What Does Putin Want?

16 19

From Super Putin vs The World:  http://superputin.win/episode7.html

By Ivan Grek

“Who is Mr. Putin?” For a long time this question preoccupied western media and western analysts, who offered a range of answers in order to comprehend the behavior of the Russian President. However, the focus on the mysterious personality of the Russian leader waned as soon as his troops marched outside the boundaries of his state. After the annexation of Crimea, the world cares less about who Putin is; instead, it cares about what he wants.

Ironically, Putin and his talking heads gave an explicit answer to this new question. Almost all of Putin’s speeches dedicate at least a paragraph to spinning a patriotic fairytale of how for many centuries the West has attempted to undermine Russian greatness.  Now, the tale goes, Western actions aim to prevent Russia’s natural revival as a superpower. Putin’s specialist on revealing American plots, Sergei Markov, has consistently emphasized the significance of regaining the status of a superpower. In his interviews to the opposition radio station, Ekho Mosky, this former expert from the National Democratic Institute for Foreign Affairs explained that Russia got engaged in the Syrian campaign to return to a sacred status, specifying that to do so, “[it] is extracted, seized with force.” So it is no surprise that President Barack Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a “regional power,” which he declared shortly after the Crimean annexation, was a resounding slap in the face of Russia’s renewed superpower ambitions.

The Kremlin believes that a new superpower status will secure Russian interests from what it sees as the encroachment of the West and considers the “extraction” of this title to be an existential matter. Nevertheless, it is not evident why Putin has attempted to achieve his goal by launching a war on the “brother nation” of Ukraine, by spending enormous money on the Syrian campaign (not to mention spending money on failed missile launches), and by enacting a detrimental policy of counter-sanctions, which caused one of the deepest economic crises since the collapse of the USSR. Putin approaches his goal as one with only one “correct” way because the essence of a superpower status is not in the economy or with a coherent plan, but is located in the imagination.

The international community operates similarly in ascribing status to its members on the basis of a particular historical imagination: in order to be a superpower, a state must adhere to historically constructed notions.  The initial norm for attaining superpower status was the possession of nuclear weapons. However, the Cold War created new ways to imagine a superpower, one where nuclear weapons were required to hold the status, but not the only determining factor. Nobody thinks of France or India as superpowers. Thus, as the Cold War evolved, so too did the norms that determined what it means to be a superpower before becoming fixed.

The major feature of superpower behavior became the disregard by the two states of other normative institutions. Over the course of the Cold War, the two superpowers systematically abandoned the United Nations Charter. Both the US and the USSR dismissed the rules of the organization, which explicitly outlawed invading the countries of the so-called Third World. These behaviors persisted:  while Russia was unable to support its ambitions with military force in the 1990s, the US continued exercising the new norms forged during the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Grenada. The war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the invasion of Iraq broke UN regulations and strongly imbedded in Russian perceptions that the US acted as the unchecked world policeman, or the only superpower. Putin continually references the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia and this remembrance forms part of his popularity. He also references the subsequent creation of Kosovo, which he drew on in his rationale for the annexation of Crimea.

While organizing the invasion of Ukraine and later the operation in Syria, Putin planned on “catching up and overtaking” the superpower norms that only the US continued to use. The “overtake” part consisted of establishing regional hegemony. Since the time of the Soviet-American contest, it is hard to imagine Latin America and Canada as insulated from the US. It is similarly difficult for Russians to leave Eastern Europe unattended from Kremlin influence. As Markov has mentioned, in order to be a superpower, and to be imagined as one, Russia must “extract” this status, by force if necessary. Moscow followed this notion in fighting for Assad’s regime and in arranging a controlled, yet frozen, conflict in Ukraine.

Superpowers are bold, not shy, thus they must have armies ready to “liberate” peoples captured in the claws of bloody regimes. Violence and blunt demonstrations of power, garnished with the rhetoric of spreading “humanism,” become yet again the norms of “proper” superpower behavior. Hence a good superpower should act like a giant, ready to crack the skulls of challengers. Of course, these actions have real consequences, as the thousands of corpses of Ukrainians and Russians on the battlefields of East Ukraine attest to.

Is it possible to obtain a superpower status without adherence to these Cold War norms? The case of China suggests the answer is no. According to all objective factors China should be imagined as a superpower, but most still see it as a “semi-superpower.” The Chinese status derives in part from its refusal to follow the “rules” of the US-Soviet competition.  Chinese officials even created their own, internal rule by describing its skyrocketing growth with the word development, in order to mitigate fears of China on the international arena. China eloquently hides its superpower qualities. Instead of establishing its hegemony through bayonets, it buys off Central Asian states, imposing an invisible hegemony on the neighboring region.

The Chinese example demonstrates that the status of superpower cannot be achieved with a marketing strategy based on rational indicators. It demands instead an irrational devotion to the Cold War norms, which were specific to the US-USSR conflict and relevant for Putin’s current foreign policy. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Russian President made the decision to invade Crimea right after the end of the Sochi Olympics, one of the most expensive marketing projects in world history, diminishing all the investments in Russia’s reputation made by the Games. He sacrificed 1.5 trillion rubles in the name of this illusory concept while the benefits remain unclear.

Most Russians believe in the notion of superpower status more than in economic pragmatism, and Putin has therefore successfully turned moaning about lost Soviet greatness into a source of stable support. Maintaining the superpower imaginary is ideologically beneficial, thus he will not stop. The next wave of the confrontation may come from the struggle over the Balkans, which perfectly fits the patterns of the Cold War legacy and matches Putin’s imagination of a pan-Slavic union. Ties, often corrupt, between Moscow and the Balkan capitals secure Russian influence in this region. Russia has already started the war for maintaining its renewed superpower hegemony, and this, then, seems to answer the question of what Putin wants.

Ivan Grek, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, received his M.A. in History at Miami in 2015.  He is currently a PhD student in History at American University.

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