The Obama administration seems to be having a hard time figuring out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior, beginning with his motivation. Indeed, this failure is widespread on the left; it’s not limited to Obama and his coterie. The administration, and the Left generally, have been caught flat-footed and have underestimated Putin from the jump: withdrawing our missile defense shield from Poland and the Czech Republic at Putin’s behest, relying on him to bring his client Bashar al-Assad to heel, asking his help in dealing with the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons; the list runs on and on.
Once Putin’s motive is understood, though, his sequence of actions becomes obvious. Herewith, a Conservative’s estimate of Putin’s tickings.
Russia, ever since the Rus’ came out of what is now Ukraine (or points north, depending on your historian) and settled down, has been an open-field, barrierless battleground. At various times through Russian history, the nation has been beset by Mongols, Swedes, Poles, French, Germans (several times in several guises), and Turks, to suggest just a few invaders. This has produced in Russia a fundamental paranoia about the world around it, and that in turn has created a drive for geographical expansion in an effort to hold an apparently hostile world at bay.
There’s also a national ego involved. Russia has never “belonged” to the European community; it’s always seen itself as an unwanted outsider—and Europe has generally considered Russia unwanted, due in no small part to Russian paranoia toward Europe and its constant attempts to expand at Europe’s expense. Even the czars who tried to westernize the nation did so with a view better to horn in, rather than to fit in. Thus, in European power politics, the various powers of Europe always moved to neutralize Russian power. That those same powers moved to neutralize each other with equal zeal (England and then Great Britain, for instance, made a meal out of playing continental powers against each other so as to prevent any one or combination of them from gaining too much hegemony) has always been lost on Russia—that paranoia.
This paranoia, with its perceived need to protect itself from a hostile world, was exacerbated by the collapse and evaporation of the Soviet empire. The primary remnant—Mother Russia—”needs” to recover that lost empire and glory; it’s desperate to do so.
In conjunction with this, Russia recognizes US as the prime—virtually sole—mover in the USSR’s collapse. As President Ronald Reagan put it before the collapse, “We win, they lose.” We did, and they did.
Then, there’s the personal ego of the Russian at the top. We see this in the shirtless poses, the games with judo, the hunting, and so on. Vladimir Putin’s ego is every bit as big as President Barack Obama’s—whom Putin most assuredly does not see as his counterpart. Indeed, on the world stage, going head to head with Obama, and winning, is as big a rush for Putin as is the progress he’s making for Russia on the world stage.
Understand, too: Putin is Russian through and through, he’s an ex-KGB officer, and he’s not at all nomenklatura. While not the peasant Nikita Khruschev was, he was born in modest surroundings and raised in the devastation of Leningrad in the decades immediately following WWII. His modest beginnings and his heady postings have left him personally insecure, with a constant need to prove himself.
His last posting was as a KGB Colonel, and he was active in the KGB during the USSR’s collapse—he lived through that second essentially Russian failure in that short time. And he has always disagreed with the decision to dissolve the Union and to create in its place the Commonwealth of Independent States, ostensibly comprising the nations of the USSR, then expected voluntarily and freely to associate in the CIS’ free trade area and loose federation. In the realization, Putin feels vindicated, too; in this third national failure, and second in his lifetime, Russia was left as the only member of the CIS: none of the ex-Soviet republics wanted anything to do with Russia; they wanted to join the West.
From this, it’s easy to see two results. One is that Putin will work to reconstitute the Soviet empire under the Russian flag. His invasion and partition of Georgia, his crushing of Chechnya, and his invasion and partition of Ukraine—seizing Crimea as the nominal goal—are just opening moves. He justified these by using the existing Russian populations in those areas as his casus actionum. Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic States also have large Russian populations. The ‘Stans on Russia’s southern frontier—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, et al., all were necessary buffers against Central and Eastern Asia (recall the incessant border clashes across the Amur River, for instance); if these aren’t brought into the Russian empire, look for them to be bullied into general compliance with Russian needs. After that, there’s Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Moldova, and so on.
With Europe prostrate militarily from generations of dependence on American military might disguised as NATO, the EU is at risk.
The other path is aimed squarely at the US. Putin doesn’t consider us the Great Satin; that’s an Islamic terrorist thing. However, we are his enemy, both nationally and personally, and anything that harms or even merely embarrasses the US is worth Putin’s doing on that account alone. Hence his support for an Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, even though that puts Russia at no less risk than the US and Europe (the latter which he views as having played a not insignificant role in collapsing the USSR).
In the end, Putin, like any Russian leader, but goaded by his personal animosity, insecurity, and paranoia no less than by national animosity, insecurity, and paranoia, will penetrate weakness wherever he sees it, guided initially by his drive to recover lost Soviet “territory,” and after that guided by what he sees as expanding Russian—and his own—power. Regarding the neighbors of Putin’s Russia, for those he cannot—yet—outright control, Russia/Putin will drive to have…their…say in the political activities of those neighbors, including whether they’ll be allowed to join such alliances as the European Union or NATO.
Closed behind those imperatives, he’ll be guided by whatever he sees that harms or embarrasses the US.
Keep in mind, Putin had this to say, among other things, in his speech before the combined Duma and Federation Council, wherein he presented his “constitutional law” for absorbing Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia:
Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian.
Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic, and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.
This is, indeed, 19th century—and 20th century—international power politics. It’s also, though, 21st century international power politics, and it’ll be 22nd century international power politics, too.
This also isn’t hard to understand. Even The Washington Post is beginning to see through the glass less darkly.
Except for some in the White House: there are none so blind as those who will not see.