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The Mind of Vladimir Putin

The Mind of Vladimir Putin

A new book describes what the author of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine thinks he is doing, and why.

Michael Mandelbaum

Imagine, if you will, what the West in general or the United States in particular would do if they attempted–as Vladimir Putin insists they actually are attempting–to destroy Russia. How might they pursue this goal?

They would surely try to install a leader in Moscow with the assignment of carrying out policies that would do everything possible to weaken Russia. Such a leader would create a political dictatorship so repressive that millions of the most energetic, talented, creative citizens would emigrate. He would stifle economic growth–the basis of power and prestige in the modern world–by imposing government control on key parts of the economy and by stealing, for himself and his cronies, the proceeds from the sale of Russia’s natural resources and squirreling them away in private accounts in the West rather than investing them productively in Russia itself.

A Russian leader determined to destroy his own country would invade and brutalize a neighboring one, thereby alienating the rest of Europe, reviving the Cold War anti-Soviet military alliance NATO as an instrument for opposing post-Soviet Russia while expanding its membership to include formerly neutral countries, and triggering economic sanctions that would further diminish Russia’s already dismal economic prospects. All this would make Russia ever more dependent on the one country that Russians have traditionally hated and feared the most: China. This hypothetical Russian leader’s policies would set his country on the path to becoming, in effect, a colony of its giant neighbor.

Since we live in an era in which the acceptance of conspiracy theories is widespread, it is probably necessary to state here that there is no evidence that Vladimir Putin is a Western asset. Yet he has carried out all the policies that someone who was dedicated to Russia’s downfall would adopt. Why has he done so?

A new book, Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War, provides a concise, eye-opening, and persuasive answer to that question. Its author, Leon Aron, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., the author of a biography of Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet Russian leader, entitled Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, and an influential commentator on Russian affairs. Aron has gone to the trouble of reading everything Putin has said or written. The Russian president, he finds, has two motives for the policies for which he is responsible.

One is his need for a means of remaining in power. During his first two terms as his country’s president, from 2000 to 2008, the rising price of oil brought a massive influx of revenue to Russia. While keeping much of it for himself, he was able to distribute the rest in a way that generated a degree of public popularity for, or at least public acceptance of, his rule–even as he was stripping away the freedoms that Russia had briefly enjoyed after the collapse of communism there in 1991.

Aggressive nationalism has also served a second major purpose for him: the restoration of as much of the defunct Soviet Union as he could manage. He has lamented the loss of the Russian-based empire that the communist multinational state represented, calling its disappearance the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

In pursuit of both goals, he adopted a strategy of what Aron, quoting Russian sociologist Igor Klyamkin, calls “militarized patriotism in peacetime.” Putin became, for all intents and purposes, a war president. He saturated Russia with the message that it was under assault from the West, which, he said, resented and feared Russian independence. He presented himself as the Russian people’s indispensable protector. Under the cover of the perpetual emergency that he had conjured into existence, he tightened his grip on the country, eliminating all sources of opposition and indeed of any independent public activity.

Historical analogies should be employed selectively, and the over-used analogy with Nazi Germany should be deployed with particular care; but in the case of Vladimir Putin a comparison with Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich is an illuminating one. Putin has used the end of the Soviet Union as the Nazi leader employed Germany’s defeat in 1918. Like Hitler, he has treated what happened as a crime brought about by sabotage from within and, like Hitler, has made what Aron calls “revenge and recovery” (in Putin’s case revenge against the West and recovery of now-independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union) central to his political program. In a further parallel, just as Hitler launched a series of political and military initiatives that successfully undid the post-World War I settlement that the victors in that war had imposed on Germany–the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939­–so Putin conducted swift military operations that humiliated Georgia in 2010 and seized the neighboring Donbass region and the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Then, on February 24, 2022, he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that turned out to be, from his point of view, a colossal mistake. The attack was intended to eliminate the democratically elected Ukrainian government in Kyiv and seize control of the entire country in a matter of hours. It signally failed to do so, instead beginning a war that has lasted for 21 months, has done great damage to the Russian military, and shows no sign either of ending or of enabling Putin to attain his initial goal.

Two particular features of the regime that Putin has built have been on conspicuous display in the war and have contributed to Russia’s failure. One is lying. The rationale that the Russian president has offered for what he insists on calling a “special military operation” rather than a war–to free Ukraine from the grasp of the “Nazis” who allegedly dominate its government–has deceived no one outside Russia and has undoubtedly been met with disbelief among many Russians themselves. (Anyone living in Russia would run large personal risks by taking issue with Putin publicly.) Putin himself has been the victim as well as the perpetrator of lies. His sycophantic associates apparently assured him that the Ukrainian government would melt away when Russia attacked and that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops as liberators. In both cases the opposite occurred: the government in Kyiv, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, stood firm, and virtually all Ukrainians have resisted the Russians. In addition, Russia’s endemic corruption weakened its armed forces. As the war unfolded it became clear that much of the funding for purchasing and upgrading weaponry that Putin had provided had in fact been stolen.

Stuck in a military stalemate in which Russian forces are slowly losing ground, what will Putin do? Aron speculates that he may attempt a desperate, dangerous military initiative such as trying to seize small parts of neighboring Estonia or Latvia populated mainly by ethnic Russians. Since those two countries are members of NATO, such a maneuver would trigger a confrontation with the United States, in which case a parallel with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 would become ominously relevant. Alternatively, Putin might opt to keep the war going in the hope that Western publics will tire of supporting Ukraine, or leaders will come to power in the democracies who are not committed to such support, thereby giving Russia a major advantage.

Aron’s analysis makes at least one thing clear: having long ago climbed on to the back of the tiger of war, Vladimir Putin will not voluntarily dismount. Perhaps the disaster he has brought to Russia and to Ukraine will lead, in some unforeseeable way, to his ejection from power. What would follow him–a leadership with the same goals and tactics as his, or one willing, as was his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, to open a window of opportunity for Russia to break with its past and attempt to become a modern, prosperous, democracy–is unknown and unknowable. What is certain is that, as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, it will become no such thing.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, (2022).

Image: Vladimir Putin meets with members of his security council and heads of security agencies on October 20, 2023. (Kremlin press office)

AuthoritarianismEastern EuropeEuropePolitical PhilosophyRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraineUnited States