We keep hearing that Vladimir Putin is stupid. Does he not get that this is now the 21st century? No, he doesn’t.
The fool seems mired either in the 19th of the czars or the 20th of Bolsheviks. He certainly does.
Didn’t Putin have to act to shore up falling domestic opinion? Maybe.
Does he not understand that he is alienating Europe? Who knows?
Does he know that absorbing the Crimea is a quagmire? Hardly at all.
Or that he has missed out on common areas of concern between Russia and the U.S.? Probably not.
Does he grasp that sanctions will hurt his vulnerable petrol kleptocracy? Or that what is left of the Ukraine will only become more pro-Western? Perhaps he will at some far-off day.
Rightly call the Putins of the world thugs, short-sided, nihilistic, and savage. But all that and more do not necessarily translate into stupidity, at least as they see their Hobbesian world.
Can’t he see that we are well-intentioned?
How odd that we alone can fathom how this thug has squandered what little good accrued from his tropical winter Olympics. We alone know that his own planned summit might be spoiled, and needlessly so given his gratuitous invasion of Ukrainian territory. In short, by all our Western liberal calculations, if we were Putin, we certainly would not do something not just renegade, but also so abjectly stupid as to enter the Ukraine.
Left unsaid, of course, is that we know that our own erstwhile “reset” intentions were designed to help Putin, so it is doubly maddening that he bites the outreached Western hand. A disappointed Barack Obama has dismissed Putin’s various photo-ups and melodramatic fits as “macho shtick” and analogous to the bored kid slouching in the back of the room—as if the frustrated teacher could not draw out the gang-banger who once showed so much hidden promise.
The problem with all this condescending advice about and to Putin is not just the conceit that he obviously must see the world—not to mention traditional Russian interests—as we quite understandably do, but that he must also see the U.S. and Europe as we see ourselves. I wish that he would, but I know of no evidence that he does or ever will.
No doubt Putin has shared interests in putting down radical Islamic terror. No doubt that a friendly EU means that his gas and oil exports have reliable markets. No doubt that friendship with the U.S. means one less danger from a nuclear-armed power.
But does Putin agree with such reasoned logic? Probably not.
How Putin sees us
He believes that the U.S. and Europe are wealthy and powerful, but also vulnerable societies who spend what they don’t have and either won’t invest in defense commensurately with their economic wealth or won’t necessarily use the power that they have invested in. Putin suspects that our latest media-hyped outrages usually subside in days as Westerners move on to the next psychodramatic crisis. It does not matter that those are gross distortions, unfair, or Neanderthal, only that Putin seems to think that is so, and is not disabused of such conclusions by any evidence that we can adduce to the contrary—despite our rich menu of sermons, sanctions, boycotts, freezes, ostracisms, and shaming.
If there is a downside in alienating world opinion by Putin’s aggression, or even if his new acquisitions cost more than they are worth, such calculations pale in comparison with his perceptions of an upside. The world, Putin assumes, for all its pretensions is amoral, and looks to states that show power and confidence rather than fairness and justice.
It matters little that his repulsive cynicism may well, in fact, be wrong, only that such realpolitik guides his calculations. Crudely slicing away portions of the former Soviet Union and adding them to Russian Federation, he thinks, projects strength, and concretely adds to the size of his own mostly failed state.
If these gambles may prove to be unwise long-term investments, they are certainly to Putin—and no doubt to the Russian people who seems to admire his audacity—wise short-term gambles. In Putin’s calculus a vast and miserable but swaggering Russia is a far superior place to something akin to a small, humble, humane and prosperous Switzerland or Denmark.
The same old, same old
There is a tired sense of déjà vu both to Putin and us, his critics. Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were good men who were exasperated by Hitler. Through their unwitting agency, by 1939 the Fuhrer had gained everything he wanted, with a huge new Third Reich of German-speakers only dreamed of by past ambitious German statesmen. Surely Hitler going further into Poland on September 1939 was dumb. Dumber still was Hitler invading his de facto partner Russia on June 22, 1941, when the former had either occupied all of the present-day European Union, or arranged it on terms favorable to National Socialism, and the latter was still sending him strategic materials on credit and with free transportation.
Dumbest of all was declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941, when there was no evidence that even after Pearl Harbor America would necessarily involve itself in a second-front in Europe—any more than when Britain was left alone and bombed mercilessly between 1939-40.
But did Hitler at the time see his abject folly as being dumb? Did a shocked world rally to stop him? Did neutrals like Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, or Turkey show their repugnance for Hitler’s dumb and counter-productive strong-arm tactics by joining up with isolated democratic Britain? Not at all.
Neither Britain nor France had shown any willingness to use force to stop Hitler in the Rhineland, during the Anschluss, or in Czechoslovakia—even though in terms of manpower and munitions the allies still had material advantages over Germany. Instead, quite cynically Hitler assumed that either France and Britain would not go to war over Poland, or, if they did, they would fight only half-heartedly in 1939.
To Hitler, Russia seemed weak after Stalin’s purges of his office corps and his dismal performances against Poland and Finland. Blitzkrieg had not yet failed, after sweeping through Poland, Denmark, France and the Low Countries. France had fallen in eight weeks, and if the German relative experience on the same two fronts in World War I were any guide, Russia, the probable weaker foe, would now fall in four weeks.
Given Hitler’s aims, values, and methodologies, very dumb decisions at the time seemed to him not so dumb. Going to the war with the United States was imbecilic, but Hitler assumed that his U-boats could now attack convoys at their source on the Eastern U.S. coast, that America, not he, now had the real two-front war, and that our rush to arms would be unimpressive and reflect our mentality of 1939 rather than that of 1917.
All these were dumb conclusions, but again for Hitler not so dumb at the time. His aims were not just creating a prosperous German-speaking empire with health care for all, new green laws, and autobahns crisscrossing his fresh annexations, but also brutally rekindling a sense of the Volk, and through barbarous slaughter enshrining his ideas of racial superiority from the Atlantic to the Urals. That was a dumb idea, among other things, but also one that Hitler though achievable and in his long-term interest.
The point is that dictators do dumb things all the time that make no long-term sense, whether oil- and gas-rich Iran pursuing a costly and dangerous nuclear bomb program, or Argentina starting a war with Great Britain over the windswept Falklands. But history’s ultimate verdict does not mean that such gambles did not seem a good idea at the time, given the perceived lack of deterrence and the apparent short-term advantages to be had.
Putin’s dream of a huge new Russian federation that nations might fear and defer to is absurd. In truth, it would lead only to a cash-strapped Russia spreading its misery to those border states currently lucky enough to have distanced themselves from the same old, same old corruption, thuggery, and inefficiency.
Putin knows that he would be crushed in a conventional fight with the U.S. even without NATO. He knows that his strategic arsenal is not as sophisticated as America’s. But he also knows that the U.S. has a propensity to rationalize aggression rather than to sacrifice to stop it—especially after the turmoil over Iraq and Afghanistan.
We think Putin is stupid for annexing the Crimea; he thinks we—with the most vast military power in history and the world’s largest economy—are stupid to issue meaningless redlines to Syria, serial empty deadlines to Iran—and step-over lines to himself. We think he is ridiculous with his bare-chested photo-ops; he thinks Obama’s biking pictures and golf get-up are as effeminate as he is macho. The point is not mere relativism (By any abstract measure, Putin appears far more ridiculous than does Obama), but that his posturing to the unsophisticated bystander is more stereotypical of aggression, and Obama’s of deference.
Putin thinks that if the EU and the U.S. were in agreement to punish aggression, if Iraq were stable and garrisoned, if Afghanistan were the same, if Libya were calm, if the Benghazi murderers were in chains, if Egypt were working, if Iran were giving up its nuclear weapons, and if Syria were free of Assad, then it might be a questionable risk to steal the Crimea. But given they are not, what we think is dumb for him is not so much.
Instead smart for Putin is adding territory for Russia and whipping up public opinion. Smart is warning the Baltic States or western Ukraine or Georgia to behave—or they might be next, given his own unpredictability and feigned nihilism. Smart is reminding China, Iran, North Korea or Venezuela that if they wanted to do something similar in their own backyards, there might follow a force-multiplying effect that would benefit all those suffering America’s conceit. Smart for Putin is reminding the Russian people that the world damns, but privately admires, their strongman who with very little resources has achieved global influence and clout at stronger powers’ expense.
That we think a dictator is acting stupidly, or that history will agree some day that a dictator was acting stupidly neither means that he believes that he is, or that he cares or that in the here and now such perceptions matters much. The Poles of Warsaw or the Jews of Kraków did not care much in 1939 that Hitler’s invasion was really stupid for Germany’s long-term interest and would soon eventually be proven so.
Stupid is thinking otherwise.