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