Putin Hard to Understand? The Only Thing Hard to Understand Is Why You’d Think Putin Is Hard to Understand
The U.S. blasted Russia at the U.N. on Thursday, blaming it for preventing collective military action on Syria in response to Aug. 21 chemical strikes and endangering the international security system built to prevent such attacks. “Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its responsibility,” said U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.
The tension between the two powers has been aggravated by a series of miscalculations and misunderstandings. U.S. officials acknowledge they have struggled to understand Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent. Russia, for its part, bristles at what it sees as the U.S. tendency to use humanitarian abuses as cover to remove regimes it doesn’t like, such as in Libya.
. . . .
U.S. officials haven’t found it easy to get a handle on Mr. Putin or his motivations. While anti-Americanism has been a key theme for Mr. Putin, the U.S. expected he would dial back the rhetoric once he had cemented control after the 2012 elections, a prediction that proved unfounded.
A senior White House official said the U.S. wants to convince the Russian leadership it is in their interest to part ways with the Assad regime. “What we’ve said to the Russians is the United States isn’t interested in removing Syria from Russian influence or acquiring Syria as a client state of the United States,” the official said.
Struggled to understand? Isn’t easy to get a handle on? Thought anti-Americanism was just election rhetoric? (Is that projection?)
It’s really pretty straightforward, and maybe that’s the problem: perhaps the administration thinks there has to be something beneath Putin’s public statements and public persona. He can’t be that simplistic and crude, can he? But if you are looking for a good predictive model, go with the obvious and take Putin at face value.
First, the anti-Americanism/anti-Westernism is genuine and has deep roots in the Soviet and Russian past. It is bolstered by suspicions that the US and the West (including especially the little island that nobody pays attention to anymore) have a global agenda, and that central to that agenda is to humiliate Russia and exploit it for its resources. (Does the administration believe its own narrative that Obama’s very election was transformative and should allay international fears about American motives?)
Second, Putin, and Russian policymakers generally, view things in zero sum terms: if the Americans gain, Russia must lose, and vice versa.
Third, put these two things together: Putin and the rest of the elite figures that if the Americans want something (e.g., to overthrow the Syrian regime) it must be antithetical to Russian interests and is part of a broader scheme to dominate Russia.
Fourth, like most autocratic rulers in states with highly personalized rule and weak institutions, Putin is obsessed with legitimacy and dreads the prospect of being overthrown. This too has deep roots, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2012 protest movement, the Arab Spring, and Libya have only stoked those fears. Strict non-interference in internal affairs of states, no matter how brutal they are, is the highest principle of international relations to Putin and the Russians generally: he said exactly that in his remarks at the G20. To them, internationalism and intervention are an anathema.
In other words, Putin’s obduracy isn’t hard to understand: it’s overdetermined. What’s hard to understand is why the administration found this hard to understand. It’s there in plain sight.
Based on its inability to figure out Putin, the administration decided not to play Let’s Make a Deal. Wise decision, because not even Monty Hall could get Putin to barter. Though it took way to long to reach that basic insight.
Add to all this that Obama has played his hand very shakily in the Middle East, and has only come to even considering confronting Assad after a lot of throat clearing and Hamlet-like indecision, and Putin and Lavrov conclude that backing Assad to the hilt is in Russian interests, and that they have a good chance of prevailing in a standoff.
Believe it or not, this confession of being mystified by Putin may not be the most embarrassing admission of the past few days. Samantha Power told a liberal interest group that the administration believed that it could use evidence of the chemical attack to convince Iran to abandon Assad:
“Or, if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran — itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 — to cast loose a regime that was gassing it’s people,” she said.
I checked. That story didn’t originate in The Onion.