Understanding Mr. Putin: The Operative in the Kremlin

By Robbin Laird

Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution have written an interesting assessment of the leader of the Kremlin who will reach his 20-year mark in the Presidency of the Prime Ministership of the Russian Republic next year.

During this 20-year period Putin has led the effort to rebuild the Russian shape and to craft an approach to 21stcentury authoritarianism.

A hallmark of an effective authoritarian regime is longevity and continuity.

This contrasts directly with the liberal democracies whose dynamics of change see the rotation, circulation, replacement, or regeneration of governing elites on a regular basis.

Discontinuity can be a hallmark of such a process compared to the continuity of an authoritarian regime.

This means that Putin has seen several U.S. Presidents come and go since 2000 and has shaped his narrative playing off of the discontinuities and continuities across these US Administrations.

Change has been even more dramatic when dealing with his proximate European partners/competitors.

Obviously, having continuity while your competitor/partner/adversary does not gives one certain advantages.

At the same time, one faces the challenge as an authoritarian leader in really understanding what is changing and what is not in the West. Given how authoritarian regimes control not just their publics but their own information flows, not grasping the reality of change but pursuing your image of change can be a problem.

And there is always what might be called the Machiavellian challenge: the danger that the ruler who has shaped a narrative or image which he has done to generate power, is trapped by that image, and confuses perception with reality.

There is little doubt that Putin has entered the trap that Machiavelli has described.

He has generated a powerful narrative of the centrality of a strong state to the Russian idea and approach to the 21st century challenges and as a key way to restore the respect Russia “deserves” from the West.

And he has increasingly used the Western “threat” to justify Russia’s conflict with and distancing from the West, and the belief that Russia is morally superior to the West as well.

The problem is that the sense of uniqueness and victimhood can become a trap, which puts blinders on with regard to opportunities to work with various Western states as the West reworks its 21st century approach to global power.

The West is not collapsing but it is in the throes of a major restructuring; one can leverage the fissures evident in the conflicts, but Russia could engage in the restructuring to reshape its own system as well, but this is a prospect not inherent to the Putin approach.

The authors shape a composite image of Putin in power in terms of various dimensions of his experience and leveraging of that experience to shape what I have referred to elsewhere as the Putin narrative.

They argue that a number of key dimensions in understanding Putin can be identified: the statist, the history man, the survivalist, the outside, the free marketer, and the case officer.

2014 becomes a key culminating point with the seizure of Crimea, and the very clear expression of mature Putinism.

ON MARCH 18, 2014, still bathed in the afterglow of the Winter Olympics that he had hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin stepped up to a podium in the Kremlin to address the nation.

Before an assembly of Russian officials and parliamentarians, Putin signed the documents officially reuniting the Russian Federation and the peninsular republic of Crimea, the home base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Crimea had seceded from Ukraine only two days earlier, on March 16.

Crimea had seceded from Ukraine only two days earlier, on March 16. The Russian president gave what was intended to be a historic speech. The events were fresh, but his address was laden with references to several centuries of Russian history. Putin invoked the origins of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. He referenced military victories on land and sea that had helped forge the

Russian Empire. He noted the grievances that had festered in Russia since the 1990s, when the state was unable to protect its interests after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At the center of his narrative was Crimea. Crimea “has always been an inseparable part of Russia,” Putin declared. Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea was rooted in the need to right an “outrageous historical injustice.”1

Later in the book, the authors address the key question of what the Ukrainian crisis is all about, beyond the question of recovering Russia for the Russians.

They suggest that Putin is underscoring the need for a reworking of the entire Western-Russian relationship, a relationship which had been skewed to the West’s advantage with the unfortunate collapse of the Soviet Union.

As he laid out in his August 2014 speech in Crimea, Putin seeks a “New Yalta” with the West in political and security terms. As he defines Moscow’s sphere of influence in this new arrangement, that sphere extends to all the space in Europe and Eurasia that once fell within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR.

Within these vast contours, Putin and Russia have interests that need to be taken into account, interests that override those of all others. For Putin, Russia is the only sovereign state in this neighborhood. None of the other states, in his view, has truly independent standing—they all have contingent sovereignty.

The only question for Putin is which of the real sovereign powers (Russia or the United States) prevails in deciding where the borders of the New Yalta finally end up after 2014. Unlike the old Yalta of the post–World War II Soviet period, Putin’s New Yalta does not extend to economics.

Putin wants preferential, even protectionist, provisions for the Russian economy, but he does not espouse the creation of rigid opposing economic blocs or autarky. That simply will not work in today’s global economy.2

The “new Yalta” is a work in progress from Putin’s point of view.

But while that is in process, the West and Russia are in a state of war.

They will be fighting a new war that is fought everywhere with nonmilitary as well as military means. Ultimately, in pursuing his goals as the Statist, Putin remains a pragmatist. In figuring out how to prevail in this war, Putin knows that Russia does not have the economic or military resources for the old Soviet (and Russian) mass-army, total mobilization approach to defending its interests.

Given the contemporary balance of forces, Russia will always lose in such a conflict. The United States, NATO members, and other de facto U.S. allies have a collective GDP more than ten times that of Russia’s as well as more conventional arms. Putin needs to avoid a good old-fashioned twentieth-century war (even a small one) and accomplish his goals without resorting to total mobilization.

Twenty-first-century wars involve targeted nonmilitary efforts. They are the least disruptive to the normal functioning of the Russian economy even though they can also be very damaging.3

And after characterizing the nature of conflict going forward from Putin’s perspective, the authors argue that the Ukrainian crisis is a key marker in the way ahead.

As far as what Vladimir Putin might do next, it seems rather clear: He will keep Ukraine boiling, and he will probe and poke, and prepare for contingency operations elsewhere in the neighborhood. Putin will rely on asymmetry and the element of tactical surprise, whenever and wherever he strikes next, for maximum effect.

Beyond Ukraine, all of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, has vulnerabilities from the Case Officer’s perspective. Baltic states such as Estonia have shaky border agreements with Russia; they also have many Russian speakers without citizenship, as well as economic ties to Russia. All can be used to good effect.

Old Cold War methods can be deployed across the region that fall short of the threshold of triggering an armed response from NATO.4

And what should the West do to counter the Putin agenda and the Putin approach?

Putin’s operational aims will continue to be to find the weaknesses in Western defenses, to goad and intimidate Western leaders and publics, and to make sure everyone knows he will make good on his threats.

The onus will now be on the West to shore up its own home defenses, reduce the economic and political vulnerabilities, and create its own contingency plans if it wants to counter Vladimir Putin’s new twenty-first-century warfare 5


  1. Hill, Fiona. and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin (Geopolitics in the 21st Century) . Brookings Institution Press. p. 3.
  2. Hill, Fiona. and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin (Geopolitics in the 21st Century) . Brookings Institution Press. pp. 393-394.
  3. Hill, Fiona. and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin (Geopolitics in the 21st Century) . Brookings Institution Press. pp. 394-395.
  4. Hill, Fiona. and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin (Geopolitics in the 21st Century) . Brookings Institution Press. p. 396-397.
  5. Hill, Fiona. and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin (Geopolitics in the 21st Century) . Brookings Institution Press. p. 397.