The problem in the Ukraine crisis is that we have the wrong Putin

Guess who.
Guess who.
Image: Reuters/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
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WASHINGTON, DC—They began the lunches in 2008, a tight-knit group of retired American diplomats, spooks and government analysts assembling to untangle the latest news from the former Soviet states to which they had devoted their careers. Russia had just gone to war with Georgia, and Bill Courtney, a gracious, Cold War-minded former US ambassador to Georgia, summoned his circle of friends to puzzle through media reports, privately acquired detail and ground knowledge. What was really going on? And what would be next?

So it has gone every seven weeks or so since—Courtney calling an ever-widening group to order as waiters serve wine and a meal, and debate ensuing on the former Soviet Union, all under Chatham House rules. Pound for pound, there may have been no greater concentration of global experience on Moscow’s former empire in regular discussion anywhere on the planet.

But there was special poignancy when the group convened again last Friday, March 7. Again, Russian president Vladimir Putin was at war with a former Soviet neighbor—this time Ukraine. Again, he intended to exact land as a price of peace: Five years after placing a fifth of Georgian territory under Russian “protection,” he said he was prepared to annex Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula. And again, he was on a headlong course of brinksmanship with the West.

Courtney’s circle, agitated and angry, reached no consensus on Putin’s objective, nor how to pull him back. But once the lunch was over and his friends gone, Courtney—the only participant quotable for this piece—said he foresees a different outcome from 2008, when the US rapidly lost interest in Georgia’s travails and, under president Barack Obama, pivoted to a “reset” of relations with Putin.

This time, he said, the US seems prepared for a sustained demonstration of willpower, a posture he compared to the collective Western defiance against another foreign adventure by Moscow—its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. “I’m surprised by how strong Obama’s response has been,” said Courtney, a man not known to compliment Democrats. “He is a Cold War liberal, like Kennedy. [Secretary of State John] Kerry is like John Foster Dulles,” the warhorse secretary of state under US president Dwight Eisenhower.

It is early to forecast the outcome of the escalating Ukraine crisis—Obama himself may be resolved to strike with protracted sanctions, but Europe seems ambivalent and unready to make Ukraine a cause célèbre. But the threat of miscalculation and unintended consequences hangs over Crimea. The potential dangers include further war, economic mayhem for one or more nations, and the loss of any hope (admittedly already faint) of enlisting Russia’s help in opening up Iran and ending the fighting in Syria.

The man without a face

The principal wildcard is Putin himself. A decade-and-a-half after catapulting to power, this seemingly straightforward international actor—photographed relentlessly, interviewed ad nauseam, profiled in multiple books (including my own)—still routinely manages to flabbergast outsiders. To be sure, he’s done bad things—such as cosseting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, enabling the jailhouse death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, imprisoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and mocking slain critics Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya. Yet Putin had also seemed to have more-or-less clear red lines. He was understood in diplomatic capitals as an intelligent ruffian with whom, when it really counted, you could usually do business. A military assault on Ukraine seemed well outside the margins. But then he invaded anyway.

There has been much talk about why Western experts got Putin wrong on Crimea. One fatalist view is that they should have known better; in order to seem clairvoyant about Russia, you need only be a pessimist.

Such thinking, however, would have predicted (wrongly) that Moscow would be trigger-happy with nuclear weapons during the Soviet period; that Khrushchev would not yield in the Cuban Missile Crisis; that the Soviets would outbuild the US in intercontinental ballistic missiles; and that Mikhail Gorbachev would be identical to his predecessors. In other words, expecting the worst from Russia is always right, except when it’s spectacularly wrong.

Maybe we have the wrong Putin

What if the confusion isn’t that the West failed to “get” Putin? What if it simply got the wrong Putin? A passé Putin?

Normally when assessing major figures both contemporary and historical, one takes the long view—you look all the way back in a figure’s biography. Putin’s arc is familiar enough: the plucky Leningrad boy who grew up in a tenement teeming with rats and fist fights to be won and lost, who went on to master judo, earn a law degree and become a KGB case officer in Dresden. After the Soviet Union came his inadvertent, meteoric elevation from St. Petersburg mayoral office fixer to president of his nation in 2000. He served two four-year terms, then in 2008 swapped positions with protégé Dmitry Medvedev, becoming prime minister for four years. In 2012, he returned to the Kremlin as president, this time for a six-year term.

A question not being asked is whether Putin came back to power a very different leader from the one elected president in 2000 and again in 2004; whether, while the Washington lunch group along with Russia hands around the world were microscopically scrutinizing the words and body language of that Putin, a mutation with a very different cognitive and ethical core assaulted Crimea. A figure less pragmatic, higher-risk, and much more likely than his progenitor to act out Russian glory in its imperial prime.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Lenin’s Tomb, explored the possibility of a transmuted Putin in a recent appearance on Charlie Rose. Interviewed before it was clear that Russia had in fact invaded Crimea, Remnick dismissed the possibility. “Toward what end?” he said. But, he ventured, “Something interesting has taken place in Putin himself.” He went on:

When he came back to office to reassert his presidency, he had been, he didn’t really have an ideology before—just the assertion of strength, the centralization of power. Now you see taking shape a kind of conservative, moralistic, anti-western ideology.

Remnick is not alone in perceiving a different man. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to the Kremlin, said in 2011, “The Putin of 2000 was a politician I loved, but that Putin is dead. And the Putin of 2007 is gone. Today’s Putin is a zombie.”

Actions such as the Crimean invasion make a lot of sense within a mental framing that starts, say, midstream in Putin’s prime ministership. For one thing, that would capture his stream of public appearances in all kinds of macho garb, a far cry from the more locked-down personality who occupied the Kremlin from 2000 to 2008.

Or maybe we just never understood him properly

On the other hand, Russian experts who have witnessed Putin face-to-face over the years at the annual Valdai Discussion Club and elsewhere, resist the thesis that he is a different person. Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London, told Quartz that Putin’s “tactics may have changed,” but that he is essentially the same guy. Brookings’ Fiona Hill, author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, said, “It only seems we are seeing a different Putin.” In fact, he is simply operating from “a different frame of reference to us. He is operating in a different political setting.”

The central peculiarities identified by students of Putin are indisputably still there. In her book, Hill writes that he is best understood in six character traits, including as protector of the state steeped in his own interpretation of Russian history, and intelligence officer prone to conduct black ops. Remnick calls Putin simply “the sum of his resentments,” a state of mind reached after Russia’s disarray in the 1990s and his own perceived humiliation at the hands of the West.

The strongest argument that we are seeing the same Putin as before is Georgia. The 2008 assault, ordered by Putin three months after he became prime minister, showed him then, as today, “willing to act fairly boldly, disregarding what the outside world thinks,” said Jeff Mankoff of the Center on Strategic and International Studies.

Yet the bulk of outside experts, including Mankoff, had written off the idea that what happened in Georgia would recur in Ukraine—until it did. In Georgia, many reasoned, Putin had a pretext: Georgia had provoked the assault by attacking and killing Russian peacekeepers, along with South Ossetians, and openly sought membership in NATO. In Ukraine, there was no such violence against the Russian-speaking population (notwithstanding Putin’s claims of threats and attacks in Crimea), nor official vows to join NATO. Moreover, Putin had to know—and in fact was warned publicly—that the West would respond differently to an attack on Ukraine, which, fairly or not, it treats as more European than Georgia.

The experts, in short, could not conceive of Putin daring to assault Europe, especially when he could have engineered a referendum to loosen or detach Crimea from Ukraine without sending in troops. So did they just never understand him in the first place?

Or maybe he’s just evolving

Michael McFaul, until a few weeks ago the US ambassador to Russia, rejects the notion of a wholly different Putin. He told Quartz that he instead sees “new components of Putinism” within the same man, including the embrace of what he perceives as distinct Russian—as opposed to Western—values. These values include intolerance of gays and abortion, and a boosted push of the Russian Orthodox Church into a central role in daily family and political life. (Which would help explain his 2012 imprisoning of members of Pussy Riot after they sang a song critical of Putin in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral).

British journalist-novelist James Meek, a former Moscow-based correspondent, writes that this conservative shift reflects Putin’s target constituency in Ukraine and Russia as much as Putin himself—“neo-Soviets on both sides of the border who yearn for an enlarged Russophone space.” They are “socially conservative, militarily strong, inheritors of the cherished myths, martyrs and achievements of imperial and Soviet times–but who nonetheless don’t feel bound by the old Soviet restrictions on travel, Orthodox Christian piety or consumerism.”

Putin has changed, but has not “lost his mind,” as some have intimated.  “In fact, he’s very rational according to his own logic, and very well prepared,” Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser and now outspoken critic, told the Financial Times. “It is not Putin who is out of touch with reality. It is the West.”

Recognizing a new Putin does not make him definitively predictable—we cannot know, for example, whether he intends to invade eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea, or whether the Baltics or Kazakhstan could be victims down the road, as some fear. But it does help to know that he has, to some degree, abandoned contemporary thinking—at least as it exists in the West—and become a figure of Russia’s 18th and 19th centuries.

The king is dead. Long live the king.