Many Americans have a hard time understanding Vladimir Putin. This is partly by design: The cleverness of Russia’s president hovers just outside the West’s intellectual grasp. His love of conquest and glory appear to us as monstrous, cruel, and unnecessary. Why?
Alexis de Tocqueville might have the answer: “The man who inhabits democratic countries finds near to him only beings who are almost the same … All the truths applicable to himself appear to him to apply equally and in the same manner to each of his fellow citizens and to those like him.” We see, but we don’t see.
Putin, it seems, knows this about us, and seeks to exploit our blurry vision. He is waging a new genre of warfare, derived less from tactical calculations about military hardware. Rather, Putin has carefully thought through the question: How do I approach war so as to convince the West that this is not a war at all? That is, how do I relieve the West from its obvious aversion to anything smacking of violence, and convince them that war is unnecessary?
His tactics disclose this thinking. And much of the Western media, unwittingly complicit, maintain a spirit of skepticism to avoid open accusations against him. For example, many of those labeled Ukrainian “separatists” are in fact Russian-trained and -equipped troops. The West, for the most part, has been quite happy to accept this Kremlin-invented label, as it simultaneously removes blame from Putin for intervening in a sovereign nation, while appealing to our love of self-determination, freedom, and democracy. We want to believe, and Putin, familiar with our desperate credulity, avoids sending in unambiguously Russian forces.
Putin appears to understand instinctively what our endless opinion polls and social science studies cannot. Alexander Hamilton lamented long ago, in Federalist 25, what may become our tendency to act as if “all that kind of policy by which nations anticipate distant danger and meet the gathering storm must be abstained from.” Putin knows we want to be deceived. But what nation would choose, as Hamilton puts it, to “receive the blow before we could even prepare to return it”?
Putin’s new genre of war in part stems from our Western intellectual deficiencies. He knows we cannot countenance full-on conventional warfare in such a critical region—but we can swallow ambiguity. He knows that we will likely intervene only on account of moralism or shame, but we will not act strategically, trusting in our judgment. Putin will provide us with empirical data to sufficiently muddy the waters and thereby destroy our confidence in our own intuition. The incursion of a “humanitarian” convoy of 200-plus trucks into Ukraine last month was a masterful example of this.
Putin has for the past several years deliberately infected the European Union with a dependency on Russian oil, gas, and military hardware purchases. The dependency on these is not sufficient to prevent utterly necessary war of course, but enough to at least delay any EU interventions in the current crisis.
And this carefully planned dependence results in lukewarm hesitancy. Consider a recent statement by NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen: “The disregard of international humanitarian principles raises further questions about whether the true purpose of the aid convoy is to support civilians or to resupply armed separatists.” Strong action is not born from vague accusations based on abstract principles.
Putin further understands that by delaying the US and the EU from intervening for long enough, once the evidence regarding his intentions is utterly clear for all who have eyes, an intervention (much like in Syria) will be too late. Putin’s position will be so strong that any US movement could provoke genuinely serious and open warfare.
The current administration is willing to do nearly anything, and to therefore lose nearly anything, to avoid conflict. We saw this in our willingness to sit at a negotiating table and be extorted on the world’s stage by the Iranians. We saw it, too, in our willingness to be humiliated internationally by Chinese penetrations into Department of Defense hard drives, as well as in our dithering on Syria.
Putin likely understands us better than we do ourselves.
Arthur Milikh is the assistant director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.