The Putin Approach
Mark Galeotti has written a primer on Putin.
If one were to read only one book on Putin and his rebuild of Russia, this would be the book. It is short, articulate, and extremely hard hitting and clear.
What he identifies throughout his primer is what one might call the Putin style or the Putin approach to the building and use of power. He argued that the common perception of Putin as a chess master is simply wrong; he is a judo master. Judo was what saved him as a young man from teenage challenges, and has persisted throughout his life in giving him not only vitality but providing a core focus to how to deal with adversity.
In fact, there is no evidence that Putin plays chess, and in any case, it is not his sort of game. Chess is a contest of inflexible rules, transparency and of an intellectual competition where the options are strictly constrained. Everyone starts with the same pieces, and everyone knows what a pawn can do and when it’s their turn to move. Putin doesn’t want to limit his options like that. 1
Galeotti then underscores the importance of judo and training to fit judo matches for Putin in his defining his approach to power.
He does know judo, however. A black belt, he has been honing his skills since starting as a teenager, and his approach to statecraft seems to reflect this. A judoka may well have prepared for a rival’s usual moves and worked out countermoves in advance, but much of the art is in using the opponent’s strength against him to seize the moment when it appears. 2
Translated into geopolitical terms, Putin is an opportunist.
As I have argued elsewhere, he has shaped a narrative for the restoration of the Russian state and the role of Russia in world affairs.
Along with a narrative there is an approach to power, which can best be seen as opportunism seized as he assesses an evolving situation.
Putin is an opportunist. He has a sense of what constitutes a win, but no predetermined path towards it. He relies on quickly seizing any advantage he sees, rather than on a careful strategy. As a result, both he and the Russian state he has shaped are often unpredictable, sometimes even acting in contradictory ways, especially regarding foreign policy.
Many apparent short-term ‘successes’ prove to be long-term liabilities, having been neither thought through beforehand or followed through afterwards. But this helps explain why we are so often unable to predict Putin’s moves in advance – he himself doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Instead, he circles us in the ring.
He is aware that overall and when united, the West is so much more powerful than Russia, with twenty times its gross domestic product, six times the population, and more than three times as many troops. But he’s waiting for us to make a mistake and give him what looks like a good chance to strike. 3
Applied to the events of the past few years. Galeotti judges Putin’s approach as looking for weaknesses and opportunities with the West, and the acting upon them.
But he argues it would be wrong to accuse Putin of a deliberate strategy in any particular event, but rather as seizing opportunities to implement what I have argued is the Putin narrative about the restoration of Russia and its authoritarian state.
Instead, Putin’s state generally responds to opportunities. A British prime minister calls for a referendum on leaving the European Union; American Democratic Party officials practise poor computer security; people in the West begin to lose faith in their political systems and elites; opaque financial structures allow ‘dark money’ to distort economies and corrupt politics; social media bypasses the traditional press. Russia created none of these opportunities, but has demonstrably tried to exploit them. In effect, we in the West define what Putin’s state does to us, while he is simply taking advantage of the failures, broken promises and stress points in our systems. 4
Putin’s style of authoritarianism rests on building a network of key players who are capable of acting out the narrative which he has shaped about the authoritarian state and its role in the Russian tradition.
He is not so much directing specific actions rather than orchestrating.
Putin the judoka-tsar lords it over an army of smaller judokas, all of whom are looking for a chance to get on. 5
Putin appears in the analysis of Galeotti very much in the image of Machiavelli’s prince where a core recommendation by Machiavelli to the Medicis is to cultivate an image of power which your enemies respect and even fear, but not to get captured by the image you project.
This projection of image becomes a key instrument of power to which other’s respond even more than whatever actions the Prince might contemplate.
(Putin) thinks a great power should get to waive the rules and should not have to consider itself bound by international laws and norms. This is a pipe dream, especially for a country that is only a great power in its own imagination, but in many ways this is the point: politics and power are all about perception.
By acting as if Russia is a great power, Putin hopes to persuade everyone else either that this is true, or at least that it is not worth trying to challenge the idea and that they should stop trying to ‘keep Russia down’.
At 1.7 metres tall, Putin is of below average height, but with his over-the-top tough-guy persona, he tries to project a rather more formidable image.6
Galeotti provided an example of how this works from a story he told about a conversation he had with a Western journalist about Putin.
Consider a deeply frustrating conversation I had with a Czech journalist in 2017, right before the Russians held a major military exercise called Zapad , or ‘West’, in conjunction with their ally, Belarus.
At the time, a massive wave of hysteria was washing over the Western analytic community, partly generated by its own paranoia (and also by some alarmist pundits looking for some media attention), but encouraged by the Russians’ own strategic trolling.
It was said that it would involve more than a hundred thousand troops (in reality, the number was not even half that), that it was really a plan to occupy Belarus and replace its president with a Russian puppet (nope), that it was a pretext to invade the Baltic states (again, no), and that it was a dry run for an all-out invasion of northern Europe (really, no).
At the height of the frenzy, this Czech journalist asked with a straight face what price Putin would accept for a peace treaty.
First of all, I pointed out, as far as I knew we were not officially at war. Secondly, what kind of a price was he talking about?
He started a list: recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, forcing neutrality on Ukraine, and withdrawing NATO forces from front-line states.
I confess that I was astonished: Putin would not believe his luck if any of those massive and unjustifiable concessions were offered, especially on the basis of a long-scheduled and essentially defensive military exercise and some dramatic television footage of tanks rumbling across the Belarusian plain.
This journalist, who was neither a moron nor a rookie, was articulating a minority opinion, but one that can often be encountered across the West: the sense that Putin is so dangerous and powerful that it is best to try and buy him off rather than confront him.7
The Putin style is combined with the shaping of a narrative, a subject which I have treated at length elsewhere.
Galeotti underscores what he sees as Putin’s key objectives.
Putin has committed himself to restoring both the central authority of the state and also Russia’s status as a great power, but this is not simply an exercise in geopolitical archaeology, rediscovering and restoring ancient glories. Rather, it is envisaged as creating something new. 8
What is this something new that Putin is focused on creating and sustaining?
In his State of the Federation speech in 2012, he said that ‘to revive national consciousness, we need to link historical eras and get back to understanding the simple truth that Russia did not begin in 1917, or even in 1991 … We have a common, continuous history spanning over a thousand years, and we must rely on it to find inner strength and purpose in our national development.’
He wants to cherry-pick the bits of history that fit his narrative of a Russia that has been perennially battered and belittled by foreigners, yet strong when it stands together – so the Soviet victory in 1945 is included, but Communism isn’t, for example.
Russian history is strewn with the bodies of defunct empires and heroes of the day; like Dr Frankenstein, Putin wants to create something new from the bits and pieces gathered from those corpses.9
But there clearly is a downside of this narrative for the West.
Putin is playing on the country’s preoccupation with its insecurity and the need to both embrace and reject foreign influences.
This clearly leaves Putin more interested in making the world safe of authoritarianism than in working with the West to generate a more robust Russian economy or society capable of global competition.
He is focused more on protecting the “narod” for the foreign threats and protecting the “narod” who used to live in the Soviet Union but now life in the near abroad states which have embraced independence and sovereignty and several of which have joined the Western alliances.
There is also the major challenge of what Putin understands in a world that is dramatically changing. Authoritarian regimes are not known for their robust internal debate based on profound engagement with the outside world.
Putin is no different and this poses a challenge of understanding what Putin thinks he sees, rather than what we think we see.
Like so many authoritarian leaders, Putin has over time become less and less willing to listen to alternative perspectives. As one former Russian spy told me, the intelligence agencies have learned that ‘you do not bring bad news to the tsar’s table’. As with everything under Putin, politics around intelligence is competitive to the point of cannibalism.10
The image cultivated of Putin is of the tough guy, judo master.
But rather than being a street fighter, Putin is a cautious decision maker.
In practice, though, he is cautious and risk-averse. He is only happy to play the maverick when he thinks he can predict the outcomes.11
With regard to Putin’s vision and approach to reshaping Russia’s role in the world, Galeotti has argued that his view is based in history of what a great power should be and then has staked out a path to get where he wants to go.
The problem is that the Russia of today lacks a great deal of what would take to be a great power in 21stcentury terms, in terms of the kind of economy and society Russia would need to have.
He has lived through the collapse of empire and the desire for a phoenix rebirth of Russia through the prism of the 21st century. And his strength has come from his ability to channel his own life’s history into a narrative for the Russian ‘narod.’
Clearly one of the challenges posed by Russia going forward is the threat of a successor taking the system building by Putin and using its resources in a more aggressive manner and going from having authoritarian regimes as allies in the restoration of Russia to becoming something else globally.
The book is concise; the insights significant.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 14). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 14). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 15). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 25-26). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 20). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 53). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 22-23). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 45). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (pp. 47-48). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 37). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Galeotti, Mark. We Need to Talk About Putin (p. 80). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.