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Assessing The Myth Of Vladimir Putin


A visitor to Russia has returned with a warning. Don't give too much credit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sure, the Russian president seems to do whatever he wants. But just because he does what he wants doesn't mean he knows what he's doing. Mark Galeotti of New York University wrote on the website Vox that Westerners give Putin too much credit as a strategic genius.

MARK GALEOTTI: We tend to think that Putin is this sort of chess grandmaster who's always in charge when in fact, actually Russian policymaking is rather more ramshackle than we might really understand.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by ramshackle?

GALEOTTI: Well, there is no grand strategy. Putin has a sense of what kind of a Russia he wants, how he'd like the world to treat Russia. But actually, we see that first of all, he has to deal with an elite. I mean, this guy can only run the country through all the officials and the oligarchs and the bureaucrats of the system. So he actually needs to keep them not just under control, but happy.

But secondly, we have something of a marketplace of ideas, people, through the newspapers, through think tanks, through personal contact, basically pitching ideas to Putin. And so a lot of the things that actually happen, they happened not because of just some bright idea that germinated in his head, but because someone threw him some eye-catching initiative that he decided to run with.

INSKEEP: Well, let's see how this matches up with some very well-publicized acts of Vladimir Putin. I'm thinking of the seizure of Crimea or sending Russian planes into Syria, each of which was seen as quite a bold stroke at the time.

GALEOTTI: Absolutely. He likes the bold stroke. He likes to catch people by surprise. But if you think about it - take Crimea, for example. On one level, for Putin, this is a brilliant stroke. And it assures his place in history - getting Crimea back back for Russia. But on the other hand, it started the process that has seen Russia become isolated, a pariah state.

Syria, likewise - yes, it was actually successful in the sense of it forced the West, particularly the United States, to start talking to Russia again. But now that we've seen that the Russian drawdown that was a much sort of heralded, actually hasn't been much of a drawdown at all. Russia is, for the moment, stuck in Syria. And it's doing OK at the moment, but we all know that countries that get caught in wars in the Middle East tend to find them taking longer and costing more lives then they were expecting.

INSKEEP: What does all of this say about Vladimir Putin as a strategic thinker?

GALEOTTI: It says that he's not a strategic thinker, that he is very much an opportunist. He's very good at that. I mean, let's be honest. He's played a weak hand really well. It actually, I think, highlights the extent to which because we don't really understand the way the Russian system's working, we get caught off-guard - because we're always looking for what's Putin's big picture - what's Putin's grand plan - rather than looking at the way Russian politics really works, which is a bunch of people clamoring for the attention of the tsar.

INSKEEP: You probably know that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has expressed some admiration for Putin and approval of some of his tactics and even said he could get along with this man. Do you see any similarities between Trump's style and Putin's style?

GALEOTTI: Well, I think yes, there is a similarity. There's a similarity, in particular, because actually, both of these guys are establishment through and through. But on the other hand, they play themselves as if they're the scrappy insurgent, the outsider coming in to clear things up. That's always been Putin's sort of strength. He's been able to play to the Russian people saying, I'm the guy who's going to get the officials and basically keep them on the straight and narrow.

And likewise, Trump comes along with his huge fortune but sort of presents himself as if he's an outsider. The second key similarity is they both have this extraordinarily personal approach in the sense of, ultimately, decisions are made by what they think is going to happen next. I think from the Russians' point of view, they like the fact that Trump is on the rise but more as a way of trolling America rather than because they actually would like to see him in the White House.

INSKEEP: Mark Galeotti of New York University, thanks very much.

GALEOTTI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.