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The world according to Putin

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Political analysis so often follows in the shadow of real life; in both, narcissists are to be avoided at all costs, because their warped view of their relative importance means they are constantly (and dangerously) misunderstanding existence itself. The key to political risk analysis is not to imagine what you would do if you were in Castro’s shoes, but rather to empathize enough to understand what Castro would do. The goal is not to think of yourself, but to understand someone else.

This is the ultimate realist challenge — to comprehensively understand the interests and goals of a strategic opponent very unlike yourself — and it is hard to do, but the analytical payoff is immense. 

So when Western leaders and commentators perpetually wonder why Russian President Vladimir Putin behaves in such as diabolical fashion — seeming to be in the running to be the next James Bond villain, and not acting in the least like a Western European democratic leader — the obvious but telling answer is, “He is not a Western European democratic leader.” 

Instead of naively continuing to wonder why the Russian president does not believe in universal rights, eschews the use of force in the international system, and has no qualms about the erosion of Russian state sovereignty — as any good Western European Wilsonian would do — perhaps a better analytical line of reasoning is to focus on what unique and specific historical forces have driven Putin to see the world as he does. For as Heraclitus put it, “Character is destiny.”

Putin’s formative experience was as a rising KGB officer in both East Germany and then Russia itself. There he helplessly watched the Soviet Union fall apart around him, as Russia morphed from feared superpower into an international mendicant. 

A great deal of the reason for the Russian president’s enduring popularity — so baffling to so many Western analysts — is that Putin’s deep desire to right Russia’s geostrategic slide, “To make Russia Great Again,” is widely shared by the Russian people as a whole. Great Russian nationalism as a guiding force is the secret to Putin’s enduring political success. At the end of last year, more than 60 percent of Russians polled still rated the Russian president’s performance as positive, a formidable level of approval that would make most Western leaders envious. 

Putin is more than enough of a geostrategist to understand his country — given its sclerotic economy, dire demographics and pervasive corruption — simply has no chance of retaining its formerly-prized Cold War status as a superpower. 

But for all its myriad weaknesses, Russia has more than enough strengths — a capable military, energy riches, and a shrewd and tough leader capable of ruthlessly wielding power — for the country to fight its way back to great power status. 

Putin is a culturally organic Russian archetype, the “Good Tsar” determined to restore the country’s imperiled status after the feckless and weak tsar (in this narrative, Boris Yeltsin) let the Russian elite and foreign powers run amok, degrading Mother Russia.

To bring Russia back, above all Putin must secure dominance in the country’s “near abroad,” establishing a sphere of influence over its neighbors as both a sign of Russia’s continued offensive power projection and a geographic form of defense. 

For Putin, then, talk of Western Europe suddenly worrying about the democratic and human rights of those living in Ukraine and Belarus is just hypocrisy hiding the West’s ever-expansive agenda, designed to malevolently halt Russia from fulfilling its great power destiny by denying it the country’s rightful sphere of influence.

For Putin, unlike Western European Wilsonians, nothing has changed in how the international system has worked over the centuries; as a realist, Putin believes to his core that the system remains ultimately dependent on power politics and spheres of influence, as has been true since the time of the ancients. 

The Kremlin sees Western European NGOs’ newfound concern for preserving the universal rights of those living in Ukraine and Belarus — countries that until recently many of them could not have found on a map — not as legitimate concerns. Instead, the wary Russian leader sees them merely as a pretext for the West to enlarge its sphere of influence further eastward, this time encroaching on core Kremlin interests by amalgamating traditional Russian allies under their domination right up to Putin’s doorstep. 

For the Russian president, this struggle for power in his own backyard is simply critical for the Kremlin to win, to maintain both his country’s sphere of influence and Russia’s great power status. Given geopolitical realities — just as the U.S. will always care who runs next-door Mexico more than any other great power does — so Moscow’s concerns about Belarus and Ukraine make them perpetually primary interests. For all these specific and historical reasons, Putin will play a very rough game in order to emerge triumphant. 

Let me be clear: To understand is not to condone. One does not have to share Putin’s hyper-Machiavellian worldview, but one must understand it. Realist thinking dictates that in order to master an enemy, first he must be deeply comprehended. This is Vladimir Putin’s worldview, right and wrong, good and bad. To learn from it amounts to the first step in besting him. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.

Tags Great power competition Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian nationalism Vladimir Putin

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