Who is Mr. Putin?’, a titular question, though simple, is one that the Western world struggles to answer. A 2018 PEW research center survey revealed 57 percent of those surveyed across 25 countries did not trust the Russian president. However, this predisposed and narrow reading of Putin discredits his distinct diplomatic skills and long history of charm, wit, and personal relationships with Western leaders, who do not regard him with the same respect as “traditional” actors. Both because of and in spite of this perception, Putin navigates foreign affairs with a weak hand and unmatched sophistication. The Russian president’s ambitious foreign policy seeks to transform Russia into a leader in the international system while avoiding sliding into open conflict with the West, something only a refined leader, equipped with both charisma and unpredictability, can successfully maneuver. Putin is a sophisticated world actor who toes this fine line with a malleable foreign policy that optimizes present realities and exploits Western leadership, at times with compassion, at times with callousness.
Putin established himself as a ruthless and hierarchical individual long before his ascent to the Russian presidency. While mystery surrounds Putin’s pre-public life, Karen Dawisha lays out some details that have come to be considered as fact in her book, Putin’s Kleptocracy—that Putin was a KGB officer, that he operated in Dresden from at least 1985 to 1990, and that some Kremlin insiders, notably Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov, became part of Putin’s inner circle during his KGB tenure. Beyond these baseline facts and the details Putin himself has confirmed, little is known about the former lieutenant colonel that is not ultimately speculation. More is known about his political career, which began with his appointment as the head of the Committee for External Relations for Saint Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1991. Still, it is apparent Putin enjoys the confusion he casts on those trying to figure out his modus operandi.
Because little more is known, Western leaders and scholars view Putin’s KGB background and relationship with Russia’s vorovsky mir (“criminal world”), largely influenced by his time in Saint Petersburg, as the foundation for his unpredictable and dubious behavior. It is clear that the smokescreen Putin maintains around his internal decision-making apparatus is effective—because he is regarded as nefarious and suspect, he is accepted as irrational. An aura of mystery and an assumption of senseless behavior instills a fear in Washington and Brussels that cannot be beat by a more insidious yet predictable actor. What Putin cannot achieve with faith, he will achieve with fear.
From the attempted-assassination of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal on British soil to meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election, the Russian leader has found a way to crawl underneath the skin of leaders across Europe and North America. In December 2019, Bellingcat identified the “Berlin Bicycle Assassin,” arrested as Vadim Sokolov, to actually be Vadim Nikolaevich Krasikov, a man who was wanted for murder by the Russian state in 2013. It was subsequently concluded by the open-source intelligence platform that Krasikov could not have acted without the aid of the Russian state, which wiped his information from state databases, withdrew his search warrant, and presumably provided him with state documents under Vadim Sokolov in order for him to make it to Berlin.
Putin has denied the state’s role in the assassination, as well as any involvement in other assassination attempts or election interference. However, some of Russia’s bolder moves are not denied by the Kremlin. The annexation of Crimea and separatist conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, backed by Moscow, shook the European Union as a shooting war involving two or more state players unfolded in Europe for the first time since Kosovo in 1999. Russia’s military intervention in Syria was a shock to many, but Putin’s alignment with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a perfect example of the way he winks at the West, fangs exposed all the while. Especially with his actions in Syria, Putin has effectively played on the “confusion and divisions” of the West in juggling Russia and international crises.
But if it is indisputable that Putin is just another villain in the global game of chess, how is it that he continues to pleasantly surprise Western leaders? How can the man suspected of orchestrating the 1999 apartment building bombings receive a “roaring ovation” from the Bundestag in response to his speech praising the German culture and language in 2001? Putin has proven unmatched in impressing world leaders with his charm, wit, and cultural sensitivity. Such behavior would suggest that despite strained relations and an asymmetrical balance of power, he is providing the opportunity for mutual respect and collaboration built on personal relationships to grow quietly.
Such courting can be found as easily as the little green men in Crimea or Russian missiles flying over Idlib; as Kenneth Dekleva’s Putin’s Mad Soft Power Skills suggests, Putin certainly knows how to put the charm on. In August 2018, Putin attended Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl’s wedding in Gamlitz, waltzing with the bride, presenting her with a Russian choir, which sang traditional Cossack folksongs. A month later, President Xi Jinping of China was invited to Vladivostok by Putin to participate in a blini cook-off, where they shared words of admiration and shots of vodka. The famous 2005 photograph of President George W. Bush driving Putin’s 1956 Volga outside of Moscow with Putin riding passenger perfectly captures the Russian president’s ability to establish intimate relationships that legitimatize Russia’s role in the world.
Putin’s diplomatic blend of sugar and spice enables him in two ways. Through aggression and scare tactics, Putin can maintain Russia’s reputation as a significant, if only dangerous, global actor. Suggested by foreign policy analyst Mark Galeotti, Putin’s “dark power” is effective given Russia’s vulnerable position, but ultimately unsustainable. By impressing Western leaders, Putin certainly plays into the mystery surrounding his persona, but more subtly, shows that he is capable of the cooperation necessary to build a better relationship between East and West. Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin once noted, “sometimes you have to take one step back before taking two steps forward,” and it would appear President Putin engages in a similar dance. His foreign policy is thus best described by Fingerspitzengenfül (“intuitive flair”)—based on the most “appropriate” response to the situation at hand.
Despite the best boasting from the West, Putin’s tactics do appear to be working. In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the EU and United States imposed sanctions targeting Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors. More sanctions against the Russian state followed Skripal’s attempted assassination and the election meddling. However, these sanctions have proven futile and are not even being fully adhered to by the Western states that issued them, the most obvious example of this being Germany’s cooperation with Russia in the development of the Nord Steam 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund tells CNBC that while sanctions are not ideal, Russia has adjusted and that foreign direct investment has not ceased. Russian military activity in Syria and Ukraine has not stopped, and more of those Putin considers to be an enemy of the state are likely to die. Perhaps this is not because Putin is an indiscriminate and cold-blooded killer; and if he is, why does the West not respond in a more punishing and deserving way?
When Western leaders and scholars speak of Putin’s formidableness, they often unduly emphasize Putin’s KGB career in East Germany. There appears to be general consensus that Putin is a danger to the West specifically because he is a “trained KGB agent,” as Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee commented in a CNN interview regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. This view is misleading for many reasons, including its elevation of Putin’s intelligence career to something that it wasn’t—he was stationed in Dresden, not Bonn, London, and certainly not Washington, and never made it past the rank of lieutenant colonel. Never mind the fact that the West of the Cold War was comprised of different leaders with different priorities and different strategy than the post-Cold War West, which can’t even agree on whether Europe needs an American presence to maintain collective security. The emphasis on Putin’s service undermines the glaring flaws in Western leadership to work together effectively to maintain stability within and without their borders. This mindset also undermines, while sophisticated and multifaceted, Putin’s normalcy; very much like them, he is responsive and rational in order to reach his objectives, as pointed out by Stephen Dyson and Matthew Parent in War on the Rocks. Putin’s poise is not derived from the fact that he is different from his Western counterparts, but rather from the idea that he is very much the same as them, albeit espousing influence from an objectively weaker position than other great power leaders.
But because Western perception often reduces Putin to a reckless “street thug,” no policy towards Russia takes into consideration the nuances of Putin and his position as a rational world leader. An unrelenting belief that Russia is a combative state that should be engaged only out of absolute necessity prohibits the United States and EU from working earnestly with the Kremlin to forge a trust-based relationship that reduces the burden of leadership on the West, while encouraging the development of a more promising Russian state. Two things must happen in order to reach this point: 1) The West must decide their strategic priorities and act in line with these priorities, and 2) Putin must feel he, and therefore Russia, is taken as a serious stakeholder in the balance of power. Until then, a desperate Putin will exploit the West’s ever-apparent disparities, playing a weak hand slyly, locked in a delicate dance aimed at keeping the West on its toes, and eyes on Moscow.
Madison Sargeant studies International Relations with a concentration in national security and Eastern Europe at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Madison has worked at the Texas State Capitol and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. She is published on Divergent Options, a non-politically aligned national security website. She can be found on Twitter at @SargeantMadison.