This column was originally published with a different title. It has been changed to better reflect the views expressed in the column.
The media has a tendency to depict politicians as villains, and I don’t mind it: it makes for a good show and some people were born for the role.
What frustrates me when I watch Western coverage of Russia is how they make Putin into the wrong kind of villain. He often gets portrayed a sociopathic genius seemingly driven by lust for power and chaos. But instead, I think he bears similarity to Magneto: having started with understandable values and noble goals, he saw them crushed by humanity’s cynicism and, powered by his fear and rage, he descended into committing horrible crimes.
What follows is a system of views that, when coupled together with some of the decisions the U.S. has made in the past decades, explains great many things about Putin and Russia’s foreign policy. Like any narrative it is false by virtue of its simplicity but I think it gets a great deal right about not just the views of Mr. Putin but many of my compatriots.
First, even though our world is more peaceful today than it has ever been, the possibility of total war still looms in the background, and it is careless to forget even for a second about the warheads stashed in everyone’s basement. Security comes before economy, safety before happiness.
Secondly, just like a state with a single dictator, a world with a single all-deciding power is a world incapable of rational decisions, eventually bound to end in a catastrophe. Thus, it is paramount for multiple powers to provide checks for each other, and it is Russia’s destiny to be one of these powers.
Now, imagine being a Russian president holding these two views, and through the lens of them take a look at U.S. foreign policy over the past couple of decades. The first thing you are going to notice is NATO playfully tickling your war paranoia by slowly crawling eastward. Latvia. Poland. Bulgaria. It’s not just agreements; physical bases get built and personnel hired, inching closer to your border year by year. Estonia. Slovenia. Albania. In 1990, in the wake of the collapse of Berlin Wall, an informal promise was made to Mikhail Gorbachev by General Secretary Manfred Wörner that NATO was not going to move a mile further east. The failure to deliver on this promise is one of Putin’s biggest grievances, one that keeps coming up in his speeches almost 30 years after the fact.
The second thing you would see is how unipolar the world has become after the collapse of Soviet Union. Time after time, NATO, and primarily the U.S., is able to interfere with the affairs of other countries with pretty much no accountability to the international community. Although the cleanest example of this would be Iraq, the bombings in Yugoslavia are also worth a mention. Due to its geographical and cultural proximity, the conflict in Kosovo, rarely remembered here in U.S., is still very vivid in the memory of my compatriots and has probably wounded Putin deeper than any other international crisis. Annexing Crimea, in his eyes, is then an act of retaliation, and the economic sanctions the evidence of double standards.
Year after year, NATO grew ever larger and the list of U.S. military operations longer. Putin’s fears were played out and grievances magnified. As a result, his actions have become progressively more irrational and ruthless. It used to be that backchanneling and bargaining were the main instruments in steering Ukraine away from the Western block, but when 2014 came around Putin was too cynical to tiptoe around international law so often ignored by the Western “colleagues.” Having initially viewed the West as partners with similar goals and values, by 2016 he saw only enemies at world summits, and I suspect he did not hesitate for a minute before making the decision to run an extensive election-interference campaign in the U.S.
What is even more scary is that, through some stroke of unbelievable luck, both of these wildly risky endeavours (Crimea and election interference) turned out successful, at least in the short run, thus teaching Putin that the cynical and radical response is the way to go.
I disagree with the system of views I have laid out in this column, or rather I believe that the time when they were right is long gone. But I sure can empathize with my president, imagining the rage and disappointment he must have suffered through as his opponents kept poking at his deepest wounds and manufacturing ghosts from his worst nightmares. He is a villain I can understand, which is not something I can say about his U.S. counterpart.
Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.