No one knows what Vladimir Putin is thinking because there is no way to know what he is thinking. There is no window into his head, no wire from his brain to the wonkosphere, no running commentary scrolling by under his resolute little chin. Which doesn’t stop the likes of Friedman and Mead from trying to convince us all that they – and only they – know what Putin is really thinking, and because we don’t know what they know, we’ll never get Russia policy right.
Here’s the thing: Whenever the world (or some part of it) thinks it has a grip on what Putin is thinking, he’ll surprise us. Not because he’s so inscrutable, but because there’s profit it in it. And that’s my point: we cannot possibly know what he’s thinking, but we do know what his incentives are. And if we stop deluding ourselves with ad hoc psychoanalysis, we might actually figure something out.
Let’s take Mead’s most recent attempt as a starting point. Putin, Mead says, thinks Russia is strong and the West is weak, and so he’s pushing his advantage. Perhaps. But Mead’s narrative is at odds with the facts: For the first 12 years or so of his reign, Putin has built his entire political and economic strategy around capitalizing on the West’s evident financial and institutional strength, from which Russia has successfully derived both capital and security for the country’s richest and most powerful. That is not the behavior of someone who thinks the West is weak.
More recently, Putin told those same rich and powerful that the West – beholden to capital and greedy for profit – would never impose and sustain sanctions on Russia. That is not the analysis of someone who has as good a grasp on how the West works as Mead thinks Putin does.
Here’s what we do know: Putin, who has found increasingly creative ways to stay in or near the Kremlin for some 15 years, is focused on the maintenance of power. That power, however, is limited: regardless of whether he likes it or thinks it’s a good way of doing business, we know that he manages a fractious and ambitious political, economic and security elite through informal bargains and understandings, rather than through formal institutions of power.
We also know that Putin has, over time, alienated a small but vocal portion of the population (and, to a lesser extent, a small but silent portion of the elite). Regardless of whether he believes it, we know that he has chosen to marginalize that proto-opposition through the mobilization of nationalist and traditionalist sentiment.
And we know that Putin finds the West threatening. Mead is wrong when he says that the West has failed to understand Putin; rather, the West has failed to listen. Putin has made it clear for years that he saw Europe as at least as much of a geopolitical threat to Russia as NATO, but Europe didn’t want to hear it. Now, of course, the message has gotten through, but instead of trying to figure out why, the pundits have us wondering whether Putin dreams of restoring imperial glory throughout the post-Soviet space, or whether he’ll be happy with a chunk of Eastern Ukraine.
While the answer to that question may indeed be in Putin’s head, we’re not going to find it by peeking in his ears. Add up what we do know – an interest in power, weak institutions, a multitude of perceived domestic and international threats and, now, an indebtedness to nationalist sentiment – and we have most of the information we need to make informed judgments.
The sum total is this: Putin balances not because he’s a balancer, but because he has no other option. Lacking in institutional power and the benefits of economic growth, he must continually shore up his symbolic legitimacy. That augurs for continued conflict. But the more he presses that conflict, the more expensive life becomes for his elite, and thus for him, too. That suggests there are limits to how far Putin will be willing to push. And that is exactly what we observe: a front that moves one step forward and one step back, bloodily marking time and keeping everybody guessing. And that’s the other thing he needs to do: keep everyone guessing. Because as soon as they stop guessing, as soon as they ‘figure him out’, they can outmaneuver him.
Ironically, these continual attempts to tap into Putin’s thoughts make his job easier, drawing attention away from true empirical analysis and into increasingly arcane neo-kremlinology. The fact is that we can’t know what Putin’s thinking. Happily, we don’t need to.