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Strobe Talbott on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Contempt of the West

In the most recent Brookings Cafeteria podcast, I sat down with Brookings President Strobe Talbott. Our conversation ranged across a variety of topics, including his career as a journalist, diplomat, and think tank leader; his role in defusing two international crises in one dangerous week; and why he calls climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of infectious disease “existential threats.” But Talbott also spent considerable time on the challenge posed by Vladimir Putin and an increasingly assertive Russia. After describing the ouster of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999-2000—a period when he was seen to be fomenting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo—as “a perfect example of how Russia and the West could work together,” Talbott turned to the present day.

Listen to the podcast starting at 20:05 for that portion of the conversation, or skip below to read the transcript.

I have had my own dealings with Vladimir Putin going back to the late 1990s, shortly after Boris Yeltsin brought him from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I dealt with him in four capacities. One as the national security adviser to the Kremlin, that is, to Yeltsin; then as prime minister; then as acting president; and finally as an elected president.

My sense of him … from the very beginning is he is what he was, if I could put it that way, which is a cop. And more specifically, a KGB guy. And more specifically still, a counterespionage KGB guy. Which is a little different than a spy. It’s somebody who ferrets out spies, whose profession is essentially paranoia … preemptive paranoia, you might call it. And I’ve always had the sense that he was not an enthusiast for the reforms that I think make Boris Yeltsin, bottom line, a very positive figure in history and somebody that I hope his own people will respect and even revere in years to come, but they certainly don’t now.

So, flash forward to now. For complex reasons that have deep roots in the past going long back into history, Putin has made himself a champion of what I would call Russia’s grievance about constantly being bullied, and patronized, and taken advantage of by the West. Which is, I think, itself a highly paranoid narrative of history.

He also is determined to use Russian nationalism; I would even say Russian chauvinism—and when I say Russian I mean ethnic Russian, religious, cultural Russian nationalism. And I say that because a lot of the citizens, around 20-25 percent of the citizens of the Russian federation, are not ethnic Russians and they don’t buy into this, but it has worked very well for him as he has taken advantage of what he sees as the weakness of the West. [But] I think he is making a big mistake in exaggerating that weakness.

And of course the triggering event of the current crisis is his actual annexation of Crimea and his virtual invasion and annexation of much of eastern Ukraine.

It does have some eerie and dangerous similarities to the Cold War. It also has some differences. Russian chauvinism is not the same thing as Marxism-Leninism, which was an internationalist ideology. And I don’t think that the danger of nuclear war between the United States and Russia is anywhere near what it was back say at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, or the Berlin crisis. But it’s not totally out of the question.

The biggest worry I have about the current situation is that Putin, who detests the expansion of NATO into what used to be allies of the Soviet Union—the Warsaw Pact countries and also into the Baltic States countries–might by miscalculation think that he could get away with some kind of intervention in the Baltic States which are members of NATO, in a way that could trigger a really major crisis. …

Two of them do [have ethnic Russian minorities]: Latvia and Estonia. … But had NATO not expanded starting back in the 1990s and into the first years of this century, and had NATO simply retained its membership from the Cold War days, and if those three Baltic States were not members of NATO, I think it is very, very probable that Russia would already be clomping around in its size 14 combat boots in the way that they have intervened in Ukraine.

Q: Is there a contradiction in Putin’s view of Western weakness and his opposition to NATO expansion?

That’s a very good point. Anybody who grew up in the Soviet Union spent a lot of time studying contradictions and not always understanding the contradictions in their own positions.

It’s in the following sense that he is contemptuous of the West. And I’m going to put it in fairly rude terms, but those are the ones which he has used publicly. He has very little respect for the president of the United States. He has scoffed publicly at there being quite a few women in powerful positions in western governments.

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By the way the one who most comes to mind is the one who understands him best, and that’s Angela Merkel of Germany, who has I think proved to be a superb leader of the West and also the leader in the West who understands Putin better than anybody else because she grew up in East Germany. Her Russian is just about as good as his German. She really gets him and she stood up to him very well.

He is also presenting himself as a (this is going to sound a bit strange but this is the way he puts it) … sort of family values, conservative, social issues [person]. Under his reign there has been persecution and prosecution of gays and lesbians, sexism, [and] racism. Anything you want, it’s all there and it bears a kind of eerie resemblance to what are some of the fringe sentiments in the West. And nationalism of a very aggressive, intolerant sort.

Q: What can or should be done?

I think the short answer to that is a two track policy that resurrects, because Putin has made it necessary to resurrect, a version of containment. And I’m using that word advisedly. I know it’s associated with the Cold War, and I said earlier that were differences with the Cold War. But there is also one similarity with the Cold War and that is we are once again dealing with an expansionist Russia. A Russia that will use hard power—I would say stupid hard power as opposed to smart power—to expand its own borders by means of force. And that means revitalizing the containment mission of the North Atlantic alliance.

But the other part is engagement with those parts of Russian society, the Russian private sector, and even, if we can find them, parts of the power elite in Russia who are invested in what was the signature policy of the late Soviet Union—that is under Gorbachev and the early years of post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin—which is a commitment to two propositions. One is that the system of the past, the Communist, Soviet system, wasn’t working. It wasn’t working for the Soviet Union itself and it had to be jettisoned or massively reformed. And the other is that if Russia is ever going to be what I’ve heard Russians describe [as] their aspiration—”we just want to be a normal modern country”—then Russia has to join the rest of the world. It means buy into the upside of globalization [and] integrate with international institutions.

And there was a lot of progress in that direction which Putin in many respects is reversing. But that doesn’t mean that everybody in Russia and every subcategory of people who have influence there aren’t nervous about the direction in which he’s taking them. And we should do everything we can, not so much to treat them as a fifth column, because that’s the way Putin will see it, … to just keep lines open to them, support them where it’s possible, and hope that over time the bankruptcy of Putin’s policy will become apparent to his own people. And I think what’s happening with the economy in Russia right now may be increasing the awareness of the downside of his policies.


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