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Works and Days

Putin Is Everything and More — But Not Stupid

March 9th, 2014 - 10:01 pm

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 gangbanger 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 media-hyped outrages usually subside in a few days, as Westerners move on to the next psychodramatic crisis.

It does not matter that those are gross distortions, unfair, or Neanderthal, it only matters that Putin seems to think them, and that he 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, or even if his new acquisitions cost more than they are worth, such calculations pale in comparison with his perceptions of an upside. Putin assumes the world, for all its pretensions, is amoral. He assumes it  looks up to states that show power and confidence rather than fairness and justice.

It matters little that his repulsive cynicism may well be wrong, only that such realpolitik guides his calculations. He thinks crudely slicing away portions of the former Soviet Union and adding them to the Russian Federation 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, to Putin — and no doubt to the Russian people who seems to admire his audacity — they are certainly wise short-term gambles. In Putin’s calculus, a vast and miserable but swaggering Russia is a far superior place to a small, humble, humane, prosperous Switzerland or Denmark.

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