According to some Russian observers, Vladimir Putin relishes his international image as “a Bond villain”. But as Joss Whedon, the creator of the cult classic TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once remarked: “Bad guys don’t think that they’re bad guys; bad guys think that they’re heroes.”
This wisdom applies equally to Putin: he doesn’t think he’s the bad guy; he thinks he’s the hero. Widely depicted in the United States as a hostile leader who aggressively challenges American interests around the world, Putin, not surprisingly, sees things quite differently. From Putin’s point of view, Russia is playing defence.
As I argue in my new book, The Code of Putinism, the key to understanding what Putin is up to is to understand his ideas, habits and emotions. The poor relations between Russia and the West are due to a fundamental mismatch in outlooks between Putin and his close associates and most Western leaders. These starkly different mentalities, more than conflicting interests — although these exist as well — are the main source of today’s difficulties and the main barrier to better relations.
The central notion in the Putinist mentality is that Russia must be a strong state and a great power. Feelings of resentment towards the West in general and the US in particular, and vulnerability in the aftermath of the 1991 Soviet collapse, help fuel this drive to restore Russian power. Putin wants to upend what he sees as an unfair, American-dominated international order that exploited Russian weakness.
He has made these views clear on many occasions. Addressing Parliament back in 2003, he stated: “A country like Russia can live and develop in its existing borders only if it is a great power. In all periods when the country was weak — politically or economically — Russia always and inevitably faced the threat of collapse.”
This fear of disorder and collapse was evident in his reaction to the horrific 2004 Beslan terrorist attack, when a school in southern Russia was seized and 334 people died, more than half of them children. Putin said the attack happened because Russia “appeared weak. And the weak are beaten”.
More pointedly, Putin asserted: “They want to cut from us a tasty piece of pie; others are helping them.” The “they” he was referring to were terrorists, and by “others”, he left in no doubt, he meant the US.
Putin’s famous 2007 Munich speech laid out this worldview at great length. He complained about a US effort to build a world with “one centre of power, one centre of force, one centre of decisionmaking. A world of one boss, of one sovereign.”
In 2014, Western sanctions were imposed after Russia annexed Crimea and provided political, economic and military support for separatist rebels in southeast Ukraine. Putin angrily declared: “They will always try to put [our bear] in chains. And as soon as they chain him, they will rip out his teeth and claws … We are defending our independence, our sovereignty and our right to exist.”
Return to containment?
Seventy years ago, US diplomat George Kennan’s famous 1947 essay described how to stop the expansion of Soviet power. It was called “containment”. Kennan recommended that the US “confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce” to limit Soviet attempts to spread its influence across the globe.
Now, containment as a strategy for dealing with Putin’s Russia is back in vogue. But it’s hard to practise containment against a country that thinks it is containing you.
Containment was designed for the Soviet Union, a revolutionary totalitarian regime with a utopian and transformative ideology. Putin’s Russia is conservative, not revolutionary. In fact, he hates revolutions and seems afraid of them. For him, revolutions are not spontaneous domestic uprisings brought on by popular dissatisfaction but events that are instigated by someone, often outsiders.
Putin’s Russia is authoritarian, not totalitarian. As the political scientist Juan Linz argued in 1975, authoritarian regimes are not ideological so much as guided by a certain mentality, a “way of thinking and feeling, more emotional than rational”.
This Putinist mentality drives a foreign policy that many in the West see as confrontational and aggressive. Russia’s rulers view it as a necessary response to Western hostility.
“It’s an emotional story of Russia not being treated like a superpower,” one Russian journalist observed. “For many of them, it’s a personal story.” In his March 2014 speech announcing the formal annexation of Crimea, Putin bitterly complained: “They deceived us time after time, took decisions behind our back, presented us with faits accomplis.”
Dealing with today’s Russia will require a nuanced response that combines containment, engagement and reassurance.
Heroes and bad guys
Understanding Putin’s mentality doesn’t mean that Russian actions such as military intervention in Ukraine or electoral interference in the US can be overlooked or excused.
What it does mean is that given these diametrically opposing storylines about heroes and bad guys, this relationship will need to be well managed. — The Conversation
Bryan Taylor is a professor of political science at Syracuse University