There are known unknowns, to quote the great Donald Rumsfeld, and unknown unknowns, and nowhere is this more true than in trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is up to in Syria.
To some, Putin is primarily interested in cementing a new (but probably unattainable) place for himself and Russia in the world order. To others, he’s focused on achieving a (probably unattainable) victory for his ally in Damascus. I could go on: Maybe he’s trying to stoke more flows of refugees to Europe, maybe he’s trying to distract attention from what he’s doing in Ukraine, maybe…
The problem with all of these explanations is that they take us from the realm of known unknowns into the realm of the unknowable: what’s going on inside Putin’s head. It’s an attractive abyss into which to plunge, sure, but an abyss nonetheless. And it’s a tragic plunge, because there’s so much we actually know.
Take George W. Bush, for example, another famously inscrutable intellect of the 21st Century. When W went to war in Iraq, he said – almost verbatim – what Putin said today about going to war in Syria:
After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. – George Bush, June 29, 2005.
It is no secret that the so-called Islamic State long ago declared Russia to be its enemy. The only true way to combat international terrorism — and in Syria and on the territory of its neighbors it is bands of international terrorists that are running amok — is to take the initiative, to combat and destroy combatants and terrorists on the territories they have seized, rather than waiting for them to come into our home. – Vladimir Putin, September 30, 2015.
Aside from Putin’s stunning (Damascene?) conversion to the Neocon faith, what is striking here is not the similarity of their approach, but the difference in our interpretation. Back in 2005, the day before Bush’s Iraq speech polls revealed that his post-9/11 popularity was waning fast and his approval ratings had, in fact, slipped into negative territory. Everyone in the reality-based community understood that the reason for war wasn’t foreign policy, but domestic politics.
And yet when Putin does the same thing – and I mean exactly the same thing – we assume a different logic is at work. Putin, we presume, is an international actor first and foremost, perhaps because he’s foreign to us. But he’s a politician, and he’s got a country to run, and it’s not going very well. The deepening recession, the cost of sanctions and cheap oil and falling currency rates and the maintenance of new acquisitions in Ukraine all carry a price. The ‘rally around the flag’ effect that buoyed Putin’s popularity appears to be fading. And it won’t be helped by today’s announcement that, for the third year in a row, the government was confiscating the country’s pension contributions.
This is a logic we understand: we know that politicians go to war to bolster their domestic strength, and we know that they couch these interventions in the language of national security and global righteousness. But for some reason, when we turn to look at Putin we forget what we know.
Instead of building complex theories to rationalize the mystery that Putin seems to hand us, we might try remembering how familiar – and how utterly and depressingly banal – all of this really is.