Why There's No Placating Putin

REVIEW: 'Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the Uses of War' by Leon Aron

February 18, 2024

Leon Aron, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written a welcome, concise book that follows Vladimir Putin from his youth in hardscrabble Leningrad to his unlikely rise to power, aided along the way by apartment bombings and mangled terror attacks, his tightening the screws on opposition figures, unprovoked invasions, to the present when even mild forms of protest could mean prison. Although influenced by the extreme nationalism of Alexander Dugin and the propensity toward violence of his alter ego Nikolai Patrushev, Aron's "house that Putin Built" was constructed by Putin himself. We can readily call him "dictator." Collective rule no longer applies.

If we were to roam freely in Putin's brain, we would encounter two competing explanations of what makes Vladimir Putin "tick." Aron would describe Putin as a misguided and lethal self-proclaimed Russian patriot on a mission to correct the wrongs directed at Putin's beloved Russia in the past. What he does, albeit misguidedly, he does for Mother Russia.

The alternate explanation, to which I subscribe, describes Putin and his circle as a vast criminal undertaking that steals from Mother Russia for gain of wealth and power.

It is difficult to test these two competing propositions because both lead to much the same behavior. And both rest upon similar narratives of Russia's past and present. Each uses the image of a besieged fortress surrounded by external and internal enemies, a fortress that must be defended by a resolute leader, who may have to be harsh at times as those great leaders who went before him (Ivan the Terrible and Stalin).

It was not until his no-holds-barred speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference that Putin revealed his inner thinking to the shock of those present and confirmed in later talks with Angela Merkel, who asked whether Putin had been taken over by "an alternate reality." In subsequent pronouncements, Putin hewed to his narrative: The U.S. hegemon (aided by its NATO puppets) is out to abuse Russia in the aftermath of its Cold War humiliation. It is out to encircle Russia, the last outpost of morality and religion against Western decadence. The West covets Russia's national resources and is encroaching on Russian territory; namely on the "New Russia" comprised largely of Belarus and Ukraine, which, Putin claims, has belonged to Russia since time immemorial. The straw that broke Putin's back was the expansion of NATO despite, according to Putin, Western pledges not to do so.

Aron observes how Putin's "alternate reality" has also required a remake of Russian history, which somehow shows that Ukraine has been an integral part of Russia since the 16th century. Putin's history denies an alliance between the USSR and Nazi Germany. (No Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.) And do not forget, as Putin is fond to repeat, that Ukraine fought on the Nazi side of World War II, and its Nazism is deeply rooted.

Putin's propaganda machine has sold this narrative with great effect. Three of four Russian citizens now answer that Stalin's USSR was the "best time" in Russian history. Stalin was a great man despite the Great Terror of 1937-38. Anti-American rhetoric has become an obsession. Russia has become a "fortress" besieged from within and without. For this reason, Putin has installed a Stalin-like "vigilance" that liquidates and imprisons those who question his legitimacy.

Putin's return of Russia to global status against the evil U.S.-NATO hegemon requires one loophole to be closed: How is even a rejuvenated "New Russia" to do battle against a much larger and richer NATO/U.S. behemoth? Putin's answer is "nuclear blackmail" as reflected in Russian military doctrine, which calls for the use of nukes whenever the West threatens the "existence of the Russian state." Putin's nuclear blackmail has been carried out through veiled threats from Putin himself and by impressive displays of missile might. Aron notes that Russian nukes are for the protection of Putin and his Kremlin cronies—not the Russian people. It is noteworthy that Russian first-use rules remain among the most secret of Kremlin documents.

Putin has relied on "strategic confrontation" with the West to validate his vision of Russia's role in the world order. In 2014, Putin confronted Ukraine with a hybrid war that led to the Russian occupation of the Donbas and annexation of Crimea. It was fought under the pretense that no Russian forces were involved, but rather "little green men" who bore no identification. Putin, however, despite the fiction that Russia was simply a bystander, could not resist taking credit for the bloodless takeover of Crimea, which he admits having personally orchestrated.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 by some 150,000 troops directed toward Kyiv and the annihilation of the Ukraine state are being fought as Aron was writing his book. He does not tell us how he thinks it will end, but he does supply some troubling scenarios as to future Russian "smash and grab" operations. He describes a scenario whereby Russia singles out, say, a largely Russian district of Estonia, organizes a phony referendum, and moves in troops, a large multiple of Estonia's military. Relief forces, from Poland, would only arrive the next day and U.S. troops much later. Meanwhile Russian troops are entrenched in a NATO bridgehead.

This scenario is not a flight of fancy but one that must be taken seriously. It shows how Putin could pierce the shield of NATO and thus destroy its usefulness if he is prepared to take the risk.

Skeptics argue that piercing the NATO shield would be too risky. Most saw the multi-pronged invasion of 2022, however, as a bluff. Surely Putin could not sacrifice the European gas market. Experts thought he would not risk the massive sanctions that threatened if he invaded, but he did.

Aron subtitled his book Putin's "uses of war." Indeed, Putin's rule has been characterized by his uses of war from Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. Has he exercised this use of force as a Russia patriot or a Mafia don? This reviewer comes down on the side of the Mafia don. A true Russia patriot would not countenance the pervasive theft of Russia's natural wealth to be used for private gain. Welcome Don Putin. It is time to really get acquainted.

Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the Uses of War
by Leon Aron
AEI Press, 232 pp., $24.75

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee (Diversion Books).