Putin as Complex as he is Predictable

Putin at Desk

Subject: Putin as Complex as he is Predictable
Date: Mon, 5 Sep 2016
From: Dale Herspring <falka@ksu.edu>

Putin as Complex as he is Predictable

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Retired US diplomat and Navy captain).

Talking to officials in Washington when Vladimir Putin’s name comes up, one generally gets a pretty simplistic evaluation, “He is a cruel dictator, who forces his people to live in constant fear.” “His about to take over the world,” “He is an evil man just waiting for a chance to grab more territory for Russia.” While there is a grain of truth in all of these phrases and a number of others, the fact is that such judgements lead no where. It is critical to understand Putin on a deeper level. After all, the one thing that is clear is that he runs Russia and it is an enormous country with a very large military and a multitude of natural resources.

Putin may not be the absolute dictator that many Americans believe he is, but he certainly runs the country; for the present. No leader’s power is certain and forever, not even Putin’s. Indeed, there is nothing more interesting than to tune into a discussion among Russians of the many stories about Putin’s potential demise. No, I am not in any way suggesting that he is on his way out. He is not, although, it is clear that he pays a lot more attention to national elections in Russia than many of his predecessors did.

So what is this Putin character like? After all, a good part of our foreign policy is devoted to trying to counter him. First, the key question that the next president will face; is he really our enemy? Are we destined to be enemies for the indefinite future? The answer is simple, no. But, it is also important to keep in mind that just as we are not destined to be enemies, we will almost certainly not be good friends.

The aforementioned sentence seems rather bold. How many times have we heard our recent presidents talk of the desire to be friends with Moscow? Much of that, unfortunately, is for domestic consumption. Alternatively, we have also had officials, such as the Chief of Staff of the Army warning us to watch out for him. My reasoning in this case is rather simple. Nation states have national interests. In the cases of Moscow and Washington, our interests are different and often contradictory. Conflict between us will always be part of our relationship.

For most of my lifetime there was an ideological conflict over shadowing our relations. I can still remember crawling under my desk in grammar school because we were concerned that the Soviets would attack with nuclear weapons. Having live and worked later with Soviet officials as a State Department diplomat, they were not so much ideologues – evangelical communists – as they were individuals with a mind-set that fit the communist world view. With the collapse of communism, most of the Russian officials I have deal with have disavowed the 0ld ideology and may have called parts of it silly. That includes Putin. So if the Russians are no longer inspired by ideology, what drives them today?

My answer is that they are different from the bath of the past – many, like Putin, openly declare their religious faith. Their major concern is just like ours maximizing their national interests. The issue that most upsets them today, is our ability to add countries friendly to us around their periphery. There are even reports that Sweden is considering joining NATO. Needless to say, this has upset the Russians, because all they need is another NATO country around them.

There have been articles suggesting that Putin is planning a surprise this fall in the form of military action against the eastern or southern Ukraine. Before proceeding something about how Putin’s mind works when it comes to springing such a “surprise.” First, Putin may be a moral man in his own way, although I suspect that most Americans would find him abrasive and a bit pushy. He knows what he wants and is prepared to take steps to get it.

One thing is important to remember, however. Putin is an opportunist. He carefully calculates the pluses and minuses of doing something before he acts. For example, like many other world leaders, he long ago decided that he can get away with just about anything with Obama, a major reason why he felt free taking the Crimea.

I suspect Putin has a begy of American analysts at work trying to figure out how either Trump or Hillary will respond if he takes further moves against Ukraine. If he is convinced that either one will act similar to Obama, he may well take a move. Why not? Of the US is not going to do anything, he has a free hand. To give an example, Russia recently called up civilian reserves to take part in snap drills across the country. These drills don’t only involve what we call reservists, but federal agencies such as the Ministry of Signals and Communications, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Russia. All will participate in the combat readiness review. This is a matter of concern to NATO, but as far as I can tell, the White House is unconcerned.

I am not suggesting Putin wants a war. He is too smart for that. Despite all of the comments by American military officers about Russian weapons, Putin is well aware that by and large the American weapons are superior (the SS-400 is an exception). Put will watch and wait. The best we can hope for is a peaceful balance of interests. Our interests are contradictory in too many instances for us to be “good friends.” Nevertheless, perhaps we can reach a happy medium.