The belief that Vladimir Putin single-handedly “manufactured” the current conflict with the West to win domestic support, spark a surge in Russian patriotism and hold on to power at any cost, has been a staple of mainstream Western analysis of Russia since the Ukraine crisis began. That same belief — that Putin manufactures crises or otherwise inserts Moscow into them to distract an antsy population — has subsequently spilled over into analysis of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Where the current conflict between Russia and the West is concerned, a barrage of anti-Russia messaging combined with doomsday predictions and guesswork based on hypothetical scenarios has produced little in the way of useful material with which observers can attempt to interpret what is going on. Lacking in the mainstream is any attempt to scrutinize the claim that underlies the vast majority of present day Russia analysis. To that end, we should ask: Did Putin really “manufacture” a new Cold War with the West in order to prop-up his government and ensure the longevity of his own power?
The earlier years
Putin first came to power in a pre-9/11 world. The US had not yet taken its most disastrous plunge into Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia was exiting a decade of extremely painful economic reforms under Boris Yeltsin which had initially catapulted the country into total depression. But the prospects at the beginning of Putin’s first term for a positive working relationship between Washington and Moscow were good, in theory — if that had been what both sides were out to achieve. Far from the scolding Russian president we see today, Putin initially appeared to strongly believe that any positive overtures he made toward the US would be well-received.
After 9/11 Putin was the first leader to reach out to the US and offer Russia’s condolences and support in the field of global counterterrorism. Attempting to find common ground with Washington, he drew a parallel between Islamic extremists who threatened the US from abroad and the extremists who threatened Russia from within. Broadly speaking, the sentiment was not returned. Those who attacked America were terrorists, but militants in Chechnya were simply freedom fighters. Nonetheless, in 2006, Russia gifted a 100-ft tall, 175-tonne memorial to the US, dedicated to those who died during the September 11 attacks. The existence of the memorial is largely unknown to Americans.
In 2004, when NATO admitted seven new members, including the three Baltic states, Putin’s reaction was muted. In a way that would be unimaginable today, he even attempted to play down the importance of the moment. To be sure, he reiterated that the Russian position against NATO expansion remained unchanged and expressed concerns that expansion would not do much to meet global threats, but at the same he told then NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that he hoped the expansion would nonetheless lead to ”the strengthening of trust in Europe and the entire world” adding that ”each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most effective”.
These were not hugely surprising comments in 2004, given that three years earlier, Putin had floated the idea that Russia itself might join NATO — or alternatively that NATO be disbanded and replaced with a “single security and defense space in Europe” which would take the concerns of all European nations — including Russia, into account. In a comment that echoes his speeches of 2015, Putin then told de Hoop Scheffer that the problems facing that world were too big “to think that we can go it alone — that Russia or NATO can go it alone”. Then, as now, attempts to create common ground fell on deaf ears and NATO expanded yet again in 2009.
Putin’s well remembered speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 is regarded as a significant turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. Likely feeling that he had been spurned one too many times, that no matter what Russia did, its own interests would not be respected — and seeing the havoc US foreign policy was wreaking in the Middle East — Putin blasted Washington so ferociously that it took many in attendance by surprise.
Even still, in 2011 with Putin as Prime Minister, Russia did not use its veto power at the United Nations to block NATO’s intervention in Libya — an ill-thought out scheme for “regime change” that left the North African country utterly destroyed and ripe for plunder by the Islamic State — which itself rose from the ashes of the invasion of Iraq. In that sense — well before Ukraine and Syria — the disastrous outcome in Libya may have been the real turning point in what Moscow was willing to stomach.
Munich however, may have been the turning point for Washington. Was this when US hawks finally decided that Putin would have to go? That he would not serve their needs and the seeds of revolution must be sown? Certainly, it is difficult to look at what happened in Ukraine in 2013 and not see the West’s hand, goading and provoking a reaction from the Russian president. But whether Ukraine was a purely organic uprising or a convoluted attempt by the US to rattle Russia’s political system with the hope that they could swoop in to oversee “regime change” when it all came crumbling down, no one could honestly claim that the results have been positive — least of all for average Ukrainians. Likewise, it would be difficult to lay all the facts of the uprising and eventual coup in Kiev on the table and claim that this was something that had been instigated by Moscow.
Cold War triumphalism in Washington however, is what has truly allowed the current conflict to blossom. A victor’s mentality has emboldened the US to ignore Russia’s security interests. It has allowed Washington to feel comfortable in making decisions that upset the entire balance of global security if it is believed that those decisions will grant Washington the upper hand; unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and continuing attempts to neutralize Russia’s nuclear capability with plans for anti-missile defense systems in Eastern Europe — under the guise of countering a threat from Iran — being two examples.
Today the idea that Putin’s now habitual anti-West rhetoric is a political tool to legitimize his rule, rather than something stemming first from legitimate grievances remains common in Western analysis. There is after all, at least an element of truth to it. Putin’s reactions to NATO provocations have helped consolidate his support. Anti-American rhetoric now plays well with the Russian audience. Russia’s intervention in Syria at the request of its ally in Damascus has created another surge of patriotic feeling. Yet to focus on these political side-effects and to dismiss all Russian perspectives as nefarious propaganda misses the bigger picture. But perhaps that is the point? If we believe that Putin is simply mad, maybe we won’t think so much about the West’s mistakes, which are now wreaking havoc not only on the Middle East, but in Europe.
Western analysts love to read Putin’s mind and tell their audiences exactly why he does what he does. Many who are sympathetic to Russia’s perspective read his mind and find that his interests are purely noble, while those who are resistant to understanding Russia’s perspective, read his mind and are incapable of finding anything other than the most malevolent of motives. The fact that the mind-readers and amateur psychologists who get the most play in the mainstream are the ones that have read the most sinister interpretations of his motives — with very little reading of history or context — is not only too convenient, but dangerous.
The real irony for the West, is that if Putin has indeed finally taken political advantage of the West’s rejection and used it — not to “manufacture” but to cement his support domestically, as any leader would do, then the West must realize it has no one to blame but itself. Putin was willing to work with the West — it just wasn’t willing to work with him.