Why Putin Resists

A narrative of frustration and disillusionment helps explain his actions on Snowden and Syria.

Regular readers of The National Interest would not be at all surprised by the reaction of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to the latest requests of the Obama administration—to cease its support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (and facilitate Western efforts on behalf of the anti-government forces) and, most recently, to detain the NSA leaker Edward Snowden in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport and return him to face charges in the United States.

In the May/June 2007 issue, Alexey K. Pushkov (who is now the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma) outlined Putin's frustrations with the actions of the U.S. government and chronicled the Russian leader’s growing disillusionment with the prospects of ever establishing a real partnership with the United States. Putin's narrative describing how the U.S.-Russian relationship has unfolded in the years since the end of the Cold War—something Pushkov discussed in that essay—is critical to understanding why he has not been particularly eager to do any favors for the Obama administration.

Last year, in the January/February 2012 issue, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy specifically warned U.S. policymakers that if they wished to successfully engage Putin, "they would be well-advised to pay attention to and play to his sense of history." Americans are perfectly free to disagree with and challenge Putin's view—but ignoring it altogether is not an effective approach.

Putin, along with many current Russian officials, believes that the United States deliberately exacerbated Russian weaknesses during the 1990s in order to geopolitically profit at Russia's expense, that commitments made when the Soviet Union still existed (such as not expanding NATO eastward as a price for German reunification) were thrown out the window once the USSR collapsed and could no longer contest the West. Russian officials accept as axiomatic the premise of the Melian dialogues—that the strong do what they want while the weak do what they must—and concluded that U.S. humanitarian rhetoric about spreading democracy and securing peace and freedom was just that—talk to cloak the achievement of geopolitical objectives. (Russians today will cite how U.S. concerns about freedom and regime change in Syria, where Russia has vital strategic interests, don't seem to apply to Bahrain, whose Sunni minority monarchy is a vital ally for the U.S. in the Persian Gulf.)

Putin had thought the 9/11 attacks changed the U.S. strategic calculus, and he was prepared to offer a series of quid pro quos that would, in his mind, enhance both Russian and American interests. Facilitating the U.S. arrival in Central Asia and closing Soviet-era facilities in Cuba—even over clear opposition from many parts of his own government—fit into his view that a new U.S.-Russia relationship could be based on the principle of ruka ruku moyet—one hand washes the other. Over time, however, he began to feel that Russia was giving but not receiving. Indeed, Pushkov identified the perception that the United States had torpedoed the efforts by Putin's aide Dmitry Kozak in 2003 to broker a settlement for the frozen conflict in Moldova—which would have created a loose federal government between the central area and the separatist regions and kept Moldova in a permanent "neutral" status—as the start of Putin's disillusionment. While his personal relations with George W. Bush remained friendly, Putin was far less supportive of U.S. requests and was no longer inclined to make significant Russian concessions for the vague assurances of American goodwill.

Putin was prepared to give the "reset" between presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama a chance; he put no obstacles to Medvedev attempting to forge a new relationship. But he never dropped his skepticism—and he believes events have proven him right. Medvedev cancelled key defense contracts with Iran, allowing new sanctions to move forward there, and did not instruct his UN ambassador to veto the resolution that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. But Russia was not compensated, in his view, for the Iranian cancellation; and when it came to Libya, the Russians thought what they were abstaining on was an effort to create Iraq-style safe havens for refugees, which served instead as the pretext for active measures to be taken against Muammar el-Qaddafi. Proposals for a negotiated settlement were set aside in favor of using Western combat power to overthrow Qaddafi.

Civil unrest broke out after Putin’s announced return to the presidency and the way in which the Duma elections were conducted at the end of 2011. He seized upon the U.S. role in funding some civil-society organizations, as well as statements made by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in favor of the protestors, to once again see an effort, under the guise of promoting values, to weaken Russia.