As the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, with the Russian military and its “rebel” minions never having honored the Minsk-brokered “ceasefire” for even an hour, something like low-grade panic is setting in among NATO capitals. Western elites have a tough time sizing up Putin and his agenda realistically, for reasons I’ve elaborated, and the situation seems not to be improving.
German has a delightfully cynical line, die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt (hope dies last), that sums up much of the wishful thinking that currently holds sway in Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC. As the reality that Putin knows he is at war against Ukraine, and may seek a wider war against NATO too, is a prospect so terrifying that thousands of Western diplomats and “foreign policy experts” would rather not ponder it, so they don’t.
A classic example comes in a recent press report about how Western foreign ministries are striving to prevent Putin from doing more to destabilize Eastern Europe. Amidst much dithering about how to deter Putin — more sanctions? maybe some, but not too many, weapons for Ukraine? how about some really biting hashtags? — NATO leaders aren’t coming up with anything that can be termed a coherent policy, much less a strategy.
But the icing on the cake is this explanation from one of the anonymous DC officials who always provide the basis of such press accounts:
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has made military threats against Kiev, Riga, Tallinn, and even Warsaw. His air force has also waged a harassment campaign on the fringes of NATO airspace. But one of the US sources noted: “I think it’s all a bluff. He has enough people around him in the defense and foreign ministries who would tell him that [a military confrontation with NATO] is just going too far”.
In the first place, there is simply no evidence that Putin considers a military confrontation with NATO to be “going too far,” despite the fact that, in any military and economic sense, that is a true statement. The notion that Putin is simply bluffing, it’s all some sort of dangerous and expensive ruse, is the sort of nonsense that passes for wisdom in too many Western governments. When the alternative is too scary to contemplate, denial works for a time, until the Russian bear comes crashing through the front door, sharpened teeth and claws at the ready.
This persistent inability to not understand how the Kremlin works is a venerable tradition, thanks to the perennial sin of mirror imaging. Simply put, this is believing that other systems work more or less as yours does. Hence any Western diplomat falls back on assumptions that, really, Putin’s government functions like that of any NATO or EU state, albeit with an odd number of photo ops shirtless and cavorting with dangerous animals, plus executive meetings dominated by vodka shots rather than PowerPoint.
Unfortunately, this is simply not true. There is ample evidence that Putin today has a very small, incestuous circle of advisers, all of them from the “power ministries.” As I explained recently:
It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services: National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.
Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).
Russia’s Foreign Ministry exists for show, it has no real impact on making Russian foreign policy, it simply mouths the line dictated by the siloviki who actually run Putin’s Russia. Monitoring the most recent disinformation emitted by Sergei Lavrov and other Foreign Ministry mouthpieces is morbidly entertaining, but anybody who takes this for the Kremlin’s actual engine of foreign policy-making is way off course.
There’s nothing new about this. During the Cold War, countless Western officials and experts listened carefully to every syllable uttered by Soviet diplomats, reading obscure Kremlin tea leaves in the hope of deciphering something important. It was all maskirovka, as we learned after the Soviet Union collapsed. From 1917 to 1991, it was party hacks, secret policemen, and generals who ran the USSR, in an awkward triumvirate. They paid no more attention to Soviet diplomats on important matters than Western governments would pay to their grounds-keeping staff.
Similarly, Cold War Western “experts” comforted themselves that, much angry Marxist-Leninist bluster from the Kremlin notwithstanding, deep down leaders in Moscow were “like us” and were basically the rational, well adjusted people that all Western leaders feel themselves to be. Again, they were wrong. In private, Soviet politicos, spies, and military types uttered the exact same trash-talk — harsh denunciations of the West based in Bolshevik fantasy ideology rather than politico-economic reality — that they stated in public. No system, no matter how policed, can exist in a totally bifurcated reality, with one side “just for show.” You can pull off Potemkin in a village, never in a whole country.
The awful truth is that, having been permitted to steal Crimea and a good chunk of Eastern Ukraine, without any reaction from the West that actually frightens him, Putin feels he has a green-light to keep pushing. He may push Europe and the world into a horrible war. Denying this, averting eyes, does not change any of it.
The Kremlin today is led by a former KGB colonel, a Chekist to his core, who hates the West and seeks to avenge his country’s 1991 humiliation through aggression and conquest. His advisers are men like himself, mired in KGB-derived conspiracy-thinking and driven by revenge and hate; that Putin and his inner circle may think they have divine sanction for their actions does not bode well for world peace.
Everybody mirror images — this is why Kremlin assessments of Western governments, which sound insane to us, invariably depict them as led by a shadowy, conspiratorial cabal of hard men with a clear and focused agenda, since this is how Russia actually works — but some kinds of mirror imaging are more dangerous than others. Not looking Putinism squarely in the eye, right now, runs the risk of horrors enveloping Europe, and the world, sooner than you think.
It is a bad thing for all of us that Russia, the world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, is run by a resentful man, driven by hatreds, who seeks only the counsel of men exactly like himself in outlook and experience. It is even worse that Western governments persist in magical thinking about Russia, despite mountains of evidence about what is really going on in Moscow. NATO’s window to deter major war is closing quickly.