Inside Vladimir Putin's Skull
In the space of just a few weeks, Vladimir Putin has destroyed his entire reputation in the Western world and all the foreign and domestic policies he has struggled for more than a decade to devise and implement. What can he possibly be thinking?
Before looking at the ideas of two Russian experts on that topic, a little background on the carnage Putin has wrought.
Putin spent the last 15 years trying to convince the West that NATO was an offensive, dangerous anachronism, and he had nearly succeeded. The Obama administration, for example, unilaterally canceled missile defense for Eastern Europe. NATO had left it nearly undefended, and was itself wandering in the reeds on the brink of irrelevance.
The Crimea invasion tossed these 15 years into the garbage. In one fell swoop, Putin now has confirmed that NATO still has a critical mission defending Eastern Europe from Russian aggression, and countries like Sweden and Finland, which had resisted membership, are now considering it. The wisdom of those who had urged bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the NATO fold is now unchallengeable.
Putin spent the last 15 years trying to rehabilitate the Russian economy. He struggled to increase wages and GDP, and remarkable gains had occurred in both categories.
The Crimea invasion has obliterated all of it. Now, not only is Russia being forced to shoulder massive new expenses associated with administering the new region, but sweeping sanctions are being implemented by the NATO allies, including a widespread effort to reject the purchasing of Russian gas and oil, which purchases are the lifeblood of the Russian economy. And it is all happening when Russia was already poised for a decade-long recession.
Putin spent the last 15 years vehemently denouncing the United States for using unilateral military force instead of diplomacy to solve international conflicts, and seeking to build an international leadership role for Russia based on it being a very different sort of country.
The Crimea invasion has Putin shamelessly using unilateral military force instead of diplomacy, spurning international organizations and flouting international law, and receiving even less international support in doing so than the U.S.
Putin spent the last 15 years seeking to marginalize “Russophobes” like John McCain.
The Crimean invasion has made them look like soothsayers, even rehabilitating the badly damaged Sarah Palin, who actually predicted that Putin would enter Ukraine.
One by one, the pillars of Putinism have crumbled and collapsed under the earth tremors of Putin’s limitless lust for territory. Only two pillars remain supporting him: the feckless weakness of Barack Obama and Putin’s savage neo-Soviet readiness to crush dissent.
Leading Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko warns that in reaching out to Obama to speak about negotiation, Putin hisses with a forked tongue:
Putin’s gambit is akin to the infamous Yalta Conference in 1945, where Joseph Stalin made Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt complicit in a division of Europe that enslaved half of the continent for almost a half-century. Today, Putin is seeking to make the West complicit in the dismemberment of Ukraine by negotiating a Kremlin-designed federal constitution that would create a dozen Crimeas – bite-size chunks that Russia could devour more easily later.
But even if Obama is as much of a sucker as Putin desires, it’s clear that he has gone much too far in not just rolling tanks into Crimea, but actually annexing it in a naked act of wanton imperialist aggression. What can Putin be thinking in pursuing this apparently crazed policy of risk and self-destruction, similar to the one he watched destroy the USSR? Can he really believe that it can all be done right the second time around?
Two Russians, Anton Barbashin (in English, at Foreign Affairs) and Dmitry Travin (in Russian, at Open Democracy) have recently tried to peer inside Putin’s skull. Their work is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the future offered by continued Putin dominance in Russia.
Barbashin contends that Putin’s aggression grows naturally out of his adherence to bloodthirsty principles of Russian nationalism. Travin, by contrast, argues that it is the result of a “third stage” of political centralization, and has Putin hewing to hardcore notions of totalitarian dictatorship. It’s hard to tell which vision of the dark interiors of Putin’s head is the more terrifying.
But what really chills the bones is that both descriptions of Putin are clearly correct; the two Russians are simply describing the two different sides of the Putin coin. Russia is governed by a madman, a raving nationalist with totalitarian designs, motivated by a fevered desire for revenge after his cold-war thrashing.
Travin describes a system of state-controlled media, rigged elections, and a rubber-stamp parliament that is nothing less than a “new and improved” USSR, with Russian nationalism replacing Communism as the motivating ideological force. Physical repression is needed only to the extent that financial resources are not adequate to achieve control through corruption, and the regime is actively engaged in all-out “brainwashing” of the population, just as in Soviet times.
Barbashin characterizes Putin as a disciple of the raving nationalist lunatic Alexander Dugin, himself a disciple of the German Nazi movement. Barbashin writes:
Dugin continuously returned to what he saw as the virtues of Nazi practices and voiced appreciation for the SS and Herman Wirth’s occult Ahnenerbe group. In particular, Dugin praised the orthodox conservative-revolutionary projects that the SS and Ahnenerbe developed for postwar Europe, in which they envisioned a new, unified Europe regulated by a feudal system of ethnically separated regions that would serve as vassals to the German suzerain. It is worth noting that, among other projects, the Ahnenerbe was responsible for all the experiments on humans in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.
Look back now on the “reset” policy of Barack Obama, and reflect upon the Putin described by these experts. Then try to explain the difference between Obama’s treatment of Putin and Neville Chamberlain’s treatment of Hitler. In any meaningful way, it’s virtually impossible. In both cases, craven weakness and rose-colored optimism resulted in transmitting a clear message to a bloodthirsty barbarian that he could have his way in Europe.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.