If you spend some time listening to reputable news shows all across the West you will start to notice several recurring ‘interpretations’ that explain all things Russian and Vladimir Putin. Rather than being enlightening about this complex country and perhaps even more complex leader, a series of increasingly incredulous ‘pop-psychology-analyses’ emerge instead. What follows are just five of the most commonly touted, with subsequent breakdowns for those who wish to read more accurate alternative considerations:
Putin fantasizes about returning to the ‘glorious Soviet’ past. Ukraine is just the first step.
Putin has made many comments and started many symbolic initiatives over the last decade that in some ways have reclaimed the accomplishments and history of the Soviet Union. What most in the West miss about this is the internal perception in Russia that the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not just a historical and political transition to a new stage or new evolution for the state as a whole. Since the dissolution took place within the context of the Cold War and the ideological ‘war’ that was capitalism versus communism, with communism losing, most of the world felt the dissolution was also an ERASING of history. As in, nothing that took place from 1918 to 1991 was worth remembering, commemorating, or observing. Many of the leaders in the initial Yeltsin years at least partially supported this, if not directly then by simple omission. In short, the ways in which Putin has ‘reclaimed’ the partially erased Soviet history is his denial of the Western demand that losing the Cold War means nearly 75 years of history no longer counts for Russia, unless it is to emphasize negative events and incidents done by the Soviet Union. That concept is rejected by Putin, which he considers a sort of emotional Treaty of Versailles put upon Russia unfairly by the West. But there is nothing about Ukraine that connects to this reclamation of history. The concept is actually rather absurd: if the Russian Federation truly wanted to ‘reinstitute’ the Soviet Union in full there are few competent strategic plans that get there by first taking over Eastern Ukraine and causing that country to disintegrate into chaos.
Putin is obsessed with getting attention from the United States. This is just his way of acting out.
I like to call this the ‘infantilist theory’ of Russian politics here in the United States. It is littered with the breathless condemnations of so-called experts who have spent little time actually in Russia, have questionable language skills when it comes to Russian, and most certainly have never spent significant time with Putin or anyone within his close circle. Despite these rather daunting limitations, these experts do not hesitate to appear on numerous radio and television talk shows and write countless newspaper and magazine op-ed pieces, giving a detailed and intimate psychological profile of the Russian leader that basically amounts to characterizing the Russian president as a petulant child who is hopelessly needy and demands that the United States recognize him as an ‘unequal equal partner.’ What most in this camp fail to see is that the position of Russia in Ukraine has been largely based on a strategic plan that IGNORES the relevance or power of the United States. If the so-called ‘Ukraine initiative’ was about Russia getting attention from the United States, then Russia seems to be doing an outstanding job of misdirection, feigning total ambivalence on statements, sanctions, and initiatives coming out of Washington DC.
Putin demands the rest of the world accords Russia ‘Superpower’ status. Ukraine is his reminder to the rest of the world.
This leans a bit on the logic of the first rumor, in that, how exactly does any initiative in Ukraine signal superpower-status to anyone anywhere? By now even the most hardened Russian critics in the West have admitted that Ukraine basically squandered two decades of political, economic, and geostrategic promise with complete mismanagement and dysfunctional governance. To admit that on the one hand and then try to connect Russian initiatives within Ukraine as a so-called grand plan springboard to being taken more seriously by the global community is inane and lacking in strategic common sense. This is even more ridiculous when one simply looks to other areas of Russian hard power that have monumentally increased under Putin since 2000, whether that be in military restructuring, federal budgetary strengthening, or natural resource development. If Putin was going to lean on something to make the world understand Russia should remain or once again be considered a superpower in the 21st century, it is those areas of real domestic strength that would power the argument. Getting involved with Ukraine after the Maidan revolution has absolutely zero chance of accomplishing that goal. Putin clearly acknowledges this, so it is a mystery why the West won’t as well.
Putin is violating international law by interfering with Ukrainian affairs.
One of the most successful movie franchises in history, The Pirates of the Caribbean, is actually a fantastic teaching tool for this accusation. In the very first film, when Elizabeth was taken aboard the Black Pearl to face the dreaded Captain Barbosa, she was dismayed to learn he was not going to follow the so-called holy Pirate’s Code. To which, rather bemusedly, Captain Barbosa explained that the Pirate’s Code was not so much a code as a set of guidelines. And guidelines are to be followed pretty much as one sees fit…or sees not to, as the case may be. This is an absolutely spot-on description of how international law measures up against actual strategic foreign policy and global affairs: states would like to follow international law, may even prefer to follow it, and for the most part do follow it. UNTIL, that is, international law comes in direct opposition to national interest and foreign policy priorities. At which time international law can pretty much be told to go hang. Now, the part of this that always gives the United States consternation (or is it political indigestion?), is when Russia is adamant that the chief model for this semi-respectful, semi-dismissive attitude toward international law is none other than the US. If you want to stop a dinner party dead in its tracks in Washington, casually mention how Putin feels absolutely certain that his actions in Ukraine are a perfect mirror to how the United States has conducted its business in other areas, like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, just to name a few. Only Putin believes his ‘interference’ in Ukraine is FAR more justified and explainable than American ‘interference’ in those aforementioned countries. In short, international law is a grab-bag of mysterious and contradictory interpretations based on power and priority. Russia simply admits it more readily, and more publicly, than the United States.
Putin has put hundreds, if not thousands, of intelligence agents into Eastern Ukraine and they are causing all of the unrest.
This last one is disheartening simply because it is an avoidance of political and military reality on the ground in Ukraine and as a result could be influential in the continuing violence and bloodshed. There is no doubt that Russia has an intelligence presence inside of Ukraine. Russia has always had one. So has the United States. The US also has an intelligence presence inside of Russia, some of it with permission, some of it without. But to take this basic principle of intelligence reality all around the world (for example, China has intelligence agents in Taiwan, Japan has agents in China, India has them in Pakistan, and Pakistan in India, and the United States basically has agents everywhere) and distort it so that it is the chief culprit of events spiraling out of control in Eastern Ukraine is irresponsible. Dissembling of this sort removes most of the focus from the Ukrainian authorities who are struggling to regain control across their territory, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, sometimes peacefully, and sometimes violently. It also eliminates the existence of actual pro-Russian factions within Ukraine that no longer wish to be part of it. The West is dominated by stories of pro-Russian groups engaging in violence in Ukraine and within a day those pro-Russian factions are magically ‘littered with Russian agents and/or provocateurs,’ ie, there is no legitimate anti-Ukrainian authority movement, there is only Russian intelligence forces manipulating events on the ground to the detriment of Ukrainian territorial integrity. This is overstatement at best, political fabrication at worst, as the West has made it clear it does not want to see any disintegration of Ukraine. What’s not being said is how that position is not so much based on the desire for peace and tranquility as it is based on the fact that any dissolution of Ukraine will undoubtedly end up benefiting Russia. And that has been silently acknowledged as the least optimal outcome to the West.
Russia is not perfect. Russia is not blameless. No country is. But when reputable news sources and so-called experts with decades of experience examining Russia all seem to cater to the same storyboard, and that storyboard seems a bit far-fetched if not actually fantastical, then it is time to signal the call for a new generation of leaders and experts who are willing to examine not just from old prejudices but from cold-hearted objective foreign policy reality. In that crucible no one is absolved but no one is also unfairly prejudged. Right now the future of Russian-American relations depends on the emergence of these new voices.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”