Understanding Putin's motivations

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.But for the Russians, this is just one iteration of an endlessly repeating narrative. For them, the same story has been played out with different characters for centuries, starting with the Mongols (13th century), the "Germans" (Teutonic knights) from the same period, followed by the Poles (16th century), the Swedes (18th century), the French (19th century), and the Germans again (20th century).

This national memory encourages Russians to see threats everywhere, including in the form of "dangerous ideas", and these threats inform Mr Putin's perceptions and actions.

In recent years, Russian thinkers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Dugin have outlined the dangers of "Atlanticist" forces that threaten modern Russia, and Mr Putin sees them as capable of sapping the strength of a new Eurasian empire with Russia at its core. In his view, this Eurasian domain will stretch beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union and will be guided by a superior spiritual force that contrasts with the soulless materialism and false values of the West.

But again, it is not Mr Putin or his philosopher heroes who are alone at work here. The national narrative that guides their thinking has shaped Russian culture for centuries.

In his 1872 novel Demons, for example, Fyodor Dostoevsky presented characters who came close to spiritual annihilation because they had become infected with Western ideas. The spiritual demons at work in Dostoevsky's imagination came in the form of various "isms", including materialism, nihilism and atheism, and they foreshadow the fears of Solzhenitsyn, Dugin and Mr Putin today.

To be sure, repression of activists and the media are key ingredients in Mr Putin's programme (as they were for the Russian czars), but his strong and rising poll numbers and his ability to rally citizens stem from his appeal to the narrative template at the core of Russian culture. Of course, all these do not exonerate Mr Putin and other Russians from charges of flouting international law in Crimea, let alone undertaking the more dangerous aggression they may be contemplating in eastern Ukraine and beyond. It does, however, provide a basis for responding to Russia's provocative moves in more effective ways.In the short run, the best response is still strong punitive measures in the form of sanctions that make clear the serious consequences that can follow acts such as annexing territories. These are likely to hurt Europe and the US as well as Russia, but with sufficient strength, they are also likely to force Mr Putin the pragmatist to reappear.

In imposing such sanctions, however, it is important that Western powers do not needlessly stoke Russian fears of threat and humiliation. Germany's response to its humiliation after World War I provides a hard lesson in this regard, and the point is, if anything, even more salient in Russia's case, where thinking is heavily shaped by a national narrative about dangerous enemies.

In the longer run, a Western response to Mr Putin's actions that is firm but tempered with respect may be the best hope for encouraging the internal political debate that could guide Russia back into a valued position in the international community.

The current wave of patriotic support for Mr Putin's swagger will subside as the cost of breaking world law and norms becomes clearer.

Urban middle-class demonstrators will eventually regain their voice, and the bulk of Russians who simply want to improve their daily lives will question the price of Mr Putin's gambit.

Although the Russian President has shown that a national narrative about external enemies can be used to mobilise his population, this narrative is just one force that guides the country.

In the post-Soviet era, its people have shown that they can follow other visions as well, and a strong but patient approach from the international community can help them return to the productive life at home and esteem from abroad that they have often shown they desire.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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