What the West Gets Wrong About Russia

When George Kennan wrote his famous “Long Telegram,” his 1946 letter to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes that laid the foundation for America’s containment policy against the Soviet Union, he mentioned Joseph Stalin just three times — despite the fact that, by then, the Russian leader ran his country like an emperor.

Seven decades on, Stalin’s current heir, Vladimir V. Putin, finds his name emblazoned on nearly every page of the myriad memos and papers struggling to understand the mind-set driving Russia’s strategic behavior. To understand Mr. Putin, the thinking goes, is to understand Russia. But is that quite right?

In the heady days of the Cold War, Americans tended to view Soviet decision making as a black box: You know what goes in, you know what comes out, but you are clueless about what is happening inside. Soviet policy was thus believed to be both enigmatic and strategic. There was little room for personality or personal philosophy; understanding the system was the only way.

Vladimir Putin at a sporting event in Kazan, Russia, in July. Credit Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/Kremlin
Vladimir Putin at a sporting event in Kazan, Russia, in July. Credit Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/Kremlin

According to Gleb Pavlovsky, Mr. Putin’s former spin doctor extraordinaire, these days the Kremlin is still enigmatic, but no longer strategic. For Mr. Pavlovsky, Kremlin policy is fashioned rather like the music of a jazz group; its continuing improvisation is an attempt to survive the latest crisis.

Mr. Pavlovsky may not be a household name in the West, but he’s worth listening to. An erstwhile Soviet dissident trained as a historian who transformed himself into one of the interior designers of Mr. Putin’s regime, he performed in the Kremlin’s “jazz band” for over a decade. This year he published “The System of the Russian Federation,” which relies heavily on Mr. Kennan’s ideas to offer a timely critique of the West’s assumptions about Mr. Putin’s Russia (for now, it’s available only in Russian).

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr. Pavlovsky insists, after Mr. Putin took personal responsibility for the annexation of Crimea and won the support of more than 80 percent of the population, he lost interest in day-to-day decision making. He wants to be informed about everything, but is reluctant to play national housekeeper.

Ministers, Mr. Pavlovsky writes, spend endless hours waiting by Mr. Putin’s office to take orders, but in the end he doesn’t order, he only listens. What runs the Kremlin today is not Mr. Putin’s will but his ambiguity. Wars among different power factions, as a result, have escalated.

In Mr. Pavlovsky’s reading, Russia today is neither an ideological warrior seeking to remake the world order nor a hard-nosed realist desperately defending its sphere of influence. Far from grand strategy, what animates Mr. Putin’s Kremlin is the assertion of its right to break international rules. In fact, breaking the rules without being punished is the Kremlin’s peculiar definition of being a great power.

Russia, to Mr. Pavlovsky, is driven not by a search for external power but by internal weakness — a lack of vision for its impending post-Putin existence. Mr. Putin has successfully made any political alternative unthinkable, and his entire country is now trapped by his success. In other words, Mr. Putin’s enormous popular support is a weakness, not a strength — and Russia’s leaders know it.

The Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, concisely summed things up when he explained to international analysts at a private forum in Valdai last year, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” The Russian political system implicitly functions on the assumption that its president is immortal.

But while Mr. Putin may be a czar, Russia is no monarchy. His daughters will not succeed him in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin is a popularly elected president whose political system has destroyed the legitimacy of elections as an instrument for the peaceful change of power. His United Russia party is a valuable instrument for winning rigged elections, but unlike the Chinese Communist Party, it lacks the autonomy and ideological coherence needed for securing power succession.

Deprived of a vision for the future, Russian elites are tempted by conspiracy theories and apocalyptic pronouncements. As Aleksandr A. Prokhanov, a writer and leading voice of Russian imperial nationalists, lamented, the elites know that if they attempt a Perestroika II, they will fail. Better, he said, to provoke another world war than try to dismantle Mr. Putin’s designs.

Reading Mr. Pavlovsky’s book, one realizes that what is totally absent in the Western analyses of today’s Russia is this “end of the world” mentality among Mr. Putin’s political and intellectual elites. In Mr. Pavlovsky’s view, the experience of the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than geopolitical interests or values, is the key for understanding Russia’s strategic behavior and the inner logic of Mr. Putin’s regime.

The Kremlin is populated not by mere survivors of the post-Soviet transition but by survivalists, people who think in terms of worst-case scenarios, who believe that the next disaster is just around the corner, who thrive on crises, who are addicted to extraordinary situations and no-rules politics.

That complex and unpredictable context, rather than the vagaries of Mr. Putin’s mind alone, is the key to understanding contemporary Russian politics.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer.

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