The West’s inability to comprehend how Vladimir Putin sees the world means it has trouble thinking constructively about how to deal with him.
Western analysts and political leaders don’t seem to be doing a good job of understanding Russia’s foreign policy these days. President Obama and his European colleagues utterly failed to predict the invasion of Ukraine, and have repeatedly underestimated both Putin’s determination and his ability to defy cherished Western norms on the road to his long-term project of rebuilding the Soviet Union at Western expense. From a Western point of view, Putin has been so weakened by the oil crash and western sanctions that the only thing that remains is to negotiate his surrender. The West keeps hinting that it will offer easy terms if asked, but Putin keeps blowing past every off-ramp that the Europeans and Americans can build. Until the West understand how the world looks to Vladimir Putin, it won’t understand the nature of the threat Russia poses or be able to think constructively about how to counter that.
But Putin lives and thinks outside of the Davos box. By Davos standards, Putin is a heretic and a renegade. He thinks the whole post-historical Western consensus is a mix of flapdoodle and folderol. It is, from his perspective, a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy, and he wants no part of it.
Putin isn’t exactly right about the Davos consensus; there is more inertia and power behind the global status quo than he understands. But because he is outside the Davos bubble, he sees things that the Davoisie can’t, and it is those insights, some more valuable than others, that enable him to astound and wrong-foot his opponents time after time.
What the West doesn’t understand about Putin is that he doesn’t think the West is as strong as the West thinks that it is. Putin thinks the West has fallen in love with its own prejudices and illusions, and that the imposing structures of the Western world, both NATO and the EU in particular, are hollow facades. Because of this, Putin believes, the West continually embraces foolish foreign policy choices. It overreaches and underresources its foreign policy, and the result is to create a series of opportunities that a hungry power like Russia cannot afford to ignore.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.
At the same time, he believes that the American commitment to Europe is so weak that the United States will not react in a timely or effective fashion as Russia sets about the revision of the European order.
Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.
Putin is no fool. He understands, much more clearly than Berlin does, just what a hammer blow the euro disaster has dealt to the entire structure of the enlarged, post-1990 European Union. He understands that Berlin’s leadership of the continent has lost legitimacy across the south, and further he believes that Berlin is too shortsighted and constrained to undertake the kind of policy that could still save the euro and the EU.
Putin also understands the fragility of the EU’s accomplishments beyond western Europe. EU bureaucrats and German diplomats don’t think culture matters as they build a multicultural and cosmopolitan New Europe from Dublin to Dubrovnik and from Sweden to Sicily. Putin thinks they are wrong, and when he looks at current conditions in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Spain he sees the full confirmation of his theory. Europe, he believes, is not a country–and even if it were, it is not a German country.
Germany, he believes, is trying to build a Europe in defiance of the facts–and Germany lacks both the resources and the will to push this project indefinitely as its difficulties grow. Germany will not, Putin may well believe, find a way to turn the euro disaster around. The south will continue to fester and stew under an increasingly hateful and damaging system. Germany will also not be able to turn the Balkans into an orderly and quiet garden of Nordic and Teutonic virtues.
The key to Putin’s thinking is that he is betting less on Russian strength than on German and therefore Western weakness. In opposing the consolidation of a German Europe, he is betting on German failure more than he is betting on Russian success. The goal of Russian policy in Ukraine, for example, is not to create a new Ukraine in Russia’s image. It is not to conquer Ukraine – but to demonstrate that the East is indigestible. Germany cannot save Ukraine or organize Ukraine. It doesn’t have the money, the military culture or the political skills to convert this particular sow’s ear into the silk purse of a North Atlantic market democracy. Germany cannot save Ukraine when the price of oil is at $100 per barrel; it cannot save Ukraine when the price of oil is $25 per barrel.
But if Germany cannot save Ukraine at any price of oil, it also cannot reform Greece, Italy and Spain at any value of the euro. Putin doesn’t see his job as one of building up a powerful force to counter a rising Germany. He sees his job as being able to take advantage of the coming failures and catastrophes of what he believes to be the grandiose and unsustainable Western project in Europe.
Oil price crash aside, Putin reasons, things are breaking his way. The election of a leftist, populist and anti-German government in Greece is the first sign that the European consensus is splintering. Italy casts yearning eyes his way; Paris increasingly thinks that ‘more Russia’ is the best and indeed the only way to reduce a German predominance in Europe that is both frustrating and increasingly, from a French point of view, destructive.
More than this, Putin believes that Germany is now a posthistorical nation in the sense that it is unwilling to fight. It may belong to NATO and have an army, but the German population as a whole is as pacifistic now as the British and French publics were in the 1930s. German politicians and newspaper intellectuals prattle on about NATO, Putin believes, but when the chips are down, they would rather yield a thousand Donbasses than fight a single campaign.
Putin seems to have been surprised by the degree to which Germany was willing to wield weapons of economic war against him, and the Western sanctions came as a distinctly unpleasant and expensive surprise. The near-simultaneous oil crash has landed him in the soup. But these two surprises don’t, Putin apparently believes, change a correlation of forces that favor Russia.
In this calculation, Germany is overextended and lacks the wit, the will and the wherewithal to stabilize the large and elaborate construct of the enlarged, post 1990-EU. With Merkel in Napoleon’s place, Putin may see Europe today looking much as Alexander I must have seen it as Napoleon retreated from Moscow. Italy is mutinous, Spain in flames, Britain defiant and France is no happier with Merkel today than Austria was with Napoleon in 1813.
The United States, meanwhile, is from this Russian perspective strategically clueless and largely out of the game. President Obama is amusing himself with various pursuits and his incoherent and crisis-ridden Middle East mix of policies gives him no time to think hard about Europe; Congress lacks the cohesion and the constitutional means to force an alternative on him.
Putin, for his part, probably underestimates both the Germans and the West. His intel work with the Stasi would have given him a jaundiced, informer’s eye view of German life, and if the West underestimates the role of raw power and overestimates the importance of institutions and law in world affairs, Putin can underestimate both.
The West can still prove Putin wrong, but we will have to raise our game. U.S. policymakers need to start thinking much harder and more explicitly about the future of the West and, therefore, of Europe. The U.S. will have to pivot back toward engagement with Europe as a whole—not just hope that Germany can handle this on all on its own. The post-1990 European order has taken much more damage than much of U.S. elite opinion has fully understood, and that damage poses much greater dangers to vital U.S. interests than most people think. Intelligent U.S. engagement in the rethinking and reforming of Europe is as necessary now as it was earlier in the 20th century. The U.S. aim, as then, is not to dominate Europe. But close, active, constructive and informed U.S. participation is the secret ingredient without which Europe just doesn’t cohere.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, the world may have looked better a year ago when oil was expensive and Moscow’s coffers were flush. But while Russia had some ugly surprises in 2014, Putin seems to believe that the false foundations underneath the imposing façade of the West continue to erode at an accelerating pace. It does not take a strong push to knock over a house of cards; Putin, one suspects, still thinks he can win. He is certainly acting that way.