Americans have been grasping to find explanations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s serial aggressions in Europe. We keep searching for bumper stickers we can understand, so we gravitate to simple explanations like “geopolitics” or “nationalism,” not least because such notions promise solutions. (If it’s about geopolitics, cutting a deal with Putin will stop this; if it’s about nationalism, it’ll burn itself out when Putin has recaptured enough ethnic Russians around his borders.)
And, of course, there’s always “realism.” In this month’s Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer argues the Russo-Ukraine war is basically the West’s fault. (We expanded NATO, we supported the Maidan protesters, we were generally just mean to Russia, etc.) It’s a classic Mearsheimer piece: a beautifully-written, attention-seeking exercise that insists on the brilliance of realists while bucking the innate moral sense of most normal human beings. (Consider, for example, his 1993 Deep Thoughts about how maybe it would be good for Ukraine and Germany to develop active nuclear weapons programs.)
That doesn’t mean I disagree with the overall evaluation that America’s Russia policy since 1992—insofar as we’ve had one—has been remarkably obtuse. (That pretty much describes most of our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, but I will not digress here.) I, too, objected to expanding NATO, deplored the arrogance of people like Madeleine Albright, and lamented the repeated lost opportunities to bring Moscow closer to the Western family to which it belongs by both heritage and history.
Very little of what’s happened in the past 20 years, however, has much to do with what’s going on in Ukraine right now. And nothing excuses Russia’s war against a peaceful neighbor, especially not arid theories of realism or flawed historical analogies.
Putin is not a realist: very few national leaders are. Realism is much loved by political scientists, but actual nations almost never practice it. Nor is Putin a nationalist: indeed, he hardly seems to understand the concept, or he would not have embarked on his current path.
A Man of the Soviet Union
To understand Putin’s wars, from Georgia to Ukraine, the key is to understand the final two decades of the Soviet Union, not the first two decades of the new Russia. That is, to understand Putin it’s necessary to understand him for what he is on his own terms: he is what Russians call a sovok, a “Soviet guy,” a man of the old Soviet Union, a product of “The System.”
Like others of his generation, he is part of a cadre of men who came of age in a massive, multinational, nuclear-armed superstate in the early 1970s. The faceless cogs who made this system work were unremarkable people like Putin, trained in ideology and imbued with the false faith that the USSR’s greatest days were yet to come.
In their later years, these men have experienced the normal anxieties and embarrassments of middle age. (In Putin’s case, she’s a gymnast young enough to be his daughter.) But middle age for the sovoks also brought many to realize they spent their lives serving a state based on lies and held together almost entirely by force.
So spend a moment imagining the better time for which these men yearn.
The Good Old USSR Days
Go back about 40 years. In 1975, America was on the ropes. The U.S. military had been driven from Saigon. Our economy, deprived of oil, was in a shambles. Our Constitution seemingly had failed us, leaving the White House occupied by a president for whom no one had voted, after the previous leader (one of the ur-Cold Warriors of American history) had to blow town just ahead of certain impeachment. Our military was hollow, our resolve weak, and our alliances in tatters. The prime minister of Great Britain, our closest ally and the source-code of our political DNA, at the time was a man who saw his main task as managing the decline of the West in the face of the Soviet ascent.
In 1975, by contrast, the Soviets were at the top of their game, bristling with modern military hardware, sporting a new generation of nuclear missiles, and enjoying the prestige of having “advisors” to various odious regimes strung across the globe. It was their time, and the Revolution—nearly strangled in its cradle by civil war, nearly poisoned to death by Joseph Stalin, nearly blown to smithereens by the mercurial Nikita Khrushchev—was at last paying some dividends. The correlation of forces, the great wheel of History itself, was finally turning in their favor, and it would never turn back again.
In 1975, Putin was just 23 years old. For most of us, our twenties are a great time of life: most of our schooling is behind us, our careers, our mature romances, our children and families, all lie ahead. For Putin, that meant joining the KGB, the most elite Soviet institution, and the one that would give him entry to halls of power that would make his fellow citizens both fear and fawn on him.
He would be somebody in the brave new Soviet future.
Not For Long
How soon and how tragically it all ended. For Putin, the 1980s could only have been a painful time, as he watched the Soviet descent to oblivion begin, accelerate, and then end in a humiliating wreck. As tough men like Yuri Andropov succumbed to age and disease, younger and weaker men like Mikhail Gorbachev stepped forward, and sold the country down the river.
Throughout the 1980s Putin had to watch as the Soviet Union’s most hated enemy, Ronald Reagan, joined forces with Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, to rekindle the Western alliance. They were literally blessed in this by a Polish Pope so hated in Moscow that lunatics in the Eastern bloc security services actually took out a contract on the leader of a billion Catholics. As the Soviet economy ground to a halt, the United States experienced a major economic expansion. Imagine seeing the decadent West living better and better while pumping seemingly endless billions of dollars into a fearsome American military machine that bore little resemblance to what the Soviets had foolishly believed was a permanently beaten and demoralized force.
In 1975, the world belonged to Moscow. Less than ten years later, the dream was over. For a man who clearly still feels a stirring in his chest when he hears the Stalinist anthem of the old Soviet Union—and he must, since he’s restored it as the Russian anthem—the 1980s had to be an intolerable humiliation.
Building the Nationalist Façade
Men like Putin are not brilliant, but they are cunning. (The Soviet system excelled at weeding out genuinely creative people while rewarding excessively clever people. There’s a difference.) Seeing the writing on the wall in the late 1980s, Putin did what many older and less able Soviet men could not do: he jumped from the crumbling Soviet state to the new democratic movement. Better to be on the train than standing in front of it.
Putin made a show of transiting to nationalism, just as many former Soviet Communists did after 1991. Some succeeded in pulling it off, and rule some of the USSR remnants to this day. For his part, Putin wears a cross, makes a great show of his concern for Russian-speakers, and generally encourages Russians to wear big “I love Russia” shirts. It’s a cheap nationalism that really asks no price, at least until now.
Aside from these showy moments, however, we have no real evidence Putin is a nationalist. Rather, he has used his considerable power to build Soviet, not Russian monuments to power. He has funded new generations of nuclear missiles. He set up a Potemkin village to host the Olympics. He scrubbed Soviet history clean in school textbooks. He is obsessed with Russian speakers, to be sure, but only if they reside in lands once part of his beloved USSR. It makes no difference to him whether those people are better or worse off than they were under Soviet rule; they are merely markers that allow him to lay old Soviet claims. In some cases (like Belarus, a shabby little post-Soviet dictatorship) a closer union is merely a costly symbolic project that makes no real difference to either country.
If anything, Putin probably finds Russian nationalism as alien as he finds any other; the best evidence for this is that he has muscled aside nationalist propaganda and nationalist political figures and replaced them with his own cult of personality. He has tamed far-right nationalist groups and welded them to his neo-Soviet expansionism. He has taken one-time nationalist hardliner Vladimir Zhirinovsky and made him into the official Court Jester of the Kremlin.
Likewise, Putin displaced the Communist Party of Russia—a damaged brand if ever there was one—by functionally replacing it with his own Putinist vehicle whose aims are hardly different. (Gorbachev once called Putin’s “United Russia” a “bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party,” and that’s a man who learned the hard way when a party is rotten to its core.)
Putin’s speeches and public utterances tend to show more nostalgia for his Soviet youth than his Russian adulthood. To see the world through Putin’s eyes, look no further than the explosion of bad taste and Soviet kitsch that opened the hot mess known as the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In a display of love and affection for all things Soviet that might have brought a tear to Leonid Brezhnev’s eye, Sochi’s opening ceremony was everything people like Putin remembered about the USSR but that no one really experienced: the dynamic technology, the pretty girls bustling to new futures, the camaraderie of being part of the big Soviet experiment.
It’s all stuff you might miss if you’re a former KGB spook. Maybe less so, of course, if you were the ordinary Soviet citizen in the communal apartment down the street, perhaps scared to death living so close to one of the icemen carrying the Sword and Shield of the Soviet state.
Let’s Be Real about Realism
Finally, if Putin is a realist, it is a strange realism indeed. This is where counterfactual thinking might help: a realist seeking to increase the power and influence of his state simply would not do most of the things Putin is doing. The Kremlin’s foreign policy at this point violates almost every rule of competent strategy, to say nothing of common sense. From the injunction to avoid the needless multiplication of enemies to the danger of letting emotion overcome policy, Putin has trampled all over “realist” expectations.
This is an especially remarkable series of errors because Russia faces, in the administration of Barack Obama, an America that has no interest in a fight and would just as well walk away from European affairs if only given half a chance. Or put another way, America is being drawn into a European conflict only because Putin is too stupid to know enough to keep us out of it, despite every indication from the White House that we want nothing to do with any of this. If this is Russian “realism,” it’s the dumbest realism in modern history.
Putin also shows no understanding of the forces in Ukraine he is creating or manipulating. He has now re-awakened and invigorated Ukrainian nationalism, a notional threat to Russia he could have averted by leaving Ukraine saddled with a large number of Russian voters. (This also is part of what convinces me that Putin really has no understanding of nationalism, and that deep in his Soviet heart, he detests it in all its forms.) Elsewhere in Europe, of course, Putin has reminded a previously slumbering NATO why it exists. He has greatly empowered a traditional Russian opponent, Poland, both in the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. If that’s part of a master plan, the logic seems murky.
The question, really, is not whether Putin is a realist seeking to enlarge Russian power; rather, it is whether Putin deep down really hates post-Soviet Russia so much that he is subconsciously intent on destroying it.
Back to the Future
Now there are rumors Putin is even thinking of using nuclear weapons. Certainly, he’s talking about them enough. This is all probably meant to give Westerners the shakes, but if true, then it means Putin really is every inch a totally unreconstructed Soviet Man of the 1970s. It was an article of faith among the Soviet marshals back then that NATO was a weak alliance led by decadent Westerners, a façade that would shatter at the sight of the first mushroom cloud.
Today, it is unlikely the sleek and comfortable oligarchs around Putin will be willing to indulge him to the end, but there are still Russian generals who are products of the Soviet obsession with nuclear force. They may be more supportive of such mad plans.
War has returned to Europe because of Vladimir Putin, and solely because of Vladimir Putin. Negotiation has failed because it is impossible to negotiate over revenge. If a wider war lies further down the road, it will result, not from the realism of a Russian nationalist, but from the unrealized dreams of an angry old Soviet who wants to go back and live again in a time that was quickly swept away by the emergence of a better world.
Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is “No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014).” The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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