By Michael Depp
On March 17th Vladimir Putin made his first public appearance in nearly a fortnight, to significant disappointment in the West. It seems that many in the West were hoping that during those eleven days Putin had died, been quietly deposed or rendered impotent as a leader in some manner. Instead, Putin arrived unscathed and laughed off questions concerning his disappearance. Among all of the events concerning Russia, this particular instance exemplifies a fundamental problem with the way the West approaches Russia. Generally speaking, for Western analysts, Putin is the cause of all their problems with Russia, and this view hampers the West’s ability to genuinely engage with the more energetic Russia that has emerged.
The reason that Putin’s return was met with so much disappointment from the West is because many believe that a Russia without Putin would suddenly become a “normal” state. As comforting as it is to believe that one man, however powerful, is responsible for all of the trouble Russia has caused, it incorrectly warps perceptions and prevents genuine policy debates. Hiding behind the notion that Putin is an evil manipulator that cajoles Russia into supporting his grandiose dreams of a Eurasian empire obstructs the truth that sooner or later the West will have to grapple with: there is a fundamental lack of common interests between the West and Russia on many key issues.
President Putin is a product of the country he leads, and his actions reflect Russian interests that exist in the upper levels of government distinct from his political influence. The goals and policies of Russia, whether it was the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Kingdom of Russia, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation, have vexed its neighbors and the other great powers of the world for generations. Russian leaders have always been obsessed with security and respect; two key ingredients for survival in the dangerous world that it believes itself to be in. Russia has seen its fair share of invasions, ideological challenges, geopolitical rivals, and instability within its own borders and in its neighbors. Because of this, Russians desire peace and stability through strength within Russia, and influence in its “near abroad,” something which lends itself to the policies we have seen in the past year. In this grand design of Russian history, Putin is but a small player in the Russian struggle for security and stability.
The desire to maintain a sphere of influence, especially so close to the heartland of Western Europe, coupled with a large and well equipped military and a lack of respect for liberal ideology are not things that the West enjoys seeing in a powerful state. In conjunction with this, is the quintessential American fear of a hegemon in Eurasia with its own sphere of influence. This makes Western and Russian long term goals essentially mutually exclusive if they do not find some way to mitigate these differences.
The obsession with Putin as the instigator of problems with Russia is an attempt, although not deliberate, to sidestep these crucial facts. By focusing on Putin, the West negates both its ability to counter his actions and to engage with him for mutual benefit. It instead creates a new set of problems as it embarks on personal attacks and wishful thinking. The West must understand that Putin personifies the issues that it has with Russia but is not the cause. The sooner the West abandons its obsession with Putin the sooner it can get down to dealing with the serious problems that it has with Russia.