Unpredictability is Putin’s powerful weapon
Lacking knowledge about the intentions of those with whom you interact makes relations with them very unstable. This is particularly true when those relations are hostile. The openness of Russian politicians toward their Western colleagues, and the degree of honesty in their behavior, has always had a tremendous impact on the relations between leading powers. At the same time, knowledge about the personalities of Russian politicians, particularly the leaders, has been always extremely valuable for Washington or London, much more than data about many politicians from other countries. The vast undertaking of opening Russia to the West was, in the opinion of many Western analysts, a crucial positive result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Putin’s transformation into an unpredictable and deeply secretive leader has become a sinister development in the evolution of Russian-American relations.
There is no doubt that there were commonalities in the assessments made by the West and by Russia regarding the consequences of the anti-totalitarian revolution in Russia. Both the Russian public—particularly the intelligentsia—and the Western public praised the victory for liberal democracy in the USSR. However, there were radical differences in Russian and Western perceptions of this colossal event. In the former case, the focus was on the liberal transformation of the regime; the latter focused on the end of the Cold War, and, among other things, on the Russian leader opening his mind to the rest of the world.
The differences in the evaluation of the results of Perestroika originated from the dissimilar Russian and Western experiences of life during the Cold War. After 1945, Western people lived in a permanent state of fear of nuclear war and the end of civilization. Thousands of articles, books, TV programs, movies, conferences, and seminars maintained a permanent state of anxiety in the minds of Europeans and Americans. Herman Kahn, who became a very popular political analyst in the 1960s, introduced the idea of nuclear war as a “thinkable” part of various scenarios of the future, which meant that Moscow considered nuclear war to be an option in its relations with the USA. The Soviet Union’s success in space only enhanced the West’s fear of the probability of a nuclear war initiated by Moscow.
Stanley Kramer’s famous film On the Beach (1956), which was shown simultaneously around the world, described the last months of the world after a nuclear war. It made a huge impression on the public. In the movie, the last people on earth are doomed to die as a result of a nuclear war. They vainly try to understand what happened and who bore the major guilt for the world ending.
While Soviet society in the 1950s-80s was not free of the fear of war and nuclear catastrophe, the intensity of this fear was much lower than in the USA or Western Europe. The Kremlin always tried to combine its denunciations of imperialist warmongers able to resort to nuclear war with praise for the Soviet state as the guardian of a happy and, of course, a secure and peaceful life for the Soviet people. I distinctly remember living in the academic town of Novosibirsk in October 1962. During the Cuban crisis, while Americans were in a state close to hysteria, my compatriots—scholars and students in the first Soviet campus; all intelligent people —were quite insouciant about the developments in the Caribbean.
In the 1950-80s, overwhelmed by fear of a sudden nuclear war, most Western experts, as well as most politicians and the general public, believed that the danger of a nuclear war lay in the Soviet totalitarian system, and in the special status of its leader, for whom the system provided an essentially unrestrained freedom of action. During this period, democracy claimed to be an instrument for protecting the world from extinction. It was evident to the majority of Western Sovietologists that the psychology of the Kremlin’s master, and his personal ambitions, played a crucial role in shaping the foreign policy of a superpower equipped with nuclear weapons. It was also evident that public opinion in Russia could not play any role in the formation of the state’s foreign policy. (This fact became evident to us Soviet sociologists when we started to conduct the first public opinion surveys in the 1960s, and found that while the Soviet people might be critical of some of the domestic decisions made by bureaucrats—particularly the local bureaucrats—they almost unanimously supported any foreign actions taken by the Kremlin, like routing the Hungarian or Czechoslovakian insurrections. 50-60 years later, the Russians supported the military adventures of their authoritarian president with the same enthusiasm as their grandparents, with up to 80 percent of them endorsing the invasion of Ukraine ).
Attributing crucial importance to the personality of the Soviet leader in making strategic foreign policy decisions, Western governments have monitored the mood of the Kremlin master, as well as his habits and whims, as much as possible, since the formation of the Soviet state. Sovietologists were quite nervous about the mercurial Khrushchev but calmed down somewhat with the seemingly balanced Brezhnev—up until the end of his reign, when the Kremlin made an unexpected decision about the Afghanistan invasion—and then, finally, became highly hostile toward America with Andropov, when the former KGB head began threatening Washington with the nuclear war. With an unpredictable leader in Moscow, it was only natural that the Western world was remarkably united in the 1970s-80s, with everyone afraid of the vagaries of the mind of the Kremlin leader.
Indeed, the circumstances of Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964, and the accusations lodged against him by the members of the Politburo could only increase the confidence most Western professionals had about the dependence of the world’s future on the psyche of the current Russian leader. In removing him from the Kremlin, Khrushchev’s colleagues raised, among other accusations, the issue—although it was very “ unpatriotic” and was kept secret from the general Soviet public—of the General Secretary’s mental instability in dealing with the Cuban crisis. When Western analysts hailed Gorbachev’s arrival to power, they often pointed to Khrushchev’s behavior during the Cuban crisis.
Almost immediately before Mikhail Gorbachev, Yurii Andropov’s short time in power (November 12, 1982 to February 9, 1984) later served as a very positive contrast to a leader with a very different psychology. In less than two years, Andropov single-handedly managed to deteriorate international relations immensely; he broke off all arms control negotiations, and turned the September 1983 shooting of Korean Air Flight KAL-007 by Soviet fighters into a major conflict (this episode would be compared incessantly with the downing of the Malaysian passenger airline three decades later). In Andropov’s days, the Soviet newspaper Pravda was full of warnings about “the world at the edge of nuclear war.” It was at exactly this time that President Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an “empire of evil.” In response, Andropov showered Reagan with boundless hatred, not seen among Western politicians after Truman. (An amusing indicator: in 1983, Pravda, whose major function was the glorification of the General Secretary. mentioned Reagan’s name more often than Andropov’s, which prompted me and a colleague to write a New York Times article with the title ‘Reagan — Pravda’s Star’). It is difficult to imagine what would have happened after 1984, if Andropov’s kidneys had not failed and he had spent the next ten years or more as General Secretary.
By the power of Providence, very soon after Andropov’s threatening actions, Reagan was strolling (1988) with Gorbachev on Red Square and being greeted by delighted crowds there and everywhere, also in the Club of Writers (evidence of how obedient the Russian masses and most intellectuals were to the Kremlin), and, for the first time, an elated Reagan could deal with a Soviet leader whom an American president did not have to consider as a source of lies or horrendous danger to his country.
Putin’s movement toward the status of a “volatile dictator” is ultimately the logical result of one factor—his determination to stay in power “forever.” With the gradual accumulation of actions that would promise him criminal persecution if he were to leave the Kremlin, this desire has become an all-encompassing obsession. As a result, Putin’s domestic and foreign policies have become completely subjugated by this goal. Formally, the major task of Putin’s domestic policy had been to sustain society’s stability and democracy. In fact, it was actually geared to eliminate the democratic elements of society and exterminate the opposition.
The country’s foreign policy is also subordinate to the same goal. All justifications for actions taken in this arena—the fight again the expansion of NATO to the East, the building up of anti-missile defense systems, and actions against movements by Ukraine or Georgia toward an alliance with the West—are only a cover for the Russian leader’s genuine motivations. Remember the ease with which Gorbachev dropped the entire arsenal of geopolitical arguments that Russian nationalists had used before, which had been sanctioned by a thousand years of Russian history. Gorbachev and his followers treated these arguments as completely obsolete and detrimental to the long-term interests of the Russians.
Putin has chosen tactics of uncertainty about his intentions as one of his most efficient weapons, because this always works to spread fear among his enemies and the general public. From 2011-2014, Putin’s regime gradually returned to the climate of uncertainty inside the country that had been such an important element of life in Stalin’s society, even if Putin’s Russia of 2014 does not yet reach the 1937 levels. In 2011, the State Duma and the Government started to produce one repressive law and edict after another, which not only restrained the behavior of the people but created the belief that the situation might be worse tomorrow.
After the law requiring the registration of all organizations dealing with foreign political associations as foreign agents, the government issued an edict prohibiting officials from keeping money in foreign banks; the Kremlin followed this by banning state employees, including officers, from spending their vacations in the West, and from buying foreign cars; then the Duma demanded that all citizens declare whether they possessed foreign passports and green cards. Other restrictive actions hit the sales of many imported goods. Closing McDonalds in Moscow in August 2014 was another unexpected move by Putin, seemingly necessary in his opinion to sustain enmity with the USA. The country has started to guess at what new restraints will come tomorrow. The huge army of bureaucrats, as well as the entire population, now lives in a climate of uncertainty.
This uncertainty spread into relations between Putin and the international community following the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
The unexpected seizure of Crimea in March 2014 was a crucial event in the demonstration of a new style of foreign policy for Putin. Seizing Crimea was a shock to the world not only because of the insolent aggression on a sovereign country but because Moscow did it unexpectedly, forcing all of its neighbors and the major powers in the world to tremble and try to guess what Russia’s next steps would be. The whole world participated, for instance, in guessing Putin’s intentions about the invasion of Ukraine in March-April: would it only be Donbas, or would it also be Kharkov or perhaps even Dnepropertrovsk? On September 1, Putin indeed declared as a rather nonchalantly ,again bedazzling the world that his forces could sweep into Kiev sweep into weeks if he wanted,
Since that time, guessing Putin’s intentions has become a humiliating game for American and European politicians; even the leaders of states supposedly friendly to Russia have been forced to participate in it. By the end of August, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan—a member of the Eurasian alliance—learned that Putin boorishly humiliated him during a meeting with young people in a vacation resort close to Moscow, having declared Kazakhstan a state that existed only a few decades. In Astana, the republic’s capital, his statement only generated a pessimistic view about the Russian president’s future intentions toward Kazakhstan, the country with big Russian population.
The unpredictability of Putin’s foreign policy has become one of the main instruments for spreading fear of Russia to the world, which Putin and his subjects view as a major sign of the restoration of “Russian pride.”
During the meeting Putin had with the heads of parliamentary factions of the State Duma on August 14th in Yalta (Crimea), the speakers required Putin to make the world fear Russia even more. For this purpose, Putin’s myrmidons demanded, in an evidently arranged request, that Russia abandon its membership in several international organizations, and they also asked Putin to cancel several international agreements, hoping that these steps would increase fear of Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Putin’s jester, is recognized as one of those who divulges Putin’s ideas if the president does not want to publicize them himself. At the Crimean meeting, Zhirinovsky mused, in Putin’s presence and without his direct objection, how nice it would be if the Russia of 1812 had stayed in control of Paris through today, and if it had controlled the whole of Europe in 1945; and what a pleasure it would be if the whole world were afraid of Moscow.
To the joy of a Russian public animated by xenophobia stemming from governmental TV, Putin has cultivated contempt toward his “partners,” as Putin’s refers to the USA or England. He openly lies to them, encouraging and ordering his foreign minister and, of course, the media to lie without any concerns about the full destruction of trust in him and in his diplomacy. (His foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has surpassed everybody in the history of Russian diplomacy, with the possible exception of Stalin’s Foreign Minister, Andrei Vyshinskii, in rude and obscene deceptions). Lying to foreign politicians incessantly, Putin takes special pleasure in humiliating them. The mean treatment of American ambassador Michael McFaul during his in two year service in Moscow is an unprecedented case in the history of Russia-American relations. He also kept President Obama and the Secretaries of Defense and State sitting and waiting for an hour before meeting with them. Russians have received all of Putin’s actions in showing disrespect for his “partners” with joy, elated to see another achievement in the restoration of Russia’s pride, such as when he chose the seizure of Crimea as a radically new foreign policy course. Putin was sure that the West, with the public’s inclination toward appeasing aggressive powers, would not react to his belligerent actions militarily.
As history shows, spreading uncertainty in society demands a massive cult surround the leader. Indeed, Putin’s regime has made the cult of the leader one of its major spheres of activity, eclipsed in scale only by the official adoration of Stalin in the mid-1930s. Putin’s cult has demanded the continuing persecution of everybody who dares to be critical of the man; it has implied a permanent increase in the number of people who have abandoned their previous liberal ideas and begun to extol the dictator, in some cases vulgarly, like film director Nikita Mikhalkov, and in some cases more elegantly, as recently seen by the leader of the Communist party, Gennadii Ziuganov.
The Crimea adventure has been used by Putin as a new stage in the cultivation of his personality. He started by describing himself, through the servile media and politicians, as the “collector of the Russian lands”; as the heir of the Russian tsars; as the Russian ruler who corrects the mistakes of his predecessors; and as a person who bravely took responsibility for “the Russian world,” i.e., for all Russians on the planet, in whatever country they may now live.
There are many signs that Putin is contemplating some way to entrench himself in ruling Russia as a sort of monarch. It is noticeable that the Russian media has begun glorifying all of the Russian tsars, including such monsters as Ivan the Terrible and such a mentally ill person as Paul the First, following Stalin’s example (Stalin did exactly the same thing in the last decade of his life).
At a recent meeting with the heads of the parliamentary factions of the State Duma (August 14, 2014), Putin accepted, without even a shadow of confusion, the media’s talk of deification of his person. He did not even issue a mild rebuke to Zhirinovsky, who begged Putin to proclaim himself emperor. Of course, this amazed nobody because this myrmidon always speaks what is on Putin’s mind.
After Stalin, no Russian leader’s personality has been as important to the world as that of Putin. He entered the grand political scene in 1999 as an obscure figure, even to people who worked with him. Articles asking “Who are you, Mr. Putin?” invaded the media and scientific magazines both inside and outside of Russia. 15 years later, when Putin has made one unexpected move after another, the same question remains very appropriate for any author who is not complacent in affirming that he knows the answer. Meanwhile, with Putin conducting such dangerous foreign activities, a correct answer is much more important than it was in the past.
This piece, has attempted to look at the current Russian president mostly from one perspective—the predictability of his behavior, particularly as it relates to his relations with the USA, and with the West in general. Conclusions are mostly based on the known facts. Analysis brought the following conclusions about Putin’s personality:
• He presents himself as a quasi-monarch with a passionate, and, by Russian history standards, extraordinary love of power. At the same time, he is truly indifferent to the long-term interests of his country. As a central feature of his vision of the world, we can point to his anti-democratic beliefs, with a veneration of fear as the most effective instrument for dealing with people. His belief in fear is combined with another trait—his confidence in the necessity of forcing people with whom he deals to live in a state of uncertainty about his unexpected decisions. This belief in fear as the best regulator of human behavior is combined with a well-honed (by the KGB) love of secrecy and a mistrust of all other people.
• He evidently has megalomaniac and narcissistic tendencies, strongly believing in his physical might and in his own wisdom. His narcissism includes boasting of the new weapons being made in Russia, a type of behavior that cannot be found in any other country in the contemporary world except North Korea.
• As with most dictators, he is not ashamed to construct a cult for himself within the country. He enjoys what the whole country, including his closest advisors, repeat incessantly: that all of the decisions for the country are made only by him, and that no political institution can restrain him. He likes to sadistically humiliate his opposition and Western politicians. He is full of disrespect and hatred for the West, ready to lie to foreign governments and, of course, to his own people. Ultimately, his hatred of the West has its roots in his strong, and reasonable, belief that Western values are deeply inimical to his desire to be some sort of a new monarch of Russia.
• A portrait of Putin would be incomplete if we did not add other features that must be taken into account when dealing with him. Despite his tendencies toward megalomania and narcissism, he is definitely not the crazy person that many labeled him when he took actions that were clearly against the interests of Russia, such as spending $50 billion on the Olympic Games in Sochi with the obvious goal of earning the sympathy of the West, and then destroying that in one stroke with the incursion into Crimea. Putin often comes across as a cautious and sober man. At the same time, he is able to make decisions that are not traditional for Russia, such as pursuing a liberal policy toward the Jewish population in Russia, and, to some degree, even toward Israel. He is definitely smart and able to operate with data; he is also a good polemicist. Putin definitely does not lack for humor (even if it is often very crude), which only increases his popularity among ordinary Russians.
• Facing Putin is a challenge for any politician. Machiavelli could hardly have found a more ideal candidate for his prince in the beginning of the 21st century. But the great Florentine certainly could not give us advice on how someone who is honest, peace-loving and not cynical can successfully confront a demonic person like Putin. Still, he would probably suggest not trusting a single word uttered by this man, as well as being steadfast and ready to be involved in a risky game. If these suggestions are not followed, the USA has a greater chance of yielding to Moscow, even if the economic and military capacity of the West are superior to the weaker army and economy of the Russian dictator whose only great advantages over his enemies are his arrogance and skill in spreading fear with his sudden decisions.