The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin

September 21, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: Vladimir PutinRussiaPoliticsHistoryCrimea

The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin

It is common to ascribe America’s growing difficulties with Russia to President Vladimir Putin personally, but the sources of Russian discontent predate Putin’s presidency.

One issue on which President Putin may well have exercised outsized influence, it seems to me, was in reacting to the events in Ukraine, right on the heels of the Sochi Olympics, which Putin had planned as a spectacle confirming Russia’s return to the world stage. Another may have been Georgia, especially the decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Putin may have seen as “pay-back” for the dismemberment of Serbia. Of course, all of these (and Crimea) are in the so-called – and so-imagined – Near Abroad, where Moscow claims special rights. While the West disputes this claim, it is not so different from France’s assertion of special responsibility for countries that were previously part of her colonial empire.

Putin's rise to preeminent power in the Kremlin was a reversion to the norm for Russia, not a step backward on the inevitable trajectory that we in the West had imagined for her. What we need to do now is pull our collective selves together in the Euro-Atlantic community, think afresh about the challenge Russia's alienation from us poses, and set about mending the damage, starting most urgently with Ukraine.  

The election of Volodymyr Zelensky may provide an opening. Almost by definition, given the situation in Washington (and London), European leaders will have to take the lead on this.  French president Emmanuel Macron has already staked out a role. We should let them do their best. We must reckon with the fact that Crimea will not return to Ukrainian jurisdiction, and that Ukraine's joining NATO would cross a Russian red line.  Amb. Steve Pifer's formula, “not now but not never,” may provide a face-saving way out for all sides. Ukrainians and Russians themselves, with moral support from the rest of us, will have to figure out exactly what they can agree on concerning the Donbass. Is some form of federalization such an improper concept for a country so enormously diverse as Ukraine? It works for Canada, with its historically deep division, and for the United States and the Russian Federation. It ought at least to be considered.

As for Crimea, we should remember that the process of reaching the “Big Agreement” regarding Crimea was very lengthy and difficult, and it would have expired this year had it not been renounced by Poroshenko. Ukraine leased naval facilities to Russia in return for concessions involving gas; those conditions no longer exist. Ukraine may have the upper hand in terms of international legalities and diplomatic support, but Russia holds the power cards, and physical possession is at least nine-tenths of international law. Moscow will simply refuse to discuss the question of Crimea’s return to Ukrainian jurisdiction, but Russia needs cooperation on such issues as transportation and securing the water supply, while Ukraine needs cooperation on navigation and other matters; thus there is something to talk about. First of all, and most urgently, the armed conflict in the Donbass needs to be ended. Without a plausible diplomatic way forward, it will be hard, if not impossible, to stop the fighting. Even with such a diplomatic process in view, it may still be unattainable. Ukraine and Russia may be estranged for a generation or more. 

In my view, Putin is no demon and that we may have misunderstood him. That does not make him an angel.  But imputing evil to Russia – or to any country – on the basis of its leader’s imagined personality is a dangerous game.  Russia inherited a formidable military and diplomatic elite, has a well-developed sense of her history and role in the world, and, aside from the street theater that so captivates Western audiences, has real politics and public opinion that must be taken seriously by any leader. Imagining, as some do, that Putin is “the problem,” and that when he leaves the scene all will be well, is a naïve delusion. As the leading Russia scholar and diplomat Tom Graham once put it, “we don’t have a Putin problem, we have a Russia problem.” And it is a problem in part of our own making -- but blaming Putin is so much easier than reckoning with our own shortcomings.

John Evans was U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg from 1994 to 1997.

Image: Reuters