Putin, the Idealist
The Russian president was once thought to be cold and calculating. Then he started believing in things.
One of the ongoing disputes Shadi and I have here on Wisdom of Crowds is over my squeamishness in articulating a coherent vision for the world. On several occasions, mostly but not exclusively in discussing international relations, Shadi has challenged me over my aversion to big gestures at purpose, goal, endpoint—towards changing things (presumably for the better). The consensus that partially emerged in a recent episode is that I have a moral core, but that for some inscrutable reason, I refuse to commit to it.
Whenever this has come up, I have instinctively refused to take the bait. But why? I think it has something to do with an intuition that unwavering commitments to ideas and ideals end in tears.
I was thinking about this in a broad, hazy way when I caught a snippet of Fareed Zakaria’s recent interview with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, a man who has through ten years gotten to know Russian President Vladimir Putin reasonably well. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Finland had tried to steer a careful course with Russia, and President Niinistö had met with Putin several times. Here’s the relevant exchange:
ZAKARIA: You said, I remember in early February, before the Russian invasion, that you sensed something had changed about Putin. That he used to be very careful, incremental, calculating. But that he was behaving in a much more aggressive fashion just in your conversations. What do you think happened? Because everyone is perplexed by this. Everyone thought Putin was—yes, he may be a nasty guy, but there was a pattern of carefulness. And he seems to have become very reckless. What do you think has happened?
NIINISTÖ: If we go years back, we see, or at least I have seen and understood some kind of development in his thinking. He is frustrated because of the situation in Ukraine after 2014. And then in a way progressively, I have felt that his frustration is growing, and very obviously he just decided to get this thing somehow solved.
You might recoil at me bringing up Putin’s mad gambit in Ukraine in reply to Shadi pressing me about idealism. But I think the grotesqueness of the comparison is enlightening. Zakaria is absolutely right in pointing out that Putin has long been seen by observers as careful—far from a brilliant tactician, but certainly as someone who hedges and doesn’t readily go “all-in,” as Niinistö says elsewhere in the interview.
Indeed, this purported caution is what made Putin’s February attempt at a decapitating strike in Kyiv all the more remarkable. I recall watching the buildup, and hearing from my friends in the intelligence community that he would roll tanks to Kyiv. But it didn’t seem like a very Putin thing to do, even if our own intelligence services were on the same page as the Russians in thinking Kyiv might fall within days. It would have been much more like Putin to take a further bite out of partially occupied Luhansk and Donetsk—and then immediately freeze the conflict. Such a strategy would have brought out the inner peacenik among the Europeans, fracturing the Western alliance and making the arming of Ukraine to take back its territory a non-starter.
Instead, Putin focused his energies on Ukraine’s east only after a good chunk of his forces had been badly bloodied by fierce Ukrainian defenders near the capital, and after the West was already unified. And now, bloodied further by a successful counterattack, he is openly threatening nuclear war while orchestrating an annexation of the territories nominally under his military control. Instead of the cautious gambler who anted up in Syria at just the right moment to show the West to be feckless, Putin looks more and more like a strung out high-roller, nervous bloodshot eyes darting left and right, pushing all his chips on “black” as the cruel roulette wheel mercilessly trundles on.
What, indeed, was the “development” in Putin’s thinking? There was growing frustration that Ukraine wasn’t going his way since 2014, sure. But more striking was the nationalist essay he penned last year against the very thought of a distinct Ukrainian identity. Put the historical revisionism aside, and you have to marvel at the near-spiritual commitment to an idea pulsing at its core—a certain grandiose, deranged vision of Russia, its mission in the world, its destiny. In the run-up to the war, my friends and I debated the essay endlessly. What did it signify? Had Putin fallen in with the mystics in his circle? Was he using them to mobilize Russians for what he must have known would be a difficult war? To this day, I struggle to imagine that this mad idea was really motivating him. But then again, I’ve rarely given ideas their due.
I recently finished Martin Indyk’s magisterial book on Kissinger’s Mideast diplomacy, Master of the Game. It’s an enthralling read in no small part because Kissinger’s vision for what he is trying to achieve is much less grandiose than Putin's. Indyk repeatedly has Kissinger disavowing that his efforts are motivated by forging peace—that he doesn’t believe lasting peace is a realistic outcome worthy of pursuit. Instead, he sees his task as pushing the Soviet Union out of the region and establishing the United States as the pre-eminent guarantor of a lasting order that might ensue.
Sure, this is an “idea” too, in the sense that everything can be thought of as an idea. There is a goal that Kissinger is clearly pursuing. And he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams not merely due to his intellect and cunning, but because fortune smiles on him at key moments, and the larger-than-life personalities he’s dealing with—Sadat, Assad, Meir, Dayan—are able to make as much use of him as he does of them. But every move he makes is tentative, every calculation open to revision. He gambles frequently, but carefully. And never completely—never “all-in”.
The differences are instructive. Kissinger, the successful statesman, is above all a player in a game. His ambitions may be great, but they are ultimately circumscribed. He believes his side is morally right in the broader Cold War, but the game itself is not a crusade. Putin, who may well go down as a diabolical failure rivaling Mussolini, sees himself as something else—a protagonist in a great world-historical drama, a champion for a cause greater than him. Niall Ferguson may have dubbed Kissinger The Idealist, but the title much more comfortably fits Putin.
I am nothing if not suspicious of such people.