Ivan Samolovov's Blog

Putin’s portrait or why the West should not hope for a “kinder” Russia

October 7, 2015

Putin is one of the favorite topics in the Western media. While in office, the Russian president has been put under the microscope from different angles. Many attempts at creating his psychological portrait and discovering his identity have been undertaken in order to understand what is to be expected from Putin’s Russia. The most popular and obvious detail is Putin’s past as a KGB officer. It can go like this: “In the mind of Putin, a former KGB officer, a country that was once a Soviet state and no longer wishes to be Moscow's vassal can only become one of two things: a vassal of Washington, or a vassal of Brussels.“ By slightly emphasizing the KGB thing, the line suggests that this information is valuable when making sense of the Ukraine crisis. Examples like these are numerous.


According to this logic, Putin lives in his imaginary world constantly making use of his wide knowledge from special services for pursuing the politics of installing puppet regimes and blackmailing neighboring countries. Alternative accounts picture him as an undistinguished spy who did not accomplish something extraordinary, who drank a lot and beat his wife. In this case, Putin’s aggression is nothing less than moral compensation for his “loser” reputation. Others emphasize the identity of the Russian president as a “statist” concerned with re-establishing order and getting Russia up from her knees, i.e. revising the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.


Admittedly, political peculiarities in Russia can be one of the reasons for this attention: Putin’s ridden a horse, Putin’s flown in a plane, Putin’s menaced, no Putin – no Russia, shirts with Putin an so on. This omnipresence appears something extraordinary. But the more attention is drawn to personality with a link to foreign policy, the more it gives the impression of a dog running in circles trying to catch his tail. It may be amusing and thrilling but largely useless.


On leaders and circumstances


It should be noticed that George Kennan, godfather of the U.S. containment strategy, wrote in his famous article about sources of Soviet – not Lenin’s or Stalin’s – conduct, although he might have been well-advised to criticize Stalin personally blaming him for all his sins and explaining it by Stalin’s “madness”. Instead, Kennan was ingenious enough to draw attention to what he claimed were roots of the Soviet foreign policy posture: innate antagonism between communism and capitalism, belief in own infallibility and desire to preserve power using every means possible. The discovery of this constant made easier the task of developing a long-term strategy toward Soviet Union. Deconstructing identities of current and future leaders would have downgraded this task to simple guessing.


That is not to say that individuals do not matter and only react to exterior stimuli. Nevertheless, individuals rather add some nuances to the course of events than determine them from A bis Z. It is often the case in history that distinguished individuals are “catapulted” to the highest ranks of politics by chance and due to the extraordinary circumstances having almost zero chances for success in an ordinary situation. Winston Churchill, a maverick, rather an unusual disposition for a member of British political establishment, became a Prime Minister of Her Majesty only under threat of Hitler’s aggression and lost power when the war was coming to an end and the country no longer needed the services of a man willing to “pact with the Devil, if Hitler invaded Hell”, i.e. to betray certain principles for achieving the desired objective.


Similarly, a man of imagination of Adolf Hitler would have hardly come to power in a prosperous, unhumiliated and  “unbetrayed” Germany. Besides, Hitler’s personality rather accounts for his crimes against humanity than for his aggressive foreign policy.


Not that it is totally useless to psychoanalyze statesmen – they are still responsible for decision-making – but there is another issue. Fixation on Putin obfuscates the question whether Russia without Putin would make much difference. Blaming one person for Russia’s behavior seduces to think about a “better” Russia without Putin. This sort of thinking already revealed its shortcomings during the presidency of the alleged liberal Dmitri Medvedev who watched over the presidential seat.


Circumstances that contributed to how Putin sees the world are already indices enough to shed light on the sources of Russian conduct: allowing oppositional views in the political discourse, glasnost, disintegration of the superpower, loss of greatness and the sphere of influence and so on. It is unclear why one should project all that on one single person. If not Putin, there could have been another guy wishing all from Putin’s list or even more. Let us imagine President Yeltsin in a good physical condition in his third and fourth presidential terms who saw all the color revolutions, all the rounds of eastward expansion, the U.S. plans on counter missile defense; and this is accompanied by unprecedented oil prices and increase in Russian capabilities. Warm relations with President Clinton or Chancellor Kohl would have unlikely prevented Russia from responding the way Russia under Putin did.


The idea of approachment with the West (i.e. the U.S.) was motivated by the Russian desire to rule the world in a sort of alliance with Washington. It was not about integration in Western structures following the example of Germany and Japan. The notion of a “normal” great power proposed by Minister Kozyrev was despised years before Putin.


What remains


Fixation on Russian President’s personality might be due to the unwillingness of the West, and particularly the Western Europeans, to face the ugly truth: the so-called peace dividend crucial for post-Cold War politics on the continent is becoming a thing of the past and will not reappear in the future, for it is not connected to Yeltsin’s or Putin’s personality.


Worse, if there shall be some kind of containment toward Russia then it is on Europe to assume the main responsibility. The times of unconditional und unquestioned military support from the U.S. belong to the past and it is no longer possible to quietly engage in trade and praise the new world of interdependence free from power politics. In this sense, the call of the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for creating the European army, however impossible now, is not a coincidence.


It is this ingenuity of Kennan, not Schröder’s opportunism, that is best suited for a long-term strategy toward Russia. Russia will not become a genuine democracy after Putin. Russia will not abandon the aim of creating a multipolar world (order) at the expense of liberal democracies of the West after Putin. Russia will not participate in processes induced by “objective” forces of globalization, if it diminishes her relative power after Putin. The Kremlin showed in Georgia and Ukraine that every loss in soft power – the jewel in the Western ‘crown’ – would be compensated with hard power – the jewel in the Russian ‘crown’. If Europe does not understand this, does not acknowledge the persistence of power politics and its requirements, it will be hard to maintain the rules of the European “house” however universal and indivisible they may appear. The portrait of a “bad dude” Putin and the hope to sit out the bad weather may compound the task.




Author's twitter: @IvanSamolovov

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