Why the West Gets Putin So Wrong

It was the sinking of the Russian submarine the Kursk in 2000 that first prompted Vladimir Putin to reveal critical elements of his personality to world. Since then, the Western media have generally characterized him as a heartless bully bent on challenging the West at every turn. While various western Kremlinologists claim to have insight into Putin's brain, in reality, few do. A big part of the reason is that so few view Putin through the prism of his upbringing, and Russian history, which is critical to getting Putin right.

By Western standards, he came from nothing. Excelling at judo presented Putin with his first opportunity to become something more than an average kid living in communal housing. During his martial arts training he became more reactionary and disciplined. He calculated maneuvers on the mat, waiting patiently for his moment to take his opponent down, which made his mind more focused and goal oriented. Like so many Russians raised during the Soviet era, Putin was driven by opportunity, which is not the same as greed, but rather, a survival instinct.

As a child, Putin knew he wanted to be a KGB agent. He subsequently devoted 16 years of his life to being a Soviet spy, which allowed him to supplement his judo skills with calculation and precision. Though many in the West connote being a KGB agent with ruthlessness, Putin equated it with a deep love for the Russian state, which is why he often refers to himself as "a servant of the state".

As he noted in his memoir First Person, Putin felt abandoned when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 while he was stationed in Germany. It was a pivotal point in his life that proved instrumental in shaping his world view as president and prime minister. The shock of receiving no response from Moscow after the Wall fell, combined with the fear and shame of the breakup of his once great nation, overwhelmed him. Since then, this memory has pervaded his psyche and has been instrumental in his desire to reconstruct a new, better Russia.

When in the early 1990s Putin worked as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, he was asked which Russian leader he wanted for his office portrait. Instead of choosing the standard portrait of Lenin, Putin chose Peter the Great -- the loud, brash, innovative leader of the Russian Empire. His St. Petersburg colleague, Vladimir Churov, has explained that Putin chose the portrait of when his reforms were at their most active, immediately following the failed Prussian campaign and Northern war, when Peter laid the foundations of the Russian Empire.

So Vladimir Putin is a statist who adores and wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. In that regard, he is not very different from any number of other historical and current world leaders. As such, Putin's actions in Crimea should be no real surprise, particularly given that most Russians view Crimea as historically part of Russia. In doing so, his actions were consistent with Russian foreign policy, which has historically been more reactive than proactive. Seen from Putin's and many Russians' perspective, they are simply taking back what was theirs until 1954 while preserving the ability to project Russian power in the region and beyond.

Putin is being consistent with his training in martial arts and the KGB -- he is disciplined, calculating, precise, and seized an opportunity that presented itself in pursuit of his objectives. His thought process is not driven by Western principles, but, rather, realpolitik. Putin carefully calculates the potential costs and benefits of his actions well before acting, and in this case accurately assessed that there would be few meaningful costs attributable to annexing Crimea.

Our best guess is that Putin is smart enough not go any further in attempting to militarily manipulate the order of Russia's western flank. Given NATO's mutual defense pact, it is inconceivable that Putin would invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, and he also knows that an invasion of Ukraine's eastern provinces would likely be met with a military response from the Ukraine. For that reason, he will consolidate his gains in Crimea satisfied with the knowledge that he got what was most important to him at relatively little cost, and that he exercised his plan with precision and bravado.


Jennifer Ciotta is the author of the novel "I Putin." Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the book "Managing Country Risk."