Foreign Affairs Focus: Stephen Kotkin on Putin's Rise

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vaunted “stability” has turned into spoliation. The methods he used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state—and unfortunately, there is no end to it in sight. Princeton University Professor Stephen Kotkin discusses his recent article, "The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin," with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose.

A transcript of the interview is available below:

ROSE: Tell us, Professor Kotkin, who is Vladimir Putin?

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.

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: Where does Ukraine in the current crisis fit into all this?

KOTKIN: The most important thing you could say about Ukraine is that it was wrecked before Putin got his hands on it. Ukrainian elites, pro-Western, pro-Russian, north, south, east, west, they ruined that country well before Putin seized Crimea. It has been a tragic history, a history of unbelievable corruption, shrinkage of GDP.

It was a difficult inheritance, what Ukraine got from the Soviet Union. The post-1991 Ukrainian story is not enviable, but unfortunately wrecked, as I said, by the elites. And Putin gets into the picture and he causes additional damage.

But let's remember, Putin has done more damage to Russia and the Russians than he has done to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

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.

ROSE: So you're saying appeasement makes sense in this case?

KOTKIN: Appeasement was a policy -- let's be honest. Appeasement was a policy that was a miscalculation. It was a miscalculation about Hitler's intentions and about Hitler's capabilities.

And so appeasement is of course a dirty word but there were logical issues involved in Chamberlain's decision-making.

ROSE: So making some concessions to Putin in Ukraine might actually be...

KOTKIN: If Putin is not Hitler, if he is not Hitler inattention and he is not Hitler capability, and if the alternatives are worse, then some type of negotiated settlement with Putin ought to be on the agenda.

The appetite for such a discussion is not there yet. More needs to happen before we could get there, particularly in Washington. It's almost blasphemous to raise such issues because of course Crimea was seized, as we said, in a violation of international law.

But sometimes distasteful negotiation is superior to the alternatives. Not obviously in the case of 1930s Central Europe and Chamberlain's miscalculation but potentially now.

Let's think about the sanctions, Gideon. You know a lot about sanctions. Sanctions are a difficult proposition to enforce over a long period of time. That's what were looking at right now as the realistic alternative, either introducing a significant size army from the outside -- I don't see that in the cards -- or indefinite sanctions.

ROSE: How indefinite? How long do you think Putin's regime has in it to go?

KOTKIN: Well, so far the sanctions have not altered his behavior. So so far they haven't worked toward their ultimate goal. Have they inflicted pain? Yes. Have they changed Russia's policies? No.

If sanctions do not change Russia's policies in the short or even medium-term, we face the possibility of long-term sanctions. The Europeans this summer have to vote again on renewal of the existing sanctions. That's just this summer. We don't know how that vote's going to come out.

ROSE: So you think the Europeans will cave before Russia does.

KOTKIN: Europe is a giant power. It's got a huge multitrillion dollar economy, 350 million people, and it is as strong as its weakest member because all members of the European Union have a veto over European policy. So you tell me how the Europeans are going to stay in a sanctions regime over potentially decades, because that's what we could be looking at. Maybe the Putin regime collapses. Maybe we get extremely lucky. Maybe Russia comes and asks for forgiveness and says that they made a mistake. Maybe they roll back their occupation of Crimea. And maybe hell freezes over.

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