Yesterday, I posited the idea that Vladimir Putin aspires to the glory days of the Russian empire before the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the rise of Communism. Specifically, there are parallels between Putin and Czar Nicholas I who ruled the country from 1825 to 1852.
In fact, Putin rules over Russia like a czar of days gone by with near total control. He has embraced and elevated the Russian Orthodox Church and pushes many of their agenda items. He is a secretive and self-disciplined geopolitical tactician who no doubt draws on his experience as a judo black belt. Like many of the czars, he also presides over a cult of personality that appears somewhat comical to Westerners (the iconic picture of him bare-chested on the back of a horse).
Yet this macho nationalism that he resonates is exactly what many Russians craved after the chaos of the breakup of the Soviet Union. As such, Putin now views himself as the bearer of a special morality and a special feeling of justice with Russia and the Russian people above everyone else. He is certain about Russia’s historical mission and that mission is empire. And the best way to assert that mission is through demonization of the spiritless West.
Initially, Putin secured his power through a network of cronies from his hometown of St. Petersburg. That has expanded since to exacting obedience from the Russian security forces. Objectively, Russia is a weakened power after 75 years of the failed Communist experiment, the rampant corruption during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some missteps by Putin himself. He realistically knows this, but also realizes that he can count on the reluctance of many to challenge his ideas and actions thus making him appear stronger than he actually is which is why he sports approval ratings above 80%. He casts himself as first and foremost concerned about stability. But the irony is that his veneer of domestic stability is predicated upon international instability.
Many countries are tiring of the burden of international responsibilities and are feeling the need to pull back. The isolationism inherent in the populist parties gaining traction in Europe is one manifestation best exemplified by the rampant displeasure with the European Union. In the United States, Trump has lambasted NATO countries for not paying their fair share and threatening the alliance. The American libertarian mantra that we cannot afford nor should we be the world’s policeman plays nicely into Putin’s wheelhouse.
Fomenting international instability is the best way for Putin’s Russia to remain significant in geopolitics. What does Putin want and how does this further national pride through empire building? Obviously, the first goal is to reassert Russian international power and a desire to regain the respect of the international community and its rightful place among the select group of nations to be feared. The Iraq War, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the Arab Spring and the War in Libya are all viewed by the Kremlin as Western attempts at expansion at the expense of Russia.
He correctly gauges that the West is far mightier and stronger than Russia. Thus, direct confrontation is not the strategy adopted, but instead a series of rearguard actions to weaken and forestall what Putin believes to be the West’s true expansionist designs, especially in Russia’s historical sphere of influence. The EU represents no military threat to Russia, but EU expansion is just the flip side of the Western coin with NATO on the other side. It is why Putin opposes NATO expansion; he views it as the first step towards Westernization. He could deal with it as long as it was in Germany and points west, but when it began pushing itself to the borders of Russia proper, it became an existential threat to the Russian empire.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and particularly under Putin, Russia has waged many overt and covert wars along their periphery. None of these wars never really ended. Instead, he has left behind smoldering fires which deter the West from further encroachment on Moscow’s sphere of influence. Some are traditional cloak and dagger actions such as the poisoning of opposition leaders in London with radioactive polonium. He has additionally fomented political chaos and instability throughout the former Eastern Bloc and has dabbled in the politics of Western Europe.
Conceding that Russia is a weaker power makes Russia no less a dangerous player internationally. Weaker nations, at least for a time, pose dangers to stronger ones simply because the weaker states do not play by the same rules. It is the usually the stronger nations who realize too late that they are playing a game under a different set of rules. And Putin is a master at this.
He is using the very tools of the West to poke holes in the West’s lines of defense. Western “demands” for accountability, democracy, and the rule of law are a threat to the internal affairs of Russia. More importantly to Putin, they are the fountain of hypocrisies. Take the case of toppled autocracies and strongman leaders like Mubarek, Qaddafi, Hussein and others. While the West cannot understand why these nations did not embrace democracy, Putin knew fully that civil war and domestic unrest would fill the power void.
Perhaps this is partially why Putin decided to act in Syria when and how he did. Bashir Assad is by all measures a brutal tyrannical leader who has used chemical weapons on his own citizens and a state security apparatus used to keep the population in line. There are certainly military implications since Syria provides Russia with their only naval port on the Mediterranean Sea, but that was not the primary motivation. Instead, it was a thumbing of the nose at the West paralyzed by what to do in Syria. It certainly helped that the Orthodox Church in Russia asked Putin to be the savior of Christianity and he accepted the request. My best guess is that once he achieves his propaganda goals in Syria, he will discard Assad and install another strongman ruler.
And because he sees weaknesses in the West that can be exploited, he uses them to his advantage. Hence, he co-opts the values of the West to undermine the West by illustrating what he sees as the hypocrisies of the West. And what better way to do that than undermining the most central tenet of Western thought that emerged from the Enlightenment- rule of, by and for the people: democracy. Viewed in this light, Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election makes sense and will be looked at in part 3 tomorrow.