Understanding Putin's motivations

Understanding Putin's motivations
Pro-Kremlin activists at a rally in Moscow's Red Square under a flag emblazoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin's face last month to celebrate the incorporation of Crimea.

Whatever happened to Putin the pragmatist?

In years past, Russian President Vladimir Putin was known as a practitioner of realpolitik, playing great-power politics. The West did not always like the moves he made, but it more or less understood them.

Of late, however, Mr Putin's actions have left many scratching their heads. His annexation of Crimea has dismayed Western leaders, but what really alarms them is the Russian President's brusque dismissal of their objections and the fear he is eyeing additional targets in Ukraine, Moldova and Estonia. Considering the weakened and vulnerable state of the Russian economy, his actions in Crimea seem anything but pragmatic.

Many in the West have drawn a blank when trying to understand what lies behind his behaviour. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly said Mr Putin is "in a different reality".

Many observers in the United States are perplexed. In the March 13 issue of Politico Magazine, American and European observers even tried to put "Putin on the couch". They variously attributed his behaviour to a susceptibility to conspiracy theories, a cold calculating personality, pessimism, paranoia, deep anger at the West, insecurity, hypersensitivity, as well as a tough upbringing on the streets of Leningrad.

It is misguided, though, to think we will understand the Russian President's actions by focusing on him as an individual. To be sure, he has his personality quirks, but I am convinced these are not the main drivers of his actions. Instead, much of what he thinks and says is a straightforward reflection of an underlying national narrative that has been part of Russian culture for centuries.

Catherine the Great, who annexed Crimea to the Russian empire in 1783, reportedly believed that the only way she could defend her country was to expand its borders. This rationale continues to play a role in Russian reasoning today, at the grassroots level as well as at the top.

Russians typically view their past in terms of repeated invasions by foreign enemies. In such accounts, the enemies inflict great suffering and humiliation but are eventually defeated by the valiant efforts of a Russian people bound together by a distinctive spiritual heritage. The whole world saw how this narrative played out in the heroic Soviet defence against Hitler.

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