Putin Is No Supervillain

We overplay Russia’s strengths and at the same time misunderstand its motivations. If we believe that Putin doesn’t want anything, but to stab us and watch us bleed, we fail to see the real perspective of what the Russians are about – says Mark Galeotti in an interview with Jakub Dymek.

Jakub Dymek: “We need to talk about Putin and how the West gets him wrong” one of your recent books argue. Who is ‘the West’ here and what exactly does it get wrong when thinking about today’s Russia?

Mark Galeotti: True, there’s no single perspective on Russia. Societies in the Eastern part of Europe, former members of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, tend to look at today’s Russia as an inheritor of all things Soviet and all of USSR’s ills – some of which are absolutely relevant today, but some not. And this is one instance where the West can be wrong about Russia. On the other hand, one of the many unfortunate things that happened during Trump’s presidency was that Russia became abstracted as just another aspect of American domestic policy. It became a sort of touchstone – if you were opposed to Trump, everything was Russia’s fault. If you were a Trump supporter, you had to go all the way to exonerate everything that Russia does. And this is the place where we are.

That we use foreign entities and actors, a whole mythology surrounding them and the symbolic value of invoking, for example, Soviet Union, just to express a view on an issue?

Russia is enough like us – their culture, what their cities look like, their history – being essentially a European country, that we have a tendency to think about them as an extension of ‘us’. That we never have while thinking about Saudi Arabia, China or Korea … So the question is, what do we get out of thinking about Russia like that?

We’re in the ‘uncanny valley’ type of situation?

Yes, looking at somebody who is quite like us, but not enough like us. And this is something we have trouble dealing with. Because we can’t accept them on their own terms. We’ve accepted for example that China is China. And how we respond to that will depend on self-interest and everything else. But whatever we want from them, we have moved beyond expecting that China will have the same values as we do. With Russia however, we still continue to project our hopes and fears on them. We fall prey to all kinds of delusions because of that, from believing that they’re actually not that bad to, on the other hand, thinking of Putin as a movie supervillain, a James Bond type evil genius…

Was the previous decade, spanning between an Obama–Clinton ‘reset’ with Russia to the widespread assumption that Russia is actively subverting American elections, crucial in that regard?

In many ways the previous decade was a period of recovery from the 1990s, another transformative decade, when we forgot that there was this big country called Russia. Back then, we didn’t care what happened in Russia, because we didn’t believe that it could have any consequences for us…

And with the advance of new communication technologies, that changed quickly.

And because of what Russia was doing! Because in the 1990s Russia could not influence the West in any way besides maybe collapsing. What were we worried about with regards to Russia in the 1990s? Gangsters, loose nukes, stolen technologies… all of them symbols of state failure. Today conversely, what we’re worrying about is an overly competent, aggressive, controlling state with influence and the power it projects. Again, clearly compensating for what we’ve neglected before.

What were we worried about with regards to Russia in the 1990s? Gangsters, loose nukes, stolen technologies… Today conversely, what we’re worrying about is an overly competent, aggressive, controlling state with influence and the power it projects.

“No one benefits from renewed demonization of Russia” you’ve written recently. So while we’re at it, why exactly doesn’t anyone benefit from this rhetoric?

Russia is absolutely in an aggressive phase. Whether it is because Russia feels threatened or because there’s some other motive – it doesn’t really matter, because it is nevertheless unpleasant to be on the receiving end of the aggression. But we have to remember, this is not the superpower it used to be and despite quite successful efforts to modernize its army, it’s not the Red Army resurrected we’re facing here.

So what is the problem then exactly?

The problem with the narrative that posits Russia as an existential threat to the West is that it actually empowers Putin. Part of this whole game is that there are constituencies in Europe and the US that will say something along the lines of: “we dislike Putin, but he’s too dangerous, so we have to make some kind of a deal here”. This is the thing.

What Putin wants more than anything is some kind of a deal, a Yalta 2.0. Obviously not to regain the territories that were handed to Russia, but to be treated as an equal, to be granted certain rights in that sphere of influence.

Because what Putin wants more than anything is some kind of a deal, a Yalta 2.0. Obviously not to regain the territories that were handed to Russia, but to be treated as an equal, to be granted certain rights in that sphere of influence, to recognize Russia’s sovereignty within the post-soviet space with the exception of the Baltics perhaps. To create a sphere of Russian rightful influence. He’d love that. And – let’s put it straight – it would be an absolute disaster on many levels to do that. It would be a betrayal of the countries in question, a betrayal of the whole western post-Westphalian order, saying that countries have certain rights and sovereignty. And finally it would not appease Putin, but rather embolden him and the nationalists. But there are people who would contemplate some kind of a deal with Russia, precisely because they think it is too dangerous not to have a deal. That’s why I think it doesn’t help to demonize Russia.

We overplay Russia’s strengths and at the same time misunderstand its motivations. And I’m not saying to understand all is to forgive all. But if we believe that Putin doesn’t want anything, but to stab us and watch us bleed and that he does it with some sort of sadistic satisfaction, we fail to see the real perspective of what the Russians are about, what they can and cannot do, and therefore what is the way forward for us in the West.

What you are also saying in your piece is that the Russian state reacts to what its leaders perceive as slights, humiliations and affronts from the West. That many of the things happening between the Russian leadership and the West are also aimed at, shall we say, domestic consumption?

Right! When Putin first came to power, he presented Russians with a certain contract. “You stay out of politics. You let me and my guys run the things and in return you’ll get better conditions of life in basic physical terms than you’ve ever had. These conditions will improve so you’ll know that you and your kids will have a better life in the future.” And frankly these were attractive terms for most of the Russians straight out of the disastrous decade of the 1990s. So Putin can, with a veneer of constitutionalism, run a soft-authoritarian state. And most Russians were fine with that, because he was delivering on his side of the bargain.

Up to a time, that is…?

Now of course there’s a widespread sense that this social contract has been broken. And it pre-dates COVID. Even Crimea and the sanctions. It’s a feeling of squandered opportunities. Russia could have done all these different things to diversify its economy, but instead it relied on an assumption the money is never going to run out and instead we’re going to spend it on immediate goodies: the military, keeping the population acquiescent or letting Putin’s cronies embezzle to their heart’s content.

Russia could have done all these different things to diversify its economy, but instead it relied on an assumption the money is never going to run out and instead we’re going to spend it on the military, keeping the population acquiescent.

Now that social contract doesn’t work. And what Putin is trying to do is develop a new one: “look, times are hard. But what you have to understand is that the world hates Russia and it hates Russians. We’re a beleaguered fortress and therefore all we can do is pull together.” This is a very negative message and frankly not one I believe resonates very well with Russians.

It’s such a powerful myth though! It touches the symbolic weight of World War II, the Pobeda – victory cult – and calls for national unity in the face of foreign aggression.

Sure, Russians are still immensely proud of the heavily mythologised Great Patriotic War. 20 millions Soviet citizens died to save the world, save civilization itself from the Nazi menace and so on…. On this level it still remains somehow relevant. And basically every Russian applauded the retaking of Crimea as well, horns blaring and celebrations were real.

But at the same time Moscow still denied any involvement in the Donbas region. Who are they lying to? Us? No, we are not going to be swayed by this and admit, how – “oh, gosh, how badly!” – we were wrong about Russia and how we’ve been deceived by our own propaganda. No. They’re lying to themselves, the Russian population, that is.

Russians do not care, they have no desire, to – let’s say – build a base in Tartus in Syria, when their local school is still falling apart and has not been rebuilt. They’re not really the generation of the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad.

Why? Because there’s no real constituency for foreign adventures. The same with Syria. The reason Russia used the foreign mercenary organization, Wagner, to do a lot of heavy lifting on the ground, is that the Syrian operation was sold to Russians as very much an arm’s-length technowar. That there would be only Russian planes striking through the heavens and such-like. “Your Ivan Ivanovich doing his national service is not coming home in a zinc box” was the message the authorities were trying to convey. “This is not another Afghanistan.”

Russians do not care, they have no desire, to – let’s say – build a base in Tartus in Syria, when their local school is still falling apart and has not been rebuilt. And while Putin is pushing this narrative, it is clearly a central part of his propaganda campaign, I think we’re seeing the real limitations of this to the contemporary Russian population. They’re not really the generation of the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad.

I want to come back to something you’ve said earlier, of Russia being a part of US domestic policy now. Democrats act and speak like they have all the incentives in the world to punish Russia and go after everybody they see as ‘Trump enablers’ and ‘influence agents’. Is that for real though or is just posturing for the benefit of the media and voters? Because in the past few years we’ve witnessed a sort of realignment in the US foreign policy where democrats have moved to the right on Russia and generally in the direction of ‘hawkishness’.

True, Democrats in Congress have taken over the foreign policy agenda, both because they’ve believed that they should be tougher and also because they believed Russia should be punished for hoisting Trump on them, which is I believe frankly, a lot of scapegoating. In reality, the Democrats fielded a candidate who did not have a lot of cross-party support and they’ve had a lacklustre campaign – and they’ve got stung for it.

What we see now is that Biden’s administration has some of the hawkishness of the language still, but at the same time, they realize that Russia is not that important. We’re obviously not going to see any ‘reset’, that’s certain.

But what we see now is that Biden’s administration has some of the hawkishness of the language still, but at the same time, they realize that Russia is not that important. We’re obviously not going to see any ‘reset’, that’s certain. But apart from pushing some key points in bilateral relations with Russia, like nuclear arms control and reduction, this administration is much more concerned with rebuilding relations with Europe. Add China to the mix and you see Russia as very much the inconvenience, not the archenemy and competing superpower. You have a White House that is not tempted to go after another reset, nor it is interested in dealing with Russia when it can avoid it.

In that light, what do you think about Amnesty International’s decision to strip Alexei Navalny of the ‘prisoner of conscience’ title?

I think this was a disastrous blunder. Of course Amnesty has all the right to give or not give this very special recognition to whoever they want. But to label Navalny and later withdraw it was a really problematic message. Which absolutely gave the Kremlin and its allies all the talking points they needed. Amnesty knew who Navalny was. He wasn’t trying to hide his views from the public. This is precisely part of the problem, because Navalny, unlike Western politicians, doesn’t hide from controversy. He admitted to saying what he said, and did so openly.

So Amnesty acted not because some new facts appeared, but because of an orchestrated campaign to try and pressure them. With social-media and new information technology, it is really easy to astroturf something like this, to create the appearance of a grassroots movement of horror and shock about what’s going on. When in fact it’s essentially a small number of exceedingly vociferous fellow travellers of the Kremlin or at least people who for ideological reasons are willing to give Putin a pass.

So you don’t think it was only the ‘woke’ activists after all?

I think to a large extent they were the ones who were cultivated. The Kremlin is in my opinion totally non-ideological. It’s nationalist and so forth, of course, but it doesn’t have any creed to which it tries to convert people. As a result, it’s actually able to influence people with it’s campaigns a lot more freely than the Soviet Union ever could. What we do see is how the Kremlin can guide, manipulate, encourage and amplify radicals on every side of the debate. Left, right, ultracapitalist types, anarchists, you name it… If people are dissatisfied with the status quo, someone somewhere thinks, how can we weaponize these guys? And this is what I think happened in this case.

The Kremlin is in my opinion totally non-ideological. It’s nationalist and so forth, of course, but it doesn’t have any creed to which it tries to convert people.

China forcefully entered this equation some time ago. I am wondering how Europe is going to adapt and triangulate between Russia and China, seen as both partners in trade and competitors or even adversaries on the world diplomatic stage, where they challenge the liberal-democratic model itself?

China, especially in the last year, has flipped the switch and entered a new mode of competition. The ‘wolf-worrior’ diplomats have been given free reign, there’s a new kind of pride and need to assert their position on the world stage. I’ve heard from a Chinese diplomat, it was two years ago, that China’s still ‘too apologetic’ about its strengths. Well, we can safely say it has stopped being apologetic and tries to capitalize on that.

Obviously in this context, policy towards Russia is very important. On the one hand, Russia displays very warm rhetoric around their cooperation with China. The thing is though we have to recognize how much more China matters to Russia than Russia matters to China. China needs Russia to the extent it’s useful when it comes to the irksome elements of what they see as western dominated global order. Russians are the icebreakers – they will plunge headfirst into polarizing conflicts and disputes, stir some chaos, and eventually China will try to sail serenely through the gaps of ice that the Russians have created.

China needs Russia to the extent it’s useful when it comes to the irksome elements of what they see as western dominated global order. Russians are the icebreakers – they will plunge headfirst into polarizing conflicts.

But, on the other hand, it’s really hard to see any real affinity. China is doing Russians no favors. Russia, when it comes to their military planning and exercises, is willing to include the Chinese for show, to generate headlines in the West, while in fact their competition remains unchanged.

What does Europe do knowing all this?

Well, I’d be very surprised if in ten years time we’d be especially bothered about Russia. Either way, there will be some kind of limited reform – not wholesale democratization, because Putin and his kleptocrats really do have this hawkish worldview – that would accommodate today’s middle-aged, post-ideological members of the ruling class. They want to have some modus vivendi with the West. We’re talking about people for whom the ideal model was the early 2000s, when leaders could talk tough about nationalism, but Russia was thoroughly integrated into global economics, global commerce. That is not a perfect scenario, but a Russia we could live with. While looking at the same time horizon, by 2030 let’s say, I don’t see China going off our radar in any meaningful way. Quite the opposite! That’s what we have to balance. In terms of strategic dependence, China scares me a lot more than Russia does.

Jakub Dymek

is a columnist and author. His book about the rise of the revolutionary political right in USA, Poland and Russia entitled “Nowi Barbarzyncy” (“The New Barbarians”) was published in 2018 by Arbitror Publishing.

Mark Galeotti

is the director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, and an honorary professor at UCL SSEES. He has written numerous books about Russia, its history, security issues and organized crime. His most recent include “We Need to Talk about Putin” (London, 2019) and “A Short History of Russia” (New York/London 2020). His writing, podcasts and commentary can be found on “In Moscow’s Shadows” blog.

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