The Conventional Wisdom on Putin is Dangerously Wrong

It's not about 'order'—it's about empire

• October 8, 2015 5:00 am


The official Washington line on Vladimir Putin's military action is as follows: It is a mistake, demonstrating Russian weakness, sure to get the Russian military stuck in a "quagmire," according to President Obama. Josh Earnest, the president's press secretary, took that observation one further, comparing Putin's policies to those of the Bush administration (the sickest of White House burns) by arguing the Russians "will not succeed in imposing a military solution" just as the U.S. did not succeed in imposing one in Iraq. Adopting the characteristic snark of his boss, at a later press conference Earnest assessed Putin not to be "playing chess—he's playing checkers." Ash Carter, the secretary of defense, weighed in by noting that the Russian strategy was "a backward approach that's sure to backfire."

If the Syria deployment is such an obvious mistake, why is Putin doing it? The conventional wisdom has concluded that his actions are driven by fear. The Assad regime, long friendly to Moscow, was about to fall, and Putin takes a dim view of the collapse of sovereign states as a consequence of popular uprisings or foreign interventions. Steven Lee Myers, long time Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, is out with a perfectly timed book assessing Putin's life and ideology. Applying his broader argument to the case of Syria in the Times, Myers says:

Many have variously interpreted Mr. Putin’s intervention in Syria as a response to domestic pressures caused by an economy faltering with the drop in oil prices and sanctions imposed after Crimea; a desire to change the subject from Ukraine; or a reassertion of Russia’s position in the Middle East.

All are perhaps factors, but at the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.

Myers' argument fits well with the White House's assessment, and has been echoed in publications friendly to the administration's policies. You know who else agrees? Vladimir Putin—without the emphasis on fear and the expectation of failure, of course. But in his address last week to the United Nations, Putin made an argument that journalists like Myers have largely taken at face value:

It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are "democratic" revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa already mentioned by the previous speaker. Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change. But what was the actual outcome? Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life.

I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done?

It is no small irony that the same American politicos and journalists who are quick to accuse their domestic political opponents of acting in bad faith now go to impressive lengths to take the Russian president at his word, and to see him as a man whose actions are, if foolish, at least driven by an understandable sense of self-preservation and a realist's principled opposition to disorder. Indeed, when there are no cameras around, those friendly to the administration will tell you that Putin's intervention is actually a great boon to American policy, and that our opposition to Assad has been misguided from the start. This wing of American politics, the members of which seem to believe that they are "realists," believes that the American presence in the Middle East is at the root of the instability there.

Putin understands this all too well, and much of his UN speech was pitched directly at the consciences of these men and women. It was impossible not to chuckle at the strongman's chutzpah when, nearing his conclusion, Putin explained his hope to partner with other nations on an "issue that shall affect the future of the entire humankind"—climate change. In his recent 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose, Putin parried a question about the rule of law in Russia by invoking American race relations—a tried and true rhetorical gambit of the Soviet era:

How long did it take the democratic process to develop in the United States? Do you believe that everything is perfect now from the point of view of democracy in the United States? If everything was perfect there wouldn't be the problem of Ferguson. There would be no abuse by the police. But our task is to see all these problems and to respond properly.

Putin understands American liberals better than most of them understand themselves, and lightyears better than they understand him. This is among the reasons their assessment of his motivations is so misleading and incomplete. By presenting his actions as essentially reasonable and defensive in nature, by continuing, humiliation after humiliation, to hope that Putin will one day be their partner, they fail to focus their analysis on the dark core of his beliefs, which are ironically the very traits they believe compromise American conservatism: toxic nationalism and neo-imperialism.

He's not trying that hard to hide it. Consider the terrifying implications of this remark, also from the Charlie Rose interview:

I indeed said that I believe that the collapse of the USSR was a huge tragedy of the 20th century. You know why? … Because, first of all, in an instant 25 million Russian people found themselves beyond the borders of the Russian state, although they were living within the borders of the Soviet Union. Then, all of a sudden, the USSR collapsed—just overnight, in fact. And it's turned out that in the former Soviet Republics—25 million Russian people were living. They were living in a single country. And all of a sudden, they turned out to be outside the borders of the country. You see this is a huge problem. First of all, there were everyday problems, the separation of families, social problems, economic problems. You can't list them all. Do you think it's normal that 25 million Russian people were abroad all of a sudden? Russia was the biggest divided nation in the world. It's not a problem? Well, maybe not for you. But it's a problem for me.

This is not an offhand aside. This is a casus belli, and racialist rhetoric one tends to identify with fascism. It is coming from a man who has invaded two nations in the last decade, has his sights set on NATO, and has just made a big play for dominance in the Middle East, to which Obama is all but certainly going to acquiesce completely. It is true that Putin fears phenomena like the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring, but it is dangerously wrong to reason further that the man who seized Crimea in a surprise attack has some sort of principled preference for order over chaos. It isn't order he wants. It's the return of the Russian Empire.