A recent Brookings Institution essay analyzed Vladimir Putin's actions regarding Crimea and Ukraine based on his background, culture, and public statements. This three-part essay, “Mr. Putin and the Art of the Offensive Defense: Observations on the Crisis in Ukraine and Crimea,” offers insight into recent events in Eastern Europe. (By the way, statements from the U.S. government saying the annexation of Crimea by Russia “will not stand” are incredible and ridiculous and make the U.S. government look foolish.)
Author Dr. Fiona Hill, a Brookings senior fellow, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, and coauthor of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, sees Putin as a man of his environment.
“To begin to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin's approach to the current crisis in Ukraine, we have to start with an effort to understand the man himself. Putin is a product of his environment - a man whose past experiences have informed his present outlook and world view.”
Hill continues, “Putin is best understood as a composite of six multiple identities” stemming from his previous experiences as “the statist, history man, survivalist, outsider, free marketeer, and case officer.” She argues Putin is the combination of all these identities, making him “an effective behind-the-scenes operator in Russian politics” and helping “propel him into the Kremlin in 1999-2000. These same identities are now at play as Putin deals with Ukraine and with the West's response.” She defines the six identities by displaying his experiences and analyzes why his annexation of Crimea and expressions of Russian nationalism make him popular in Russia.
Hill also explains Putin's popularity specifically with business power brokers. “When Putin came to Moscow in 1996, he used … textbook KGB tactics against corrupt bureaucrats, regional governors, and eventually the Russian oligarchs, who were fighting with each other over assets and … [pillaging] the Russian state. Through coercion, blackmail, and manipulation Putin got [the predators] under control creating a system of private enterprise with strings attached [my emphasis]. The property rights of Russia's business magnates were ultimately dependent on the goodwill of the Kremlin.”
How does Putin's background affect his foreign policy? Hill says it's because Putin's main goal is that of statist. He desires restoring “Russia as a great power and world civilization. He wants Russia to be able to protect itself against all external threats.” Because Putin is a ”survivalist, he … prepares himself to deploy all the reserves necessary to protect the state.” Most important, Putin is the case officer when it comes to methodology: His “approach to statecraft is shaped by his experience in the KGB - an institution that operated beyond the scrutiny of the public and without fear of laws or constraints in dealing with its opponents. Putin is prepared to do whatever it takes to reach his goals.” His life in the KGB made him a zero-sum-game operator who during the Cold War saw “a win by the adversary meant a loss for the KGB and the Soviet Union.”
Probing more deeply into Putin's foreign policy, Hill argues Putin sees the main external threats to Russia coming from three dimensions: “First [is] the threat to Russia's territorial integrity based on its long history of wars and invasions. Second [is] threat to Russia's political sovereignty.” (Russia must be “fully in command of its own destiny,” because only Russians can be trusted to make decisions in Russia's interests.) “Third [is] the threat to Russia's 'national identity.' This dimension is vague, almost mystical, but it is an equally essential and vital element as the first two.” Anybody who watched Putin's speech to the Duma regarding Crimea would agree with the author's third point.
Part three of Hill's effort is a series of blunt and threatening paraphrases of Putin's statements to NATO, the European Union, and Ukraine about his aggressive policies. There also are warnings to the Russian political opponents cautioning them not to obstruct his goals.
If U.S. policy makers are to deal effectively with Putin's Russia it must begin with an understanding of the psychological and cultural make-up of the Kremlin's decision-maker. Hill's three-part essay is a good place to begin.