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Akshobh Giridharadas: Why Putin is Antagonistic Towards the West

Akshobh Giridharadas, Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy Candidate 2019, The Fletcher School

The winds of change were blowing through Germany in 1989. The Soviet grip over its stronghold East Germany was fast fading, communism was losing its base in Eastern Europe and the United States was seen to be leading the charge in getting nations to espouse its democratic ideals.

Yet, that same year one KGB officer stationed in Dresden, East Germany, was shoveling sensitive documents into a furnace as protesters gathered outside. The Berlin Wall was crumbling, shattering one of the last bastions of Soviet supremacy. For that young KGB officer, named Vladimir Putin, this was nothing short of sacrilege. As he witnessed the embers in the furnace, it was a different fire igniting in Putin — one that lit his path to the Kremlin for nearly two decades. Putin saw this as a great tragedy engineered by the United States. It’s no wonder that he famously referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

This was the second coup-de-grace in the last 100 years of Russia’s tumultuous political history. The Kremlin observes historical dates even if it does little to publicly acknowledge them. 2017 marked the 100th year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution; where a radical minority of socialists usurped power and embarked on a Marxist path.

The short but substantial period ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union, and several of its former colonies, went about forging their own new national identity. December 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of this collapse. The Russian state-controlled media ignored both these anniversaries as they serve as reminders to Putin for what should not have been.

The world was now convinced that communism wasn’t an economically feasible idea for budding societies, after the Soviet Union, the epitome of a communist superpower, collapsed. China, another communist nation, had opened up its economy a few years ago and was adopting its own economic model. India, another proponent and experimenter of the Soviet socialist model, found itself in a financial quagmire and started economic reforms in 1991. It was evinced that the Soviet’s iron-fist approach to politics and economics was archaic and insidious. The global consensus was that America had been right all along with its democratic ideals and free market economy.

Putin tried to resurrect the Russian story in a new setting. Goldman Sachs in 2001 coined the famous acronym BRIC (with Russia being represented in the R), an endorsement of growth and a strong deviation in economic strategy from its Marxist-Leninist Soviet roots. On the geopolitical front, Russia was tackling the threat of Islamist separatists in Chechnya. Then came 9/11 and Putin was among the first of the many leaders to extend his support to President George W Bush in the soon to be christened War on Terror. For Putin, this was his moment to reset US-Russia relations. For the first time in decades, both nuclear powers found themselves on the same side – as allies fighting the threat of terrorism. He cautioned against invading Iraq, but Bush and his military think tank had made up their mind. Bush not only ignored objections, but instead skirted around the United Nations Security Council. Moscow found this particularly opprobrious given that Russia was a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power. Russia’s suggestions were disregarded. Iraq was America’s agenda, and there was no place for Moscow at the wheel.

For Putin, this was a humiliating reminder of the sheer Cold War disdain that the Americans held towards the Russians. Ironically, Putin and Moscow felt that the United States had given more reverence towards the Soviets during the Cold War era than in the early 2000s. Albeit for an entirely different reason: during the Cold War era, there was this perennial fear and trepidation of the Soviets as a nuclear force to reckon with. Since the thawing of relations, the United States looked at the Cold War as a decisive American victory for dismantling a communist regime and with that preventing the spread of communism.

There was no formal surrender treaty, or a peace treaty signed. Putin has long felt that Russia has not been appreciated for ending the Cold War, dismantling communism and allowing Eastern European states to go their own way. Hence, the victorious posturing from Washington has often left the Kremlin seething.

While Putin tried to fit into America’s mainstream liberal world order, he soon found there was no real seat at the table for a former nemesis to receive treatment as that of an equal. At the end of World War-I, many saw World War II inevitable, purely because of the public humiliation Germany had to face with the Treaty of Versailles. At the end of World War-II, a US-led West Germany and a Soviet-led East Germany, albeit with its hardships and flaws, solved the German Question. Putin has long felt that Russia has not been recognized as a power or given the elevated status.

Instead of integrating Russia into what Putin sees as an American-led liberal system, from the Kremlin’s perspective, the US tried to accentuate the economic hardship in Russia during the 1990s. To an extent, it did this through US-led institutions by creating norms and enacting policies often at the expense of Russia. In the 2000s, the message that started to come from Russia and Putin was: “it’s not going to continue.”

Putin’s Mark Anthony moment came during the Munich Security Conference of 2007 where he brazenly said only two decades ago, the world was ideologically and economically split, and its security was provided by “the massive strategic potential of two superpowers”. But that order had been replaced by a “unipolar world” dominated only by America. “It is the world of one master, one sovereign.”

Putin’s Munich doctrine had an underlying tone – that the United States poses as the epitome of democracy, spreading good governance but, however, they’re spreading chaos with Washington’s Cold War era policy of deposing and installing foreign leaders.

This would explain Putin’s collusion with the Assad regime. Putin and Russia see Assad as fighting a common enemy – radical jihadists. Furthermore, after the imbroglio in Iraq, Putin has long believed that the US interventionist policy of regime change has only exacerbated situations from bad to worse (Iraq, Egypt & Libya).

Putin’s approval rating surged in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. It was seen as Russia’s return to imperial grandeur. Putin’s riposte was the ‘reintegration of Crimea’ to US and NATO forces dubbing it as the annexation of Crimea.  It was a politically risky move by Putin, but he saw how Crimea was important from a Russian identity position. It was perceived by the majority of the Russian population as an injustice that Crimea was taken from Russia in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev while rearranging Soviet borders internally.

Putin touts the referendum in Crimea as resounding. He points out how majority of Crimeans are not just Russian speaking, but  they are Russians who were stationed there during the era of Soviet borders. He lauds how the reintegration of Crimea was a movement supported by the Russian people.  But this wasn’t just about Crimea, it was Putin emboldened chess move – this was him leaping over various other pieces to take what he perceived as his; irrespective of the consequences of sanctions and the western diatribe that would keep coming his way.

Putin has always been suspicious of America’s global democracy promotion. Putin’s thinking is shaped by the memory of two of Russia’s biggest collapses of 1917 and 1991. His paranoia may not be unfounded for he fears he himself will be the prime target when another collapse comes.

The Russian strongman hasn’t been perturbed by the allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential elections. Experts familiar with Russia and the Kremlin cite that Putin has a rather nonchalant view towards the allegations. As a former sleuth, he is well aware that the Americans were the first to create a cyber military command through the Pentagon and the NSA’s sophisticated cyber programmes. The fact that the Russians didn’t really bother hiding their fingerprints is a testament to the change in Putin’s intent toward the US.

Putin’s Russia is not easy to compartmentalize. It is both strong but weak, authoritarian and lawless, traditionalist and valueless.  However, Putin is resetting the board and given the American geopolitical and institutional failures, he perhaps is hoping that the world starts listening to an alternative voice – perhaps Russia?

This article was republished from The Observer Research Foundation.

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