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Vladimir Putin Isn’t as Russian as He Seems

The Russian president cloaks himself in nationalism, but that’s not where his heart is.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP/Getty Images)

At a recent event, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell asked a question about Russian President Vladimir Putin: Is Putin better understood as product of a long history of Russian leaders, Morell asked, or is he something new on the Russian stage?

It’s a good question. To what extent can we explain Putin’s motives and actions based on his unique personality? And how much of his behavior should we ascribe to cultural and historical patterns of past Russian tsars and Soviet leaders?

The belief that Kremlin leaders fit a basic “Russian” archetype is nothing new. Throughout the Cold War, each newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Moscow would trek to Princeton, New Jersey, to meet with our most famous diplomat, George Kennan, to seek his advice on dealing with Moscow. Kennan reportedly advised each new ambassador to visit almost any university library and check out any book on 18th- or 19th-century Russian history. He held that they could learn as much about contemporary Soviet leaders and politics from old Russian tales as from anything written more recently: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nonetheless, the Soviet experiment was meant to be something new. It was a break from Russian history and an attempt to build a society based on ideology. The KGB was the primary instrument of state power and at the forefront of creating the new “modern man.” The new intellectual man of the future had discarded nationalist sentiments; he was not a Russian, but a Soviet citizen. By all accounts, Putin bought into the dream of constructing the new Soviet man and did not initially appear to be in the mold of previous Russian autocrats. When he replaced aging Boris Yeltsin following the downfall of the Soviet Union, Putin initially sought to move Russia toward the west and a democratic future. He even commented in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

However, as he solidified power, Putin increasingly centralized political and economic power in his own hands and appropriated Russian cultural and historical symbols to help build support. As time went by, he increasingly avoided reference to Soviet lessons and emphasized a shared sense of Russian nationalism. In his view, outsiders had threatened Russia throughout history, and only a powerful leader could ensure a stable Russian state. Of course, the Russian view has an element of validity. Russia has no natural borders and has been invaded by powerful neighbors. Putin lived through the disintegration of their seemingly powerful country in 1991. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described Putin, “He is a man with a great sense of connection, an inward connection, to Russian history as he sees it.”

In this sense, Putin’s policies and behavior over the past 15 years have increasingly appeared to follow historic Russian patterns of autocracy and paternalism. He has usurped the role of the “Good Tsar” or “Vozhd” — and emphasized Russian power. Russia is unwilling to see its neighbors grow powerful or orient toward the West. With each international crisis — the wars in the Balkans, NATO enlargement, and the Georgian, Ukrainian, Libyan, and Egyptian uprisings — Putin’s personal grievances with the United States have grown and festered.

Putin’s views and policies align with Russia’s centuries-long perception that it has always been betrayed by the West. Russian tyrants have sought unchallenged power stemming from an inferiority complex and messianic vision of Russia as a nation unlike others. A Good Tsar can keep the country safe from those who would take advantage of its weaknesses. In such a state of constant fear of betrayal, Russia requires a powerful leader to ensure the maintenance of nationhood and vigilance. Real democracy is a threat. Indeed, Putin foments chaos overseas and invents stories of foreign danger, in turn selling himself as a strong leader who can protect his country from outsiders. The population is willing to trade transparency, political involvement and leaders who pilfer from the nation’s coffers in exchange for stability and safety.

But despite appropriating the symbols of Russian mythology, Putin is not a classic Russian ruler. He is something new. He is a fabrication. He is playing a role. He is KGB through and through. His policies and public actions are contrived to brand himself as a tsar in order to better consolidate and hold power. His effort to adopt the mantle of an all-powerful leader of a mythical 1,000-year Russian state is nothing but a conscious and cynical effort to maintain his hold on power. Like despots the world over, he fears his people. He knows that he can no longer count on a booming economy and rise in the standard of living to ensure their support, and instead, he has clutched onto blood-and-soil nationalism.

In a similar fashion, the attack against the 2016 U.S. presidential election is as much aimed at an internal Russian audience as at foreign rivals. The message to Russians is that Putin is a respected and feared force on the world stage and that they should stand in awe of his strength. His attacks on multiculturalism, immigration, and gay marriage are meant to contrast the decadent and corrupt West against a stable Russia living under traditional values. It is all an elaborate narrative designed to keep him in power and protect his stolen riches.

A lot of academic effort has gone into how to best define Putin’s state — whether to call it totalitarian, a mafia state, crony capitalism, a criminal kleptocracy, a surveillance or security state, or a traditional autocratic system. While it has elements of all of these antecedents, it only has a single goal: control. Putin has created a fictional persona and an atmosphere of fear in order to control the population and convince them that he is the only answer. The false paranoia about U.S. actions and intentions is actually about creating an enemy to blame for the failure to improve people’s lives. Tyrants know instinctively that they need an enemy, a threat, against which to coalesce. Putin knows that power is fleeting. He also knows that his power, while appearing solid at present, is illegitimate and fragile. He knows that regimes more powerful and longer-standing than his own have fallen to “people power” and outside pressure. He fears regime change.

There is a danger in using blood-and-soil nationalism as a means to hold power.

I saw it during my time in the Balkans. Providing the majority ethnic group with a sense of victimhood allows a leader to cynically manipulate the population. Slobodan Milosevic convinced the Serbian population that they were victims inside a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, despite the fact that they were a plurality and held the reins of power. He stirred emotions and came to power by telling the Serb nation, “They will not beat you anymore.” Putin tells a similar story from his time as a KGB officer in East Germany, and how Moscow’s weakness led to the country’s demise. He learned firsthand the frailty of political elites, commenting that the Soviet Union “had a terminal disease without a cure — paralysis of power.”

If Putin knows one thing, it is that he can never show weakness or lose control; it seems that attaching himself to historic Russian orthodoxy and nationalism is his best bet for the short term. However, as we’ve seen elsewhere, nationalism itself is a hard thing to control.

John Sipher is a National Security analyst on "Cipher Brief" and a former member of the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

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