June 23, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin said something in 2005 that is now commonly footnoted to explain his latest aggressions:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
Putin was not necessarily lamenting the collapse of Soviet Communism. Even the former KGB officer realized that the system was largely self-immolating. Rather, Putin was mourning the collapse of the vast Russian empire.
Specifically he missed the wealth, influence and power that accrued from the incorporation of the so-called former Soviet republics. In his mind, the implosion of all that had led to a “geopolitical” catastrophe.
More important, however, were Putin’s often-ignored following sentences, especially his regret that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” Nearly a decade ago, this speech tipped off the West of Putin’s upcoming agenda to make sure “co-citizens” and “co-patriots” would not have to remain “outside Russian territory.”
Two impulses—a desire for past geopolitical power and status, and a wish to refashion borders to include “tens of millions” of Russian-speakers in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and the Baltic states—drive Putin.
He apparently believes that 21st century Russia could become an updated 19th century czarist empire characterized by oligarchy, orthodoxy and the glories of Russian language and culture. The Russian union could become as powerful on the world stage as was the Soviet Union, but without its internal weaknesses and unsustainability. In that vein, Putin has so far been successful in adding territory to Russia without prompting a war, in much the same eerie manner that Adolf Hitler had cobbled together a new Third Reich by the late 1930s without war—at least before overstepping in 1939.
Why has Putin gotten away with such blatant aggression? First, the West feels exhausted by the 2008 financial meltdown, the crisis in the European Union, the wars and their dismal follow-ups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and the rise of the premodern Islamic State (ISIS). In reaction to all these past interventions and present challenges and with Western finances still shaky, many Westerners would rather not become involved anywhere.
The fighting in Ukraine is our generation’s Czechoslovakia (“a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain said in 1938). And no one knows whether the Baltic states may become our Poland—tottering allies whom we do not wish to defend but in theory must, if only halfheartedly through a “Sitzkrieg,” thanks to past treaty obligations.
Second, Putin sits atop Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He understands that his apparent instability and unpredictability prove valuable cards in nuclear poker—as we have seen from occasional lunatic pronouncements from both North Korea and Iran.
Each time Russian jets buzz the coastlines of Scandinavia or Britain or an obscure general smarts off about Western military weakness and Russian nuclear strength, Westerners are not quite sure what Putin might do if challenged or checked—and therefore hope he will just take only one or two more countries, and then satiated go away and leave them alone.
Third, Europe for now still needs Russian gas and oil, or at least finds such energy more easily accessible than imports from elsewhere. Europe enjoys a huge and profitable export market in Russia. Less important, Germany, the font of European power, either appears to show penance for its past aggression that led to 20 million Russian dead or is now so weak militarily that it has no ability to deter Putin if it wanted to. In the case of Orthodox states like Serbia, Greece, and Cyprus, Putin’s Russia is far more popular than is the United States.
Fourth, some Westerners shrug that many of the recently annexed territories were Russian at various times, well before Josef Stalin’s aggressions. They point out that Putin has understandable emotional claims to these lands that are linked with past bloody Russian sacrifice. Think of the failed Russian defenses of Sevastopol in 1854 and 1855 during the Crimean War or General Erich von Manstein’s bloody capture of the city in July 1942, when Russia suffered over 100,000 casualties.
We in the West think of an autonomous, post-Soviet Ukraine; Putin instead recalls the 1941 first battle of Kiev, when Russians suffered over seven hundred thousand casualties in failed efforts to save a Ukraine cut off by the sweeping pincers of the Wehrmacht. Almost all the foci of Putin’s recent annexations have long histories of strife, in which Russia battled to defend these lands against foreign attackers or itself sought to conquer them.
For Putin, these borderlands are his irredentist updated versions of the Rhineland, Saarland, Austria, Sudetenland and Danzig where millions of German speakers were supposedly orphaned outside the Third Reich. For many Westerners, to the degree that they care about Putin’s aggrandizement, they have conceded that Russia has a longer history and interest in all these regions than they do.
Fifth, others in the West do not just locate Putin’s aggression in historical contexts but rather are sympathetic to his grand talk about contemporary Christianity, traditional Russian values, a decadent West rife with abortion, homosexuality, multiculturalism and opposition to radical Islam. He has become a sort of paleocon: His reactionary views may be eccentric but are admired for a political incorrectness unapologetically felt and expressed.
Finally, Putin thinks President Obama not only is weak—after the backing down on missile defense in Eastern Europe, the pink lines in Syria, the serial deadlines with Iran and the deer-in-the-headlights confusion about the Islamic State—but also pompous in his impotence.
For Putin, Obama combines speaking loudly while carrying a small stick. Obama has psycho-analyzed Putin as the proverbial adolescent cut-up in the back of the room or the wannabe strutting about with his “macho shtick.” In reaction, Putin seems to go out of his way to try to make Obama look weak and deliberately embarrass him in the Middle East.
Can Putin be deterred, if, as is expected, he begins to bully the Baltic states with his now-accustomed modus operandi—persecuted Russian minorities, unfair and gratuitous smears and slanders about a past noble Russian contribution to those countries, and the need for plebiscites, federalism and semi-autonomy?
For Putin, the fact that the Baltic states are NATO members is an enticement, not a deterrent. He wagers that it is more likely that NATO would fold than fight should he cross into Estonia. And with such a backing down would come the dissolution of the alliance itself.
Some Eastern European states are already concluding that a proximate and aggressive Putin is a better bet than a distant and retiring America. The United States and its NATO allies should beef up collective air and ground defenses in the Baltic states. They should keep sanctions against Russia and reopen missile defense talks with Poland and the Czech Republic, despite the apparent realpolitik tilt of much of Eastern Europe toward Russia.
Instead of outsourcing traditional U.S. leadership responsibilities to Germany, the United States should craft precise NATO contingencies—deciding which NATO ally will do what—the moment Putin masses forces on his borders.
Most of all, the president should stop psychoanalyzing Putin. We forget the historical role of personal pique in geopolitics. Chamberlain was so fond of explaining Hitler to others—and Hitler to Hitler himself—that the Führer finally went out of his way to find a method of provoking Chamberlain and the Western democracies with him.
Of the solicitous, verbose, but apparently appeasing Chamberlain who gave Germany what it wanted at Munich, Hitler scoffed, “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers.”
If an American president were seen by Putin as reticent, unpredictable and quite dangerous rather than garrulous, predictable and acquiescent, the Russian leader might pause, worry—and back off.
This article originally appeared in the Hoover Digest.