Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
As Russia slaps sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the November 24 downing of a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border, the standoff between Russia and the West has taken a dangerous new turn. One day, Russian President Vladimir Putin is courted by Western leaders reeling from the Paris attacks; the next, he’s locked in a confrontation with a NATO member that prompted a spike in social media posts raising the possibility of World War III.
Unpredictability has been a hallmark of the Kremlin’s foreign policy since before Russia invaded Georgia almost eight years ago. Although the current course of events may appear confounding, however, it follows a consistent logic dictated by Putin’s spinning of his global role. His moves toward rapprochement, no less than his hostility, are aimed not at building a genuine anti-terror coalition but at challenging the West to a high-stakes game of chicken. His zero-sum reasoning is dangerous for all, and Western countries must understand it to craft their response.
Putin’s swagger is an integral part of the Kremlin’s formula for manufacturing the truth. In this latest case, evidence that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace is irrelevant. When the Russian military trotted out a man it claimed was the surviving crew member, he denied receiving any warnings to leave Turkish airspace. Never mind that the orchestrated-looking video showed him only from behind and failed to conceal him from appearing to read his answers from cue cards.
In Russia, outrage about the crash is enabling the Kremlin to expand on its Soviet-style narrative about the West spreading global instability, sponsoring a fascist war in Ukraine, and seeking to steal Russia’s natural resources. Now state-approved opinion-makers are tapping into an older trope: their country’s cultural ties to Byzantium, to which the Russian Orthodox Church traces its roots. Social media seethes with vows to “take back” Constantinople—as Istanbul was called before its sacking in 1453, of course—and television pundits denounce Ankara as a dangerous sponsor of the Islamic State (ISIS) in addition to organized crime. Capturing the sentiment, last week a prominent former general warned on a prime-time talk show that “if we don’t respond to the Turks, we’ll be trampled.” He characterized the Russian plane’s downing as an act of war.
Beyond mischaracterizing Turkey’s actions, Russian rhetoric also mischaracterizes Syria, treating it as if it were Russian territory threatened by an aggressive Turkey. This narrative fits the Kremlin’s depiction of itself as the lone defender of Christendom against NATO, Islamist terrorists, and Nazis. In that culture war’s latest twist, even Turkey’s largest city must be “liberated.” “Let [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan know that the Turkish state will cease to exist in five to ten years!” the Russian military analyst Semyon Bagdasarov said on the same show. “He killed our people,” Bagdasarov continued. “Constantinople isn’t a Turkish city! We are the heirs of the great Byzantine Empire, and it’s necessary to take back everything we can!”
Russians are no strangers to lingering grievances. Four centuries after the invasion of Polish armies during Moscow’s leaderless Time of Troubles (1598–1613), many Russians still treat Poles and the Catholic Church with suspicion. Yet before the tussle over Syria, Turkey and Russia seemed to have moved beyond historical animosity. Putin has often been seen as a model for Edrogan (one article in Politico was even titled “Vladimir Erdogan”). Both are tough leaders from straitened backgrounds who have asserted power through independent foreign policies, albeit to varying degrees.
But if similarity doesn’t necessarily temper hostility, what about mutual benefit—which is very considerable in this case? Russia is Turkey’s second-largest trading partner, the total having doubled to more than $30 billion a year during the past decade. For a long time, Turkey has been the most popular foreign destination for Russian tourists seeking reprieve from the bitter winter, although recession has considerably thinned their numbers. And Turkish construction companies have also played a large role in Russia’s post-communist building boom, while Muscovites pack giant Turkish supermarkets and other retail outlets, where prices are far less inflated than in Russian-owned stores.
Most important for the Kremlin, Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas for almost 60 percent of its supplies has helped enable Russia’s energy boom. Much of the gas is pumped directly through a pipeline under the Black Sea. Last December, the two countries announced another joint pipeline project that would help Moscow avoid piping European deliveries through Ukraine. On top of that, Russia is currently building a Turkish nuclear power plant.
It seems to make little sense for Russia to spoil that relationship, especially during a time of deepening isolation and recession. That is, except for the fact that friendship with Turkey, a Western country, does not help Putin further his image as a crusader.
Like the proverbial shark, Putin must keep moving. His current gambit seems to be positioning himself as the world’s prime fighter of terrorism.THIRD ROME
For its part, Turkey is in an uncomfortable spot. More than just hindering the country’s goal of overthrowing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Russian bombing in Syria also threatens Ankara’s long-term influence inside its ravaged neighbor by targeting Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria, ethnic Turks called the Bayir-Bucak Turkmen. That was becoming a domestic political problem for Erdogan.
So far, Turkey has sought to minimize fallout from last week, and the current incident will almost certainly pass. Erdogan has nothing to gain from a conflict with Russia. But if history is any guide the last provocation will soon be followed by others. The West should start thinking now about how to respond.
Years of conventional wisdom have dictated that collaboration with Russia is necessary not only in Syria but also on a range of issues from counterterrorism and Afghanistan to combatting the global drug trade, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. In fact, Putin has used that perception to his advantage, dangling the possibility of doing business together as a way of luring Western countries into positions he later exploited in Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and on a host of issues from energy to natural resources in the Arctic.
Nevertheless, widespread agreement about Russia’s indispensability persists because cooperation with Moscow seems to be such low-hanging fruit. If only Putin would finally realize the mutual benefit of fighting ISIS or curbing nuclear proliferation, the reasoning goes, his participation would help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. History and ideology have encouraged Western tolerance. No one wants another Cold War, and Russian hostility could be rationalized as an inevitable response to NATO expansion when Russia was weak.
So the West has relentlessly pursued fellowship. It offered Russia involvement in the G-8, a special NATO-Russia council, and a partnership agreement with the European Union. Such attempts to take Russian interests and opinion into account do not play into the Kremlin’s nationalist myth of Putin as maligned hero, however.
Now Moscow is tapping into not only its perceived status as the “third Rome”—after the second Rome, Constantinople—but a centuries-old sense of Russian exceptionalism. It was crystallized during the nineteenth-century debate between Russian Westernizers—symbolized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev, who urged Russians to modernize by adopting foreign values—and their rivals the Slavophiles, led by a literary critic named Ivan Kireevsky, who believed that Russia’s problems lay in its having abandoned patriarchal traditions and Orthodox Christian principles in favor of Western rationalism and individualism.
Like the proverbial shark, Putin must keep moving. His current gambit seems to be positioning himself as the world’s prime fighter of terrorism. “Russia’s position regarding terrorism has always been consistent, clear, and firm: this evil should be fought uncompromisingly and persistently,” he told a group of incoming ambassadors in the Kremlin on Thursday. “We believe that any attempts to whitewash terrorism, to connive with terrorists should be considered as complicity in terrorism, complicity in crimes.”
Even in this, cooperation with Russia would be a losing proposition. It would also send the wrong message to Russians by indicating that Putin’s behavior works. So far, he has compounded the killing and suffering in Syria because it contravenes Western interests and values, fueling the threat of terrorism and Europe’s migrant crisis. Until his narrative changes, anything can happen—and there should be no surprise when it does.