Mark Galeotti’s recent assessment of what Putin wants and the pitfalls of inferring motivation from past behavior goes a long way to lying out the binary thinking that can come to grip all Russia watchers. Is Putin a classic kelptocrat more concerned about the moneybag in his left hand, or a moral crusader with a stronger grip on the cross-tipped scepter in his right?
In ‘Kleptocrat or crusader? It’s time to figure out what Putin wants’, Galeotti focuses on claims made by Karen Dawisha, who argues that corruption is not a byproduct of Putin’s power vertical, rather, corruption and all of its spoils were, all along, Putin’s primary objective.
Galeotti in turn, argues that to pigeonhole Putin as a kleptocrat seeking material gain, rather than a rational leader who is the standard bearer for a cause, is to fundamentally misunderstand what motivates the Russian leader to act.
Between those two poles, kleptocrat or crusader, it is not difficult to imagine how Putin would frame his own actions, both publicly and personally.
But just as psychologists differentiate between the ‘I’ (how we see ourselves) and the ‘me’ (how others see us), I think what Putin himself believes about his own motives may belie what prompts him to act.
For years, countless accusations have surrounded Putin, accusations which paint him as a deeply vain man who allegedly gets botox despite his carefully crafted tough guy image, boosts a watch collection worth six times his annual salary, and reportedly built a multi-billion dollar drug lord-esque palace on the Black Sea.
He even allegedly stole a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and reportedly had his guards snatch a tacky glass replica of a Kalashnikov automatic weapon from the Guggenheim.
Masha Gessen has gone as far as to say he suffers from pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”
In this light, his carefully crafted identity as “an honest and incorruptible civil servant” is intended to mask and perhaps compensate for his compulsion.
During his time as a KGB agent in Dresden, German intelligence even characterized Putin as a “philanderer and a wife beater.”
Such accusations and armchair psychological evaluations are par for the course in a regime as secretive as Putin’s. But even he, growing up on the rough, post-war streets of Saint Petersburg, stressed in his official biography that he was more of “bully” than a “Pioneer.”
The question is, did this rebel find a cause, or is the cause, as Gessen’s interpretation would posit, merely a cover for the deeper compulsion?
A loyalist paramilitary in Northern Ireland, after all, can claim (and even believe) he joined the UDA for the sake of protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. But what he loves, and what actually drives him (perhaps subconsciously) is the power, the violence, and the illicit gains brought in through crime. Without the paramilitary identity, the mysticism of the history and the purpose, he is, in fact, a thug. There is a powerful psychological benefit in being able to reconceptualize crime through the prism of a cause. That is true for a street kid in Sandy Row turned paramilitary; that is true for a street kid from Saint Petersburg who became president. But make no mistake, even without the veneer of legitimacy given by a political cause, a certain type of person would embark on that path no matter what. In popular fiction, the transformation of Walter White in the series Breaking Bad was a character study in that very form of criminal archetype.
So is Putin cut from the same cloth of Walter White — was he simply built for crime?
Of course, no one knows what Putin privately believes regarding his goals, and what motivates him to act, nor can motive simply be derived by actions and outcomes.
One only need to look at the two events that most shaped Russia’s global perception in 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to understand that Putin the crusader and Putin the crook narratives both gel irregardless of the datum.
Regarding the former, the widely reported (but never verified) price tag of $50 billion for the Games inspired countless ‘what if’ scenarios regarding how that money could have been put to better use (education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.)
Critics will contend that the exorbitant price tag on a prestige project in a country where living conditions outside of Moscow can be quite dire is a perfect sign that the national treasury is a piggybank of Putin’s inner circle (notwithstanding the fact that billions did come from private investors, even if billions more were allegedly stolen from the government coffers).
Others will claim that Russia, which has never confronted and processed its loss of imperial status, is the kind of place where some people would rather drive on pockmarked roads and watch their orphanages crumble if it means the world will turn its attention to them, if only for a moment.
It might sound like madness, though it’s a madness we can all understand. It is, on a national level, the phenomenon of a slum kid in South Asia buying a Western-style B-Boy jersey at the expense of going hungry for week, or Kazakh families bankrupting themselves buying animals to be slaughtered for ostentatious funeral ceremonies.
People make choices like that all of the time. What we call rational is based on a messy nexus of need, culture, obsession, and myriad other qualities one would be hard pressed to unravel. Putin, for the vertiginous heights he has scaled as a historical figure, comes from the same inauspicious circumstances as his countrymen. That is one reality that is often lost on the West; Russians, with few exceptions, lived out parallel experiences during Soviet times. It is one of the few places on earth where society’s upper-crust and dregs have many intersecting and shared experiences (as much as many of them would hide it today.)
The pain of Soviet life was in part compensated for the greatness of being a world power. That pride is gone, and unlikely to return.
One could argue that for Putin, Sochi was perhaps about the infrastructure of the heart, if not the country. For a brief window of time, the resentment of millions could be overcome via the proxy of sports. The anger that that proxy was quickly soiled by events in Ukraine should not be underestimated.
The point being, when it comes to the Games, the kleptocrat and crusader interpretations both fall into what W. Joseph Campbell called “the cusp of plausibility.” The motive cannot be easily inferred from outcome, and the primary actor (Putin) might not know himself, even if he thinks he does.
The second such example is Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. For Galeotti, the cost of Russia’s secret invasion of its neighbor demonstrates how this conflict is being motivated more by ideological concerns than financial ones.
“In Ukraine, the neat seizure of Crimea brought domestic legitimacy at the cost of the first sanctions; the subsequent intrusion into southeastern Ukraine has mired Russia in a politically- and fiscally-expensive conflict,” he wrote.
This is arguably true within a short-term context, but intervention in Ukraine can also be seen as absolutely necessary in maintaining the longterm viability of Russia existing as a kleptocracy (and a quasi-empire.)
In Russia, Moscow has often been described as the ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east en masse, the money flows west.
Putin’s Customs Union was arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. If billions of dollars flow into Moscow illicitly (last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck), well, that is just icing on the cake.
But while Russia does offer a market for goods from former satellites (and subsidized gas), allegiance almost guarantees institutional breakdown, corruption and decay. And, as global capitalists, those expanded markets come without any social responsibility from Moscow’s side. For those saying Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union, in a sense, the inverse of that is true, at least as far as capital is concerned. In the Soviet Union, the goal was to reward the ideologically faithful, to make tangible the benefits of socialism.
Now, there is nothing to believe. Moscow’s goal, arguably, is not to subsidize, but to siphon.
The majority of Ukrainians believed in this interpretation and wanted to break from Moscow’s orbit. It has often been said that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be an empire. But in truth, Russia cannot be a kleptocracy with an institutionally sound, euro-centric Ukraine on its southern flank. What’s a few billion dollars for a shadow war when you are trying to keep an entire region under your thumb? That it would contribute to stellar popularity ratings at home for a population which has been made pathologically resentful certainly does not hurt.
So once again, when it comes to “the cusp of plausibility”, confirmation bias can lead you in either direction. It’s all a matter of how one looks at the same phenomena.
All of this is useful as an intellectual exercise, but formulating a policy in regards to Russia ultimately entails divining Putin’s motives. But what about Galeotti’s assertion that “the palaces and the yachts are side-effects, rather than end goals” in Putin’s Russia? Is the West really misguided to follow the money, rather than the rhetoric?
It is arguable that Putin would be playing a drastically different game in Ukraine if if ideology trumped finance. After the relentless Russian state media onslaught regarding a “fascist” takeover and anti-Russian pogroms, that Moscow has not openly intervened in Eastern Ukraine to save their “brothers” seems counterintuitive. Putin, after all, claimed he had considered the nuclear option just to protect his compatriots in Crimea, adding that they were ready to “take [former President] Yanukovich out of Ukraine by sea, land, and air.”
And when Crimea officially “joined” Russia on March 18, 2014, Putin gave a speech in which he declared his right to defend all citizens of the “Russian world.”
But if Putin really believed in a cause, and was willing to suffer greater Western sanctions for the greater benefit of that “Russian world,” there is a strong case he would have openly intervened in Ukraine and have long since built a land bridge between Donetsk and Crimea. The move would have been widely popular domestically, and for a leader who is rhetorically committed to “gathering Russian lands”, in line with his crusade.
In fact, reports even surfaced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Putin to take the Donbass off of his hands, to which Putin reportedly replied: “’Are you out of your mind? I don’t need the Donbass. If you don’t need it, declare it independent.’”
Notwithstanding the likelihood that Poroshenko ever said such a thing, the “leak” implies that Moscow wants the world to believe he said it, and that Putin considered the idea to be madness.
In truth, there are two primary reasons why Putin wouldn’t “take” Donbass off of Poroshenko’s hands. One, incorporating the regions into the Russian Federation would be costly. Secondly, Western sanctions would be deeply ratcheted up. That such financial concerns would supersede the needs of what Putin called “a unique sociocultural civilizational community” seem at odds with a leader on a moral mission.
In truth, Putin’s Soviet roots and composition of his actual inner circle point more towards a man who is comfortable using the language of nationalism, but ultimately does not believe in it. His cause might be that of lost Soviet power (not socialist ideology), but like all Soviet’s who suffered the privations of the times, that power should be balanced with access to luxury goods and the freedom to park your money and your children abroad (Putin’s own daughter only recently fled her luxurious home in the Netherlands.)
If one wants to understand a man cut from Putin’s own cloth, there is no need to look back at historical figures like Pyotr Stolypin or Ivan the Great, when a far more viable analogue is available: Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).
A ‘sovok’ or Soviet man to the core and a ‘leader for life’ who speaks about the scourge of corruption while allegedly stealing billions and bringing state enterprises under family control, Nazarbayev was an avowed atheist who flirts with religiosity to placate the nationalist sentiments of the Kazakh Muslim majority he is a member of. But Nazarbayez has something that Putin will never have: a country rich enough to plunder but just weak enough for the West to ignore on all fronts but business.
One only needs to look at the true message of RT and the disparate political parties Russia funds abroad to understand, above all, the one thing that Putin has always wanted. Everything is bad, everyone is corrupt, there is nothing left to believe in anymore, so lets stop with these political games and just do business. If the West, one day, learned to really do business Russian-style, lofty rhetoric about the decedent West and the “Russian world” would quickly be a thing of the past.
But to his great consternation, the West, as far, as Russia is concerned, refuses to turn that blind eye. Nazarbayev, who sits at the head of the Switzerland of Central Asia, with Russia, America and China all vying for influence, has been given the green light for graft and human rights violations. Just don’t rock your boat too far to one side or the other.
As a national leader, Putin’s cause is likely the same as Nazarbayev’s cause, but barring the luxury geopolitics affords his Kazakh counterpart, Putin has been forced to assume another mantle all together. But it is unlikely the one he really wants.