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The Best of 2015: Putin, the Myth and the Politician

Featuring Interviews with Stephen Kotkin, Gregory Feifer, and Nussaibah Younis.

Part I of a two-part series highlighting the best Foreign Affairs Unedited podcasts of 2015, we revisit some of our favorite interviews on Putin: his motivations, his strategy, and his ideology. Featuring interviews with Stephen Kotkin, Gregory Feifer, and Nussaibah Younis and hosted by Deputy Managing Editor Katie Allawala. 

Don’t miss an episode of Foreign Affairs Unedited, subscribe on iTunes or on PodBean to have this podcast delivered right to your audio player of choice.

To learn more on the subject, check out these related articles:
The Resistable Rise of Vladimir Putin by Stephen Kotkin
Putin’s Throwback State by Gregory Feifer
Putin’s Next Conquest by Nussaibah Younis and Andrea Taylor
Expert poll: Should the United States Work With Russia in Syria?

This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. Music credit: FreeMusicArchive.org / The Stealing Orchestra & Rafael Dionisio, Podington Bear

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HOST: Looking back over 2015, one figure towered above the others: Russian President Vladimir Putin. From his country’s continued activity in Ukraine through its intervention in Syria, we at Foreign Affairs have spent hours pouring over Putin’s motivations, strategy, and ideology. Many of our authors have painted Putin as a man bent on confrontation with the West. Some of them have urged caution, arguing that the best way to protect Western interests is through containment. Others have urged confronting him head on. Of course, with the United States and Europe now ramping up their own involvement in Syria, things are set to get even more complicated in the year ahead. 

We’ll be covering those stories as they unfold, but for now, we want to take a look back at some of our best Russia stories from 2015, including interviews with Gregory Feifer on U.S. cooperation with Russia in Syria and Nussaibah Younis on Russia’s strategy in Russia. But we begin the show today with a look at Vladimir Putin, the myth and the politician.

KOTKIN: Vladimir Putin is the kind of guy where if you had a whole bunch of 25-year-olds sitting around a table in Burbank and they were trying to figure out what was the ideal villain for a movie, this is for central casting, and they began to throw ideas around the table, how about KGB? KGB? How about a permanent scowl? Permanent scowl. And they went on and they went on, they would produce a figure like Putin.

That’s Russia expert Steven Kotkin. In February, he sat down with Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose.

ROSE: Some people say that he's just a nonentity. He's been riding the forces of history and is not really a driving player himself. Do you buy that?

KOTKIN: Yes, this reminds me of what the Trotskyites used to say about Stalin, the outstanding mediocrity of the party. Here's a guy, Putin, who's been in power for, what, 15 years now with no end in sight. It's very hard for a nonentity to last that long at the top of any political system.

ROSE: Do you buy the argument that some people make that this is the 1930s all over again, an expansionist power coming to take over Europe?

KOTKIN: Russia is just not that important anymore. Russia is a state with very little global importance for the international economy. Russia has significantly declined in the weight that it has in the international system. It would be wrong to exaggerate Russia's position, its threat, danger, its evil.

On the other hand, Russia has what we would call spoiler capabilities. And it also has the only real army in its neighborhood. And so in dealing with Russia we're kind of in a harder place in some ways than the cold war.

If you want to stand up to Russia in its region, you have to put a countervailing force that's equal to Russia's into the region. You cannot do it with any of the countries around Russia. No country among Russia's neighbors has Russia's capabilities.

This is why Europeans -- and I believe correctly -- are pursuing some type of negotiation strategy because they live there, first of all, and also because they understand that nobody wants to commit the resources from outside to face the Russians down.

Of course, things have changed a lot since February. I recently asked Kotkin whether any of this past year’s events have altered his thinking. He said that France and the United states would rightly like to elicit Russia’s participation in a solution to the horrific Syrian mess. 

And he noted that after all, during negotiations for the Iranian nuclear deal – whether one admires or fears it – the Europeans and Americans did manage to cooperate closely with Russia. 

Still, he says, finding common ground with Russia, in Syria or elsewhere, remains a tall order in part because of the role that anti-Westernism plays in Russian domestic politics and self-identity. And, just as “America the enemy” looms far too large in the Russian imagination, “Russia the enemy” looms far too large in the American imagination.
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Between our classic print magazine and our award-winning website, we’ve published more than 500 articles this year—on everything from Putin’s Russia to the euro crisis to how to deal with ISIS. We’re proud of all our content, but every year there are a few pieces that really stand out from the pack—so we’ve compiled some of our favorites into our newest anthology, The Best of 2015.

Visit ForeignAffairs.com/bestof2015 to buy a copy of the eBook, or get it for free when you become a digital or all-access subscriber to Foreign Affairs.

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Whether Russia is an enemy or not, the ISIS attacks in Paris have forced the United States to get serious about the possibility of working with—or at least next to—Russia in Syria and Iraq. In recent days, the Obama administration announced the deployment of more Special Forces to region, where Russia continues to conduct airstrikes. Not surprisingly, the move was greeted by criticism, both from those who want Obama to do more and those who want him to do less. For more on the U.S. response to Russia’s activities in Syria, we go to Foreign Affairs’ Brian O’Connor.

O’CONNOR: Everyone seems to have an opinion about the U.S. response to the intervention in Syria, but we at Foreign Affairs were curious about what the top experts would have to say. And so we asked dozens whether they agreed that the United States should work with Russia to fight ISIS.

In the end, 33 responded, with 14 agreeing, 14 disagreeing, and 5 remaining neutral. The responses themselves ranged from, quote, Strongly Agree, Working with Russia is the only way to end this conflict anytime soon” -- that’s from Chicago University Professor John Mearsheimer -- to, quote, “strongly disagree, Russia’s main military objective in Syria is to complicate the situation on the ground rather than help seek a resolution that would undermine ISIS. Propping up Assad, Russia’s sole Middle East ally, is part of Moscow’s effort to take international center stage.”

I talked with the author of that last response, Gregory Feifer, to learn more.

FEIFER: I think that Russia's main goal is to essentially trap the US and its Western allies in Syria. After the fall of a whole series of Russian allies, Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade, Victor Yanukovych in Kiev, and others, Putin is trying to avoid the humiliation of having propped up Assad for a number of years only to see him fall. But he's also been able to essentially further expose the pitfalls of America's having a lack of strategy in Syria.

He's caught us again on the back foot. He is testing NATO's commitment to collective security by sending cruise missiles into Syria, and as it apparently happens, Iran, the day before a NATO defense ministers' meeting. And so, his whole modus operandi is to complicate the situation, and I think that in fact, he's already succeeded in his aims, because Putin is at the center of attention. Everybody is talking about Putin. The images of Russian missiles and bombs dropping from planes are going viral in Russia.

O’CONNOR: Do you think that Putin can envision a scenario in which Russia fares better in the Middle East than the United States has?

FEIFER: I don't think he thinks that far. I think Putin is a very good tactician. He's caught us on the back foot, but he is no strategist. And I don't think he's actually interested in Russia's long-term prosperity and influence. His actions are, at the end of the day, incredibly reckless.

O’CONNOR: One thing that we found interesting in terms of some of the responses we got to the poll was the number of people who said that if Russia really were fighting ISIS, that the United States should take some sort of role. I'm wondering if there's any credence to that in your mind, or if that's something that seems too far-fetched to be plausible?

FEIFER: Well, I think that's the opposite of what we should be doing. I think that's exactly what Putin wants. Putin has for many, many years, in fact, from the very beginning of his role in the year 2000, has been playing at both creating the image of somebody who is moderate on the world stage and wants to cooperate, and yet carrying out actions that are very aggressive and geared toward essentially consolidating and expanding his own personal authority at home, which again, I think is his overriding aim. I actually think that the best way, in fact, the only way to deal with Putin, especially after what he's doing now in Syria is to revisit George Kennan's policy of Containment, which was actually a very nuanced, very long-sighted, and ultimately successful proposal for dealing with the Soviet Union.

FEIFER: Containment has been mischaracterized. In fact, George Kennan has very famously criticized how it was implemented, and in later years, sought to essentially increase cooperation with the Soviet Union. He was very concerned about nuclear war. But I think as it was initially formulated, Kennan saw Joseph Stalin's regime as not only unwilling to cooperate with Western powers, but essentially going on foreign adventures as the only way to shore up an intellectually bankrupt authoritarian regime at home. I think there are a lot of parallels between Stalin's regime, especially foreign policy, and Putin's today. Not, of course, in the extent of their authoritarianism and their adventures abroad, of course, that's an important distinction to make, but I think the nature of their rules. And I think that the policy of Containment from 1947, 1948, as it was formulated, that we should revisit it now and institute a similar policy to contain Putin, not necessarily militarily, but politically and economically in order to put the West, and especially the US in a position of strength to be able to negotiate some sort of relationship, some sort of dealing with Putin until his regime, inevitably as it will, collapses or ends in one way or another, because it is not sustainable what he's doing politically and economically at all. 

This is a long-term strategy, and it will only succeed if we stick to it just like we did during the Cold War. Now, I don't mean to sound hawkish. I think it's dreadful. I wish that we could extend a hand to Putin as we have many, many times in the past, and not only during Obama's initial Russia Reset policy, but it simply doesn't work. Putin is not interested in cooperating in Syria, in Iraq, in Ukraine, or anywhere else. In fact, his entire tactic is to try to trap the West into trying to cooperate and catching us on the back foot. It's a losing proposition. It's failed from the very beginning, and it will not succeed. I just don't think it's an option.

O’CONNOR: What steps should other Western countries take to make sure that if Containment were to happen again, that perhaps, this time it was a bit more successful?

FEIFER: Well, I think Containment was successful ultimately, and I think that there's no predicting how long Putin will stay in power, how long he will be able to keep his regime in place. As I said, ultimately, politically and economically, it is not sustainable, and Putin's regime will fall one way or another, in the long-term.

HOST: If Russia is, indeed, bent on antagonism with the West, then it stands to reason that its interventions won’t end with Ukraine and Syria. To learn more, I went to the co-author of a recent Foreign Affairs article.

NUSSAIBAH: I'm Dr. Nussaibah Younis and I'm a Senior Resident Fellow at The Atlantic Council where I focus on Iraq and ISIS.

HOST: In her piece, Putin’s next conquest, she makes the case that, for Moscow, Iraq may be next.

NUSSAIBAH: The Iraqi government is really very frustrated with the slow place of US Military engagement in the country. Iraqis feel that they are battling a threat from ISIS that is not only directed at them, but is directed at the region as a whole and also directed at the Western world. And they believe that the US and other Western countries should be doing more to help them to fight ISIS. The Iraqi government really present themselves as being on the front lines fighting against a global threat. And they feel that the US has not been meeting its obligations. They feel that the pace of weapons delivery is too slow, that there are too many conditions on who can use the weapons that are supplied and how they can be used. 

Meanwhile, the Russians offer a very tempting alternative. They don't have the same kind of legal infrastructure, they don't have the same kind of concern for human rights and fear of causing collateral damage. They're not as cautious and they're much more willing to respond to requests from Iraq for weapons deliveries and supplies. And given their recent performance in Syria where they've conducted an extraordinary number of strikes in a very limited time period as compared to the much more cautious US approach the Iraqis are now wondering whether Russia might be more a better ally for them in this war against Islamic State.

HOST: In fact, since I spoke to Younis in October, the Iraqi government authorized Russia to strike ISIS targets inside the country and, in late November, temporarily closed airspace in the Kurdish north in anticipation of Russian cruise missiles aimed at ISIS targets just over the border. That marks a striking contrast to its more tepid response to the possibility of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil for which, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, there was “no need.”

For her part, Younis was not optimistic about how a Russian campaign in Iraq would turn out.

NUSSAIBAH: The Russians believe that going in hard and strong simply bombing territories that are being held by terrorist groups that that's going to be enough to defeat an Islamic State, and we know it's much more complex than that.

And Russia doesn't have any such complexity in its view of the counter-insurgency effort. It's shown absolutely no indication that it's interested in reaching out to those political factions who feel excluded by the current Iraqi government, and it's shown really no aptitude for taking part in what's ultimately a delicate and nuanced counter-insurgency effort. And rather, they're enjoying the shock and awe moment. And it's something that frustrated Iraqis who're very tired of the Islamic States atrocities want to see. They want to see these people being hit hard, but that's not a solution. And we've been here before and so we know it's not the solution.

HOST: That was Nussaibah Younis on Russia and Iraq. We’ll be back in two weeks with the second part of our “Best of Series.” Until then, read the site, check out our ebook, and let us know what you think of the podcast. You can leave a review on iTunes or drop us a line at editor@foreignaffairs.com 

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