Why Did Putin Turn?

  • 2014-12-06
  • By Harold James

PRINCETON – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy toward his country’s “near abroad” and the West has been badly misunderstood. Instead of focusing on broader geopolitical patterns – in particular, the effect of the 2007-2008 financial crisis on global politics – commentators have been turning Kremlin policy into a psychodrama that can be understood only through a deep exploration of the Russian soul. The result has been rampant misconceptions about what drove Putin’s shift from what seemed to be a modernizing, conciliatory, and even pro-Western stance to aggressive revisionism.

Two such flawed explanations for Russia’s current foreign policy have been offered. The first, proposed by Germany’s self-described Putin-Versteher (“Putin sympathizers”), is that Russian policy is a logical response to the West’s strategy of encirclement. The eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, they contend, was an unnecessary provocation. In fact, none other than George Kennan, the originator of America’s Cold War containment strategy, opposed NATO enlargement in the 1990s on precisely these grounds.

There are obvious limits to this theory. For starters, it is based on the claim that, at the time of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the West promised that there would be no NATO expansion. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, on the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s demise, accused the West of not keeping the promises it made in 1989, instead taking “advantage of Russia’s weakening” in the 1990s to claim “monopoly leadership and domination of the world,” including through NATO enlargement.

But, in reality, the West never promised not to expand NATO. In fact, in the spring of 1990, the United States presented a powerful case that a reunifying Germany could not be part of two different security systems.

A more fundamental point is that Russia in the 1990s evinced little concern about the expansion of European economic and security structures into the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, or even into newly independent former Soviet republics. If it had, it probably would not have taken the Kremlin nearly two decades to strike back.

The second popular explanation of Putin’s shift is that he is irrational, and that Russia’s foreign policy is merely an extension of the fantasies of a man who stages stunts like leading Siberian white cranes along their migration route in a motorized hang glider. But that raises an obvious question: How did a person who once looked like Russia’s most modern and dependable ruler since Czar Alexander II – a man whom US President George W. Bush called “very straightforward and trustworthy” in 2001 – suddenly become crazier than Rasputin?

A better explanation can be found by tracing the chronology of Russia’s foreign-policy shift, which began with the 2008 Georgia crisis. When Georgia, which had been flirting with NATO membership, mounted a military response to attacks by secessionists in South Ossetia, an ethnic enclave whose government had been backed by the Kremlin for more than a decade, Russia launched a full-scale invasion to protect the region. Russia also bolstered its presence in Abkhazia, another breakaway province. The crisis, which was preceded by the large-scale issuance of Russian passports to Georgians, foreshadowed the deployment of Russian forces in Crimea under the pretense of protecting Russian citizens.

Rhetorically, the shift was apparent even earlier. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin presented a new face, emphasizing the potential of the major emerging economies – Brazil, India, China, and Russia – to provide an alternative to what he viewed as an arbitrary unipolar world order. Many observers were shocked by his statements, and took the speech as evidence of his insecurity or irrationality.

The next year, the financial crisis struck, convincing Putin that his assessment had been prophetic. The crisis, in his view, was proof that the days of American global dominance were over.

In fact, before the crisis, Russia had acquiesced to the logic of global capitalism, recognizing the need to cooperate with multinational corporations to modernize and diversify an economy based on raw materials and energy production. After the crisis, however, there was no longer as much to be gained from global markets – at least not in terms of power. Instead, Russia’s best option was to cooperate with other countries that had adopted a similar model of state-centered capitalism, especially China.

Putin’s interpretation of the crisis was underpinned by political developments in America and Europe. The US elected a president who appeared intent on scaling back America’s global commitments. When the Arab Spring revolutions erupted, the US response was weak and muddled, oscillating between pro-democracy rhetoric and support for anti-Islamist autocrats. This enabled Putin to project himself, particularly in Syria, as a credible proponent of geopolitical pragmatism.

Europe’s debt crisis – and its leaders’ apparent inability to take coordinated action – gave the Kremlin additional ammunition. Given that Europe’s overall debts and deficits are much lower than those of the US or Japan, the logic went, it should have been able to avoid polarization and paralysis.

More broadly, Putin’s belief that the economic crisis was causing the West to disintegrate aligns with traditional Soviet geopolitical thinking. As Stephen Kotkin shows in his new biography of Stalin, Soviet policy was strictly rational. The Great Depression convinced Stalin that the different factions of capitalism would go to war; in 1938-1939, Nazi aggression seemed to vindicate his analysis. But Stalin’s predictions fell apart after Hitler’s defeat, when conflicting interests did not lead to a clash between the US and the United Kingdom.

While Western politicians and economic policymakers were trying to avert Great Depression II, Putin was already working on the assumption that it had arrived. For the West, managing the resulting geopolitical imbroglio will be even more challenging than repairing its damaged economies.

Harold James is Professor of History at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. ©Project Syndicate, 2014