WASHINGTON – As tensions between Russia and the West grew more heated with Vladimir Putin’s rapid move Monday to recognize Crimea as an independent state, his actions and motives remain opaque to U.S. and European officials.
Some in the U.S., including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, have dismissed the Russian president as “delusional” or intent on recreating the Soviet Union. Others, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, see Putin taking his strategic cues from Adolf Hitler’s 1930’s playbook to undermine Eastern European stability and the post-Cold War order.
Current and former intelligence officers, such as Eugene Rumer, say the keys to understanding Putin’s decision-making lie in Russian history and in his mission to create a Eurasian Union. Rather than rebuilding the Soviet Union, they say Putin is acting on a long-standing goal to create a buffer zone to counter the encroaching West, an ambition that suggests Crimea may be just an initial step. They warn he may see Western attempts to punish Russia as further provocations.
“After several rounds of NATO expansions, after the U.S. developing extensive relations with some other countries in the Soviet Union, Russia feels it has every reason to push back and expand its sphere of privileged interests, primarily in the territory of the Soviet Union,” said Rumer, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia who’s now at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington policy group.
“The idea isn’t to recreate the Soviet Union, but to surround Russia with a series of compliant satellites, and there is no greater prize in that pursuit than Ukraine,” Rumer said.
As the U.S. and allies imposed sanctions on a number of Russian officials Monday, others pointed to a dangerous dynamic in which Western moves intended to deter Moscow may be seen instead as aggression, such as NATO’s decision to move fighter jets to Baltic states and announce increased military cooperation with Ukraine.
Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state and now president of the Brookings Institution, a public-policy research organization in Washington, describes Putin as inhabiting a “reality distortion field and where it’s most distorted is where he sees a threat from the West.”
That tendency, said Clifford Gaddy, a Putin biographer and Brookings senior fellow, means that “what we in the West think will deter Putin from further steps just gets interpreted as proof that yes, the West is out to get us.”
Fellow Brookings scholar Fiona Hill, co-author with Gaddy of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” argues that the Russian president, a 61-year-old former KGB officer, is best understood as a composite of multiple identities that stem from his and his country’s past experiences. His views, they say, “have deep roots” in several centuries of Russian political thought.
“This is why Putin’s actions in Ukraine are broadly popular in Russia — among both the ‘patriotic elites’ and the general public — and have resulted,” in a significant surge in his approval ratings starting last month, Hill said in a paper Sunday.
History also helps explain Putin’s distrust of the West, said Talbott, who describes Moscow as “a paranoid with real enemies.” Over the centuries, Russia has had to contend with marauding Mongols, Viking incursions, Napoleon’s destruction of Moscow, and Hitler’s siege of Leningrad.
That 900-day assault claimed the life of Putin’s older brother. While Vladimir Putin wasn’t born yet, the loss and suffering loomed large in his family’s experience.
“History is a political tool for Putin,” Hill writes. “It is also very personal.”
His family’s ordeal in World War II, she writes, “fits neatly into Russia’s national historical narrative — where Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. Every calamity and great sacrifice reaffirms Russia’s resilience and its special status in history.”
In light of that siege mentality, “the attitude of Russian leaders going back to the czars has been the best defense is a good offense,” Talbott said, “so Russia will continue to gobble up territory, so hostile forces by definition are going to be farther and farther away.”
Josef Stalin considered it Russia’s right, earned with as many as 27 million deaths helping defeat Nazi Germany in World War II, to project his buffer zone all the way to the heart of Europe.
Russians derive a sense of security from distance, Rumer said. Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, he’s been intent on restoring that buffer, describing it as “integration” and promoting his vision of a Eurasian Union to counterbalance the European Union, according to Rumer. Putin also began to stress the dysfunctional nature of the Western model, the decadence and relative values of the West.
When Ukrainians took to the streets to push back against their president’s efforts to spurn European integration and move back toward Russia, it was a blow. “There is no integration experiment without Ukraine,” said Martha Olcott, a Carnegie Endowment senior fellow.
Putin’s integration effort, she said, is about “restoring Russia’s greatness.” Rumer put it another way: “If you want to be a superpower, you probably need some satellites.”