The political personality of Russian power today is the product both of ideology and circumstances. George Kennan's observations, made nearly sixty years ago, are just as valid today when considering Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Too often, outside observers have first created their image of Russia, and then located the appropriate facts and personalities to support their construction. To get Russia right, we must seek to understand it as it understands itself, not as we might wish it to be.
During the 1990s, we underestimated Russia's vices in order to maintain the fiction that a post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin was firmly on the path to Western-style liberal democracy and free-market economics. As Russia moved further away from its Soviet past, the assumption ran, so its interests would converge with those of the United States. The desire to anoint Russia as a liberal ally of the West covered over a multitude of sins, most notably the rampant corruption that continues to devastate the Russian economy.
Today, we underestimate Russia's virtues to depict the country as a neo-Stalinist, authoritarian dictatorship bent on subverting freedoms at home and recreating its empire abroad. Russia is no longer seen as a partner to be engaged, but an emerging threat that needs to be contained. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post concludes that we are witnessing "the consolidation of KGB-style authoritarianism" in Russia, while Senator John McCain accuses President Putin of mounting a "creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism." Yet renewing the Cold War image of Russia as an evil empire precludes the development of a genuine partnership based on shared vital interests.