Plumbing Putin’s Mind

Common myths about Russian President Vladimir Putin make it much harder to understand and hence defeat him

Ruthless, but sane. Russian President Vladimir Putin at last month’s Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. Image Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many myths have propagated about President Putin’s reasons for the attack. It is worth scrutinizing and exploding these misconceptions in an effort to truly know the enemy. The danger in explaining an enemy’s perspective is that some could misconstrue it as an exercise in exoneration. When we see things from another’s point of view, we are forced to rethink some of our own assumptions. But to understand is not to exculpate. The goal is not to have sympathy for Putin or to justify his recent actions. It is the opposite. It helps to understand the enemy if we hope to defeat him. And one way to accomplish this is by busting four common myths.

Myth #1: Putin is crazy

Some find it hard to believe that a rational actor would invade a sovereign state without having first been attacked. But this is very much a pacific way of thinking. Putin is, in fact, quite strategic. He has spent the past 20 years rebuilding the Russian military, transforming it from an organization in shambles, when soldiers went unpaid and submarines sank to the ocean floor, killing everyone aboard (remember the Kursk), to a modern, well-equipped army of more than a million. He has made substantial investments, particularly in armor, hypersonics, and cyber forces, not simply to furnish the illusion of strength. He rebuilt those forces because he had every intention of using them, which he began doing most notably in 2008, with an incursion into Georgia.

Putin was also sane enough to select an auspicious moment to attack Ukraine. He knows that America is still reeling from an ignominious defeat in Afghanistan, with no appetite for another war. The British have Brexited from the EU. The Germans are led by a new, untested government of liberals and greens, pledged to peace. And Europe relies on Russia for 40% of its natural gas needs. So in many respects, it seemed an excellent time to strike.

His decision to invade Ukraine reflected careful calculations, not signs of madness. He appears, however, to have gravely miscalculated. He did not anticipate that the invasion would unify American resolve, outrage British and European publics and trigger a stunning reversal of German defense policy. In short, he misread his enemies by failing to know them. He saw only their superficial appearance of division, weakness and passivity. He did not understand the values that undergird these societies: their abiding commitment to justice, their indignation at a flagrant violation of territorial integrity and their reflexive support for the underdog. Beyond this, he failed to perceive the lessons they have drawn from history, that dictators who invade nations unprovoked must be opposed. To be calculating is not necessarily to be wise.

Myth #2: Putin wants to re-create the Soviet Union

No, he has no fondness for the Soviet system and is openly critical of Soviet leaders. In Putin’s speech just days before the invasion, he spoke sharply against Lenin’s and Khrushchev’s decisions to make Ukraine a separate republic within the USSR. Having been a career KGB officer, a servant of the state, he knew well the many and deep flaws of the Soviet regime. He has no nostalgia for a return to the communist system and its shaky economy.

It is not a revival of the Soviet Union that Putin seeks. Rather, it is the restoration of Russian greatness. He wants to make Russia great again. And as Fiona Hill has observed in “There Is Nothing For You Here,” Putin’s rhetoric resembles Donald Trump’s in several ways. Both men have stoked resentment among working classes, who have seen their economic fortunes fall with the expansion of globalization. For years, Putin oversaw a long period of rising living standards for millions of Russians, thanks in part to investment in energy export infrastructure, combined with market reforms under former President Yeltsin. And although more recently that growth has stagnated, he still seeks to make Russia a world power again, one with influence abroad and, more crucially, with influence over the foreign policies of its borderlands. That is, of course, something that most great powers want, including the United States. Just consider the Monroe Doctrine, which called for the elimination of European influence in the Americas.

Myth #3: Putin has nothing to fear from the West

When Ronald Reagan began his presidency, his advisers explained that Russia feared a preemptive American nuclear strike. Reagan refused to believe this. In his view, America was the freedom-loving good guy. He assumed that the Soviets would see us the way we saw ourselves. Only after several years did he recognize that they feared America as much as America feared them.

Putin has good reason to believe that the U.S. would overthrow him, if it could. From his standpoint, that is what America has done with many other regimes it doesn’t like. Just go down the list: Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, in the 1950s; Operation Condor across Latin America in the 1970s; Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan more recently. And the closer that U.S. military influence drives toward Russian borders, the greater the threat to his own regime, as he sees it. His recent nuclear saber-rattling represents not a legitimate attempt to threaten the West, but rather a signal that if the West attempted regime change in Russia, he would consider the nuclear option to preserve his power.

Myth 4: Putin can’t possibly fear Ukraine’s entry into NATO

In 2019, then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment pledging that his country would seek to join both NATO and the EU. There could hardly have been a clearer statement that Kyiv intended to turn westward. The Maidan uprising in 2013 and 2014 marked the end of Moscow’s influence in Ukraine, and since that moment, Putin has sought to restore it.

Two numbers here are instructive: 1,200 and 100. As Johns Hopkins University’s Mary Sarotte has observed in her book, “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate,” in 1989 (the year the Berlin wall fell) NATO’s most eastward reach stood 1,200 miles from St. Petersburg, Putin’s home town. When Estonia joined NATO, that distance shrank to a mere 100 miles. How would the U.S. feel about having Russian influence in a country that close to its borders? We know the answer to this question. Cuba is roughly 100 miles from Florida, and the U.S. repeatedly attempted to overthrow the Cuban government, through assassination attempts on Castro—including an exploding cigar box—and the botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs. President Kennedy even risked World War III to get Soviet nuclear missiles out. From America’s perspective, Ukraine’s entry into NATO is a long way off and entirely unthreatening. From Putin’s standpoint, the prospect is intolerable.

Again, none of this attempt at understanding Putin is to suggest that he is in any way justified in his invasion of Ukraine. Putin is a murderous, kleptocratic dictator, who attacks his political opponents with polonium and nerve agents, stifles a free press, imprisons peaceful protesters and previously invaded territory in Georgia and Crimea. Let us hope that this time he has overreached. That said, if we want to resolve this crisis without deploying NATO forces, we will need to grasp Putin’s thinking and not ignore Russia’s security concerns.

This article is an elaboration of a talk delivered at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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