Streetwise Professor

September 7, 2013

Putin Hard to Understand? The Only Thing Hard to Understand Is Why You’d Think Putin Is Hard to Understand

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:49 am

This article in the Wall Street Journal regarding the administration’s befuddlement at what Putin wants is cringeworthy:

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.

Words fail.

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  1. Words fail, SWP? Canoe U didn’t use “un-effing-believeable?

    The Pilot

    Comment by The Pilot — September 7, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  2. That headline cracks me up!

    Let me ask you-Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, in this month’s issue, is saying it may not be a bad idea to invest in Lukoil, Gazprom etc, the Russian energy companies-I’m guessing your money will never make it to Russian stocks-yes?

    Comment by Tom Henderson — September 7, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

  3. Message to Obama: Putin thinks you are truly a weak and stupid person and loves more than anything else when you provide clear demonstration.

    Comment by pahoben — September 7, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

  4. “Second, Putin, and Russian policymakers generally, view things in zero sum terms ”

    Years back, this was the most difficult lesson I had to learn about doing business in Russia. Everyone thinks in zero sum terms. It’s one business against another, not cooperation to achieve mutual goals.

    Comment by Tim Worstall — September 8, 2013 @ 3:48 am

  5. Yup, what Tim W. said. Russians would rather have 100% of $10 than cooperate with somebody and have to make do with 50% of $1,000. They just *have* to have 100% of whatever is available, no less.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 8, 2013 @ 4:12 am

  6. @The Pilot. Yes, even that phrase fails to do justice. Even if I were to replace the “effing” euphemism with the actual word.

    @Tom. Glad you like the headline. Re Grants. Russian stocks look like a steal, because they are: they steal from those dumb enough to buy them. Lukoil I might consider. Might. After a couple of scotches. Gazprom, not after the entire bottle. Or ever. Once upon a time people would overlook its obvious dysfunction (its biggest pipeline is to siphon money out of the company to the connected elite) because of its dominant competitive position in a world that was short gas. Now that the world is long gas and getting longer, it’s hard to make a case even if you overlook the dysfunction.

    @Tim & @Tim. Totally. There’s the old joke about the Russian muzhik who comes across a genie who offers him a wish. The muzhik thinks long and hard and says “I wish that my neighbor’s cow would die.” Or the similar joke where the genie tells the peasant that he will grant him a wish, but whatever he wishes for his neighbor will get double. The peasant says “I wish that you would poke out one of my eyes.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 8, 2013 @ 7:19 am

  7. One thing I have noticed in the mainstream liberal commentariat is the persistent belief that everyone else in the world thinks like they do. They never take belief in other ideologies seriously, or that people act on their interests as those people perceive them, as opposed to how the New York Times editorial staff perceives them.

    They never get into the heads of Kim Jong Il, Mao Zedong, Ayataollah Khomeini, Valdimir Putin, or Bashar Assad. They just ask themselves, “What would I, a wealthy New York liberal, do if I was in charge of Russia (or Iran, the PRC, North Korea, or whatever) right now?” They actually think that is what those people will do instead of asking, “What would a family dynasty who belongs to a small – and historically persecuted – family dynasty do in the Middle East?” Then they are shocked when Mao Zedong acts like a Maoist, or when the actions of the Assad or Kim families act in a way whose primary concern is to keep the dynasty in power.

    Part of this is because many of these people are extraordinarily ignorant of foreign cultures and history. They think because they occasionally eat a falafel, that makes them masters of Middle Eastern cultures.

    Another reasons is that the commentariat is extremely ignorant about the state of nature, and don’t realize that the voluntary country club rules they live by (and everyone else in the country club) don’t apply outside that bubble. They are so isolated from real struggle that don’t know what the Assads, Maos, Kims, Ayatollahs, or Putins had to do to rise to the top of their societies.

    Comment by Chris — September 9, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  8. @Chris. There’s a name for this. “Mirror imaging.” It is an amazing phenomenon. And yes, those who indulge in it are sheltered. Even when they travel abroad, they tend to mingle with people like them. They think they are cosmopolitan, but they haven’t experienced the full spectrum of human conduct and beliefs, and are largely unread. They don’t understand difference. They don’t acknowledge evil.

    They definitely inhabit an insular world, and are continually shocked when people don’t act like they do.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 9, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

  9. I read this post a few days ago and still can’t recover from the Samantha Power quote. Please God, help me. These are our leaders.

    Comment by Howard Roark — September 9, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

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