Putin’s Geopolitical Logic

COMPELLING READ: In his latest assessment of the Russian president, Robert D Kaplan says Putin is not a monster like Stalin or some of the other Bolsheviks, nor is he a modernizer with a sense of idealism like Czar Alexander II or Mikhail Gorbachev. The West wants leaders everywhere according to its own philosophical and cultural model, leaders it can applaud at fancy conferences. Instead, in Putin, they get Russia.”

By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst STRATFOR

The Western media love to hate Vladimir Putin. His cynicism and unalloyed thuggery make him vilified in a way that the worst tyrants are not. Tyrants who kill millions or at least hundreds of thousands are well known to history and are consequently seen as impersonal forces of nature, like hurricanes or tornadoes. But the dislike of Putin is quite personal. He is not a mass murderer, but he gets under the skin of Western elites in ways that mass murderers do not.

Even Syria’s notorious dictator, Bashar al Assad, is always nattily dressed in a suit and tie. Not so Putin, who sometimes wears a leather jacket and occasionally rides bare-chested on a horse. Putin flaunts the mores and conventions of the global elite. A black belt in judo, he affects the appearance of a manly bully in a world where high culture is increasingly cosmopolitan and feminine.

Therefore, goes the elite thinking, he must be bad for Russia. Alas, it’s not so simple. In some ways he is, but in some ways he isn’t. Putin seems consumed by cynicism. Joseph Conrad, in his classic novel about Russian revolutionaries, Under Western Eyes (1911), has this brilliant interpretation of the Russian mindset:

“In its pride of numbers, in its strange pretensions of sanctity, and in the secret readiness to abase itself in suffering, the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism. It informs the declarations of statesmen, the theories of her revolutionists, and the mystic vaticinations of prophets to the point of making freedom look like a form of debauch.”

Putin is Conrad’s Russia, not in its worst sense but in its normal, eminently historical, default sense. He is not a monster like Stalin or some of the other Bolsheviks, nor is he a modernizer with a sense of idealism like Czar Alexander II or Mikhail Gorbachev. The West wants leaders everywhere according to its own philosophical and cultural model, leaders it can applaud at fancy conferences. Instead, in Putin, they get Russia.

That doesn’t mean Russia is some culturally determined entity incapable of change. But it does mean that, as Conrad intuited, what we know as Russia has some broad cultural characteristics, born of a population’s experience against the backdrop of a specific geography over millennia, that manifest themselves much of the time. Such a culture is surely capable of change, even dramatic change for the better. But that takes an extraordinary leader; Putin is merely a traditional leader relative to his nation’s history and interests, someone who has taken Russia from the point of chaos and made it a credible regional power. Even so, nothing so enrages the Western media as much as Putin’s altogether legitimate loyalty to a specific geographical experience. It is as if Putin isn’t supposed to be angry at the presence of American troops in former Soviet Central Asia or by the West’s periodic attempts to lure Georgia and Ukraine under its umbrella. Putin is more normal than you think.

In fact, it is Putin’s very rational foreign policy that truly insults Western elites. These elites, whether liberal internationalists or neoconservatives, are intent on Progress – in the magisterial uppercase sense of the word. They believe conflict itself can be assuaged for the sake of some global good — a good framed around democracy and human rights. But Putin’s reading of his own nation’s history is that Progress is a chimera and conflict is a permanent condition and, therefore, he has to look out for his nation’s naked geopolitical interests just as Western leaders need to look out for those of theirs. Putin is no warmonger. For when all sides are looking out for their own interests, they comprehend the interests of their adversaries, and therein lies compromise. It’s often when the national interest is equated with a moral absolute that conflict tends to become violent, because in that case your adversary is judged to be immoral, and thus compromise becomes harder to achieve.

To be sure, it is the West that has played the warmonger in Iraq, Libya and Syria — in terms of rhetoric, if not always in terms of action. And while the West’s goals may have certainly been laudatory in some cases, they have also been at times self-righteous and destabilizing.

The West considers Putin’s hostility to regime change in Libya and Syria immoral. But what I think secretly enrages Western elites is that they themselves know that Putin’s hostility is not immoral at all: it is amoral, or morally indifferent. An immoral foreign policy can be easily attacked as such. But an amoral policy — a policy rationally based on geopolitics, on geographically-based self-interest, that is — is a greater threat to Western elites because it is an assertion that the world has actually changed less than they thought following the toppling of the Berlin Wall. It is an assertion that fundamental opposition to what the West wants is not necessarily evil or even necessarily wrong.

What are Putin’s legitimate and rational geopolitical interests? Russia still constitutes a vast continental space unprotected for the most part by mountains and rivers. Thus, Putin covets buffer zones in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, just as the czars and commissars did before him. Putin’s anti-democratic neo-imperialism constitutes the wages of a deep geographical insecurity. That insecurity can, of course, be expressed in various means, some more enlightened than others. But Putin is not preparing to go to war in Eastern Europe or to re-establish the Warsaw Pact. He knows he cannot do that. Rather, he is using the leverage of natural gas exports and the cash that they offer in order to find means of influence in Europe. That is normal. Obviously, if he worked assiduously to build a civil, democratic society at home, that in and of itself could make Russia more attractive to Eastern Europe and the West — and could ultimately give him more geopolitical power, especially if the price of Russian oil and natural gas declines in future years. But as I said, Putin is not an extraordinary leader like Alexander II or Gorbachev. He has no great vision to offer, and while he is clearly a thug, he is not a monster. To wit, his hostility to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was based primarily on geopolitics. He requires a friendly Ukraine in order to influence Europe and keep Russia geographically viable. If a truly democratic Ukrainian leader were also very pro-Russian, Putin might go along with that.

As for the Caucasus, it always threatened and attracted Russians — just read the first pages of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914 (1971). Whereas Russia and the adjacent Ukraine are flat and uninspiring, the Caucasus region is mountainous and lovely. Whereas Russia is cold, parts of the Caucasus are semitropical . The region is also the gateway to the Middle East, with all the danger that entails for Russia, with its own Islamic population born of geography. Historically, Russia has needed the Caucasus to protect it against Turkish and Persian aggression. So Putin orchestrates a limited invasion of Georgia. He moves troops around in the region. He is uncomfortable with the southern Caucasus dominated by the West, as he should be, given Russia’s past.

And further afield in the Middle East, he is uncomfortable with the collapse of the Syrian regime. He fears Sunni Islamism there and the deleterious affect that might have on the Muslim states of Central Asia on Russia’s periphery. There is Russia’s need of Syrian naval facilities in Tartus. Furthermore, how can the West expect any Russian leader to be pleased with any further loss of influence in the Middle East than Russia has already experienced in recent decades?

Yet, despite these eminently reasonable considerations, Putin’s opposition to Western military intervention in Syria is often denounced in the Western media as immoral. What the West does not sufficiently consider is whether such an intervention, if badly managed or not fully thought out, could have made the human rights situation in Syria demonstrably worse. Putin, in other words, by not wanting the immediate collapse of al Assad’s power structure, may not be so immoral after all.

So it is not Putin’s so-called immorality in foreign affairs that threatens Russia, as the West thinks. It is more the fact that he is not a modernizer, and he even abets Russia’s criminal tendencies. Without being a modernizer, he threatens Russia’s geopolitical position on some foreseeable morrow when Russia’s oil and natural gas are not as sought-after as they are now. For geopolitics, while primarily about the external relations between states, is also affected by internal conditions within states themselves. This is where Putin abjectly fails, even as relatively little he has done in foreign affairs has been without virtue in the classic, Machiavellian sense of the word.

This article is re-published by kind permission of STRATFOR. http://www.stratfor.com

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