

Some say the blame lies with Western countries for believing that geopolitics had ended in 1991. Russia’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, they argue, are an inevitable reaction to Nato expansion into the former Soviet bloc in the last decade, when Moscow was powerless to respond. Now, they claim, Washington has no business pushing its interests in Russia’s backyard.

Others believe that Russian opposition is inevitable, regardless of Western policy: Moscow is seeking to restore the natural extent of its empire, along traditional 17th-century borders, now rubbing up against the European Union instead of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Habsburg Empire.

In fact, Russians in the 1990s had largely accepted the loss of empire as a price for the prosperity and individual freedoms that had eluded their country for centuries. It was Putin who, after his chance ascendance to the presidency in 2000, consolidated power by returning Russian political culture to its traditional roots, founded on an identity defined in relation to the West and reliance on a 19th-century vision of geopolitics as a territorial struggle over spheres of influence.

Russians first began looking westward in the second half of the 15th century, when Tsar Ivan III (‘the Great’) consolidated the formerly weak medieval state of what was then the principality of Muscovy and renounced allegiance to the Tatar rulers of the Golden Horde, a remnant of the Mongol Empire. As the late Harvard historian, Edward Keenan argued, Moscow’s growing wealth and power prompted Ivan’s court to search for an imperial style that would befit its status. Looking to the recently vanquished Tatars, the tsar and boyars – a rough equivalent of European nobility – dressed in Turkic robes and called themselves ‘white khans’. When that failed to impress the crowned heads of Europe, they abandoned Turkic terms and styles. Ivan began copying European princes instead, sending to Italy for architects to rebuild the Kremlin. The walls that stand today – then painted white – date from that period, and the main entrance, Spassky Gate, still bears a Latin inscription praising the Renaissance architect, Petrus Antonius Solarius.

Under Ivan’s successor, Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) in the 16th century, Russia’s territory began expanding dramatically for the next several centuries to become eventually the world’s largest, a sixth of the earth’s land-mass. The early expansion set the tone for future relations with Western countries, as the US Librarian of Congress, James Billington, has argued, propelling it into a world it was ‘not equipped to understand… The Muscovite reaction of irritability and self-assertion was in many ways that of a typical adolescent; the Western attitude of patronising contempt that of the unsympathetic adult.’

Russia has struggled to catch up with its Western model ever since. The Berkeley historian, Martin Malia, explained the severe nature of Russian autocracy by pointing to the country’s huge obstacles: meagre natural resources — before the extraction of oil and metals – and a lack of mountains and other natural defences. Malia argued that it was only ‘brutal state action from above’ that enabled imperial Russia to become a major European power in the 18th century. But the constant introduction of new agricultural techniques and technology that facilitated the Industrial Revolution and other advances was continuously helping the West raise the standard of what it meant to be European and modern.

Still, great military victories against over-extended adversaries helped establish the Russian empire, including Alexander Nevsky’s 13th-century defeat of the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire; Peter the Great’s victory over Charles XII of Sweden in the early 1700s, which put Russia on the Baltic Sea; Alexander I’s victory over Napoleon in the 19th century, which made Russia a great European power; and Stalin’s part in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which established the Soviet Union as a superpower.

Other conflicts have exposed the empire’s underlying weakness, including the Crimean War of the 1850s, which forced Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs and other belated reforms. Russia also lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, the first European power to be defeated by an Asian one in modern times, and went on to lose in the First World War, helping to bring about the end of the imperial regime in 1917.

By 1900, Russia was the world’s fifth-largest industrial power and Europe’s largest agricultural producer. However, its per capita GDP amounted to only 20 per cent of Britain’s. Some 80 per cent of the population consisted of peasants — subsistence farmers whose average lifespan was a mere 40 years — and 60 per cent of the population was illiterate. Despite massive industrialisation under Stalin, and great military power, the Soviet Union lost the Cold War when it collapsed under its own weight some 90 years later, also losing some two million square miles of sovereign territory – more than the entire European Union – along with control over its satellites in Eastern Europe. All of them are now Nato members, as are the Baltic former Soviet republics.

All the while, Russia has continued to define itself in relation to the West. In the 19th century, the central debate was between the Westernisers – symbolised by the novelist Ivan Turgenev, who urged Russians to modernise by adopting foreign values – and their rivals, the Slavophiles, led by a literary critic named Ivan Kireevsky, who believed that Russia’s problems lay in its having abandoned its patriarchal traditions and Byzantine Orthodox principles in favour of Western rationalism and individualism. Those Slavophile views informed what became the official ideology under the autocratic Nicholas I in 1833.

In the 21st century, Putin has tapped directly into those Slavophile views by blaming Russia’s ills on the West and promising to restore an imagined past greatness. His military adventures in Syria are also enabling Putin to paint himself as a protector of Christians outside Russia’s borders, exploiting Moscow’s perceived status as the ‘third Rome’ – after the second Rome, Constantinople – in addition to a centuries-old sense of Russian exceptionalism.

However, Putin is also failing to modernise Russia or to build its infrastructure and intellectual capital. Instead, he is presiding over a massive brain drain. Weighed down by corruption and Kremlin control, the petro-economy has been in recession, unable to benefit from a weakening ruble and a ban on some Western imports. If Putin’s model is Stalin or Piotr Stolypin – the ruthless, reforming 19th-century prime minister to whom he has compared himself – his effect on Russia is approaching that of Leonid Brezhnev, the half-comatose Soviet leader who presided over the stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s. A central characteristic of Putin’s system is that his overriding concern isn’t Russia’s real power or prosperity so much as the immediate imperatives of his own regime. They are achieved the only, or at least the simplest, way possible, through authoritarian coercion, by either co-opting or undermining rivals at home and abroad, which is why even allies such as Belarus fear the Kremlin.

However, Russia is today outdoing the Soviet Union in many respects. Its state doping programme for athletes appears to be even larger than that conducted during the communist era. Staggering economic corruption has turned the country into a huge mafia system. And now some Russians are receiving prison sentences of two years merely for liking posts on Facebook.

In that context, confronting the West enables Putin to maintain a mirage of reviving Russian power, buoying up his public approval ratings in order to remain in control. It is no accident that after a decade of Russian flirtation with the West, the United States is again chief among its villains. Moscow’s imagined rivalry with the world’s most powerful country not only encourages fond memories of Soviet strength but also enables the Kremlin to punch above its weight on the world stage.

The mistake many Western countries make is to take Russia largely at face value. In treating Moscow as an actor they see as rational – that is, led by people who make decisions based on the benefit to their country rather than themselves – Western governments often seem to miss the motives along with the real, limited extent of Russia’s capabilities. Many foreigners also fail to notice another key trait: Russians tend to believe the rest of the world functions as their country does. When American newspapers publish articles critical of Putin, for example, Russians often perceive them to be ordered by the White House because that’s how things are done at home. When the prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, sought to explain one of Putin’s accusations that Washington wanted to overthrow his government, he suggested it was normal for the United States to seek to influence Russian domestic politics ‘because we also try to do that’.

What does that mean for Western governments struggling to shore up the European project and international organisations seeking to advance shared interests and values?

Dealing with the challenge of Putin requires greater flexibility: building 21st-century institutions demands dirtying hands with 19th-century era threats, something Western leaders have been slow to acknowledge. That challenge will almost certainly grow. With oil prices deflating the economy for the foreseeable future, Putin looks set to rely on confronting more powerful and prosperous rivals in order to maintain power by showing himself to be restoring Russian greatness. Although his increasingly coercive rule is ultimately no more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s was, his threat will grow as he becomes more desperate.

Discouraging Putin from his pushing of boundaries can succeed only over the long term and with Western unity – which is especially problematic when its migrant crisis, ongoing economic turmoil and Brexit are shaking the European Union. Nevertheless, Western countries must refuse to recognise a Russian sphere of influence, being careful to avoid the kind of Kremlin provocations and traps with which Putin has established his reputation as a master tactician, while holding open the possibility of negotiations from a position of strength.

Russia will rejoin the international community, but only when it stops defining its identity in terms of its opposition to the West. That will require new leadership. The larger question is what kind of a West there will be when that takes place.

Gregory Feifer

Gregory Feifer is executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs in Washington. A journalist and author, he was previously NPR’s bureau chief in Moscow. His new book Russians: The People Behind the Power examines the social behaviour behind the country’s political culture, and his work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Foreign Affairs. He is currently writing a biography of the Russian politician Boris Nemtsov.

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