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Barnett on Peters analyzing Putin

Ralph Peters has written a remarkably restrained ( for Peters) overview-analysis of Russian Prime Minister/strongman Vladimir Putin:

Why Putin should scare us

Putin has a quality found in elite intelligence personnel: the ability to discard all preconceptions when scrutinizing a target. And when he decides to strike, he doesn’t look back. This is not good news for his opponents, foreign or domestic.

Among the many reasons we misjudge Putin is our insistence on seeing him as “like us.” He’s not. His stage-management of the Georgia invasion was a perfect example: Western intelligence agencies had been monitoring Russian activities in the Caucasus for years and fully expected a confrontation. Even so, our analysts assumed that Russia wouldn’t act during this summer’s Olympics, traditionally an interval of peace.

Putin had been conditioned to read the strategic cards differently: The world’s attention would be focused on the Games, and key world leaders would be in Beijing, far from their crisis-management staffs. Europe’s bureaucrats and senior NATO officials would be on their August vacations. The circumstances were ideal.

It has also become a truism that Putin’s foolish for relying on oil, gas and mineral revenue while failing to diversify his economy. But Russia’s strongman knows what he’s doing: He prefers a wealthy government to a wealthy society. Putin can control a handful of oligarchs whose fortunes flow from a narrow range of sources (once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky sits in prison for crossing the Kremlin), but a diversified economy would decentralize power.

Dr. Barnett, himself, like Peters, a former Cold War-era Sovietologist, critiqued Peters article:

Peters on Putin: nationalist and pragmatic, mystical and cold, and plays by own rules

I tend to underappreciate Peters’ gushy over-estimation of Putin’s “brilliance” (he just acts boldly in ways that excite this former intell officer), and note his lack of any mention regarding the economic price Moscow has so far paid over Georgia (mil analysts tend to downplay financial repercussions in general).

It’s just the conclusion that I find clearly overwrought: Putin is possibly problem #1 for the next prez.

In sum, a very traditional analysis of a guy who exploits tradition nicely at home but also indicates he “gets” the current world fairly accurately and takes advantage only where we let him through our choices. No clear analysis of how our strategic interests are actually harmed, but no matter. A quick comparison (favorable) to Osama, but at least he skipped the usual Hitler one. No sense of Russia’s poor long-term economic trajectory.

I think Tom largely pegged it. Peters overshot on “mysticism” and “brilliance” but did a pretty good analysis, minus the blindness toward economic factors that represent the long-term definers of strategic, though not tactical, options for Russia.  The chances of Putin being even culturally influenced by traditional Orthodoxy are approximately zero, though Putin the shrewd politician probably appreciates the the mystical and romantically sentimental streak in Russia’s national psyche where affronts to Mother Russia are concerned. Putin’s nationalistic gestures are keyed to the Russian equivalent of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”. Putin is always “going to the people” with his foreign policy or domestic law and order crackdowns.

One departure for me from Peters and from Tom ( at least in the sense that he did not mention it) is that I do not see Putin as consumed by anger or temper in his moves against Saakashvili, though Putin may very well have a temper. Instead, I see a ruthless calculator who decided, some time ago, that Saakashvili was too intransigent and too egomaniacal to ever cut any kind of a deal with Russia, in open or secret. More or less the way the United States viewed Saddam Hussein, that the man had to go once and for all – not that Saakashvili is morally akin to Saddam in any way, just intolerable from Moscow’s perspective. 

Putin is driven to “win”, IMHO, because racking up those kinds of wins teaches good geopolitical lessons. That said, Putin did not know when to quit while he was ahead. After making the point by humiliating Georgia and Saakashvili militarily and the EU and the Bush administration diplomatically, Putin only gained great hostlility for Russia by dragging out troop withdrawal and by using belligerent rhetoric. A prompt departure would have retained the sense of awe and confidence that Russia’s military campaign had projected. So much for infallible “brilliance”.

Putin puts his pants on like the rest of us and makes mistakes. The difference between him and other statesmen is that Putin more often than not is thinking strategically when he makes a move.

4 Responses to “Barnett on Peters analyzing Putin”

  1. Shaunak Says:

    The Georgia card played by Russia was a huge gamble. Oil prices were already on the decline by then, and although analysts weren’t quite forecasting sub-$100 oil, the trend was distinctly downward thanks to signs of demand destruction. So it should have been obvious that the Russian economy, which is heavily dependent on energy exports, was about to hit a rough patch.For the Kremlin to invade a sovreign ally of the nation that commands most of the capital inflows into its economy at a time like this is hardly strategic. Infact, it smacks of strategic thought blinded by the tactical. Did the Kremlin (and I use this term out of kindness to Dimitri Medvedev) not anticipate the outflow of capital following the initiation of hostilities? Do they not understand the concept of Risk in finance?IMHO Putin is the most overrated politician as far as international relations and strategic issues are concerned. He has done absolutely nothing to make his nation’s economy more secure, he hasn’t really done anything significant in terms of alliances and partnerships with other influential nations (The creation of the SCO was a reactive move). All he has done is make foreign investors insecure. Developing economies do so at their own risk.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Shaunak,
    Putin is looking further down the road than just short term hot money flows – though I will allocute that he and Medvedev underestimated the market reaction to the Russo-Georgian War here. I think the statements toward Poland were particularly rattling to investors, coming on the heels of Georgia.
    No, I think the strategic play for Putin has to do with market share or dominance in energy markets twenty to thirty years hence where they see Russia as a  premier global player. Russia needs its’ "near abroad" states to cut them in or otherwise seat Moscow at the table where  Southern or Eastern pipelines are involved, whether that means joint deals, cartelization or other forms of recognizing Russian economic hegemony. The goal with Saakashvili was to topple his anti-Russian, nationalist, regime, which probably would have happened absent so strong an American follow-up re: Cheney etc.

    Re: your request – I’ll have something in a few days for you.

  3. Seerov Says:

    I think we’re going to start seeing more of the AEI folks saber rattling towards Russia (even more than they are now).  Its a good excuse to get out of Iraq and declare victory there.  If and when Iraq starts declining into chaos, people like Peters will make the argument that Russia is a bigger threat than Al-Qaeda, and go on to say that sacrificing Iraq is necessary to contain Russia. 
    This is what the Peters article is all about; basically using Russia for an excuse for why we couldn’t get Iraq under control.  Don’t be surprised if they start accusing Russia for supporting the insurgency in Iraq.  The AEI folks are scrambling for excuses for why their grand vision of bringing Democracy to the Middle East isn’t working.  Russia is always a good for this. 
    In fact, I remember some time back that the AEI folks were saying something about Russian Spetsnaz troops trucking WMD’s out of Iraq to Syria.  This is ridiculouis of course, as Iraq has no shortage of trucks or drivers to drive them.  Russia is to the AEI folks, what Jews are to Nazis. They’re behind everything bad in the world, and a convenient excuse for when things aren’t working out.  Seven years ago these people were telling us that Hitler was back and that he grew a beard and prayed 5 times day. 
    A month ago I was watching an AEI discussion on c-span, and apparently Hitler now is an orthodox Christian who used to be in the KGB.  During this discussion, Peters displayed bigotry on a level that I thought was impossible on basic cable.  He said something like this "the Russians are basically barbarians who once in awhile puke out a genius."  I’m not making this up, and if you don’t believe me, here’s a link to that discussion. 



  4. Shaunak Says:

    Hi Zen, I understand what you’re saying but I have a few doubts about this. If Putin’s aim was to deal with Saakashvili and play to achieve dominance in european energy markets, military action was the worst possible way to do it. The war on Georgia has given impetus to those within Europe (and elsewhere) who advocate a diversification of energy supply. With alternative sources and pipelines planned, being implemented or coming online (Algeria, Greece etc.), what Russia achieved with the war was to make their customers and their partners (upstream and downstream) insecure.  Also I’d like your take on news that Russia’s oil production peaked in 2007. I gather that 70% of Gazprom’s (sp?) gas comes from 4 fields of which three are already in decline. Putin muscled global Oil & Gas majors out and basically nationalised quite a few resources. If we look at history, we see that nationalisation of oil and gas resources leads to declining yields every time. Considering these factors, how can he possibly hope to dominate energy markets by scaring away partners, investors and customers? I find your view about Russia’s miscalculation re reaction from the US to be extremely valid, but then doesn’t it point to an improperly planned move? Thanks for taking the time to reply. Best Regards!

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