It is reported that the young Vladimir Putin was described by his KGB trainers as having “a reduced sense of danger.” It is hard to know if this is a genuine verbatim quote from his mentors alarmed at the apparent reckless potential of the young Soviet spy or if it has been retro-fitted into his biography by modern-day Kremlin spin doctors to reinforce the image of President Putin as the hard man of international politics.
Either way, it—usefully for the Russian leadership—implies a character that is cut from a different cloth than his adversaries in the West and one not to be underestimated when it comes to the brutal business of bringing Ukraine back into the fold.
What is apparent from the drama over Ukraine is how little U.S. and European leaders seem to have a clear sense of President Putin. Is he a master tactician with a powerful determination to restore Russian power and pride or is he more a superb improviser with deft crisis management skills? He evidently enjoys and excels at this type of raw knuckle politics but beyond the nationalist rhetoric does he have a coherent plan to fulfil a restoration of Russia’s status? And how far will he go to in defending what he sees as the legitimate right of Russia to defend its interests?
The answer is nobody quite seems to know.
For the past decade or so, Western policy towards Russia has been one of economic muffling: buy Russian gas, co-invest with their oil companies, integrate their banks and house, educate and entertain their oligarchs in Knightsbridge, Cap d’Antibes and Courcheval. In short, bring Russia into the economic community, recognise its political heft through the creation of the G8 and hope that over time economic co-dependence will smooth the rough edges of Russian behaviour —both commercial and political. It was kind of working and survived the dress rehearsal for the Ukraine crisis that was staged in Georgia in 2008 and other bumps in the road. It will probably survive this crisis as well because the alternative of coercing Russia through isolation and sanctions runs so contrary to the flow of ever-greater economic integration.
This is one of those moments where the misalignment between geo-politics and international business is felt most acutely. This was one of the main themes of this year’s AnnaPurna Consulting Business Intelligence Map: as business becomes ever more globalised and interlinked, politics is becoming more localised. The friction where these two trends meet—often manifest as resurgent nationalism—is amplifying political risk around the world, not least in Russia.
A much clearer sense of what motivates the Kremlin leadership and its backers seems to have been absent or ignored in the West and might have saved us from oscillating between tough confrontation and accommodation. One person who might have had a much more instinctive sense of President Putin’s psychological profile is Chancellor Merkel. Russian-speaking, her pre-politics career as a scientist in Leipzig was just over a hundred kilometers from Dresden (in former East Germany) where Putin was sent to learn his trade as a freshly minted KGB graduate. Her caution and restraint throughout this crisis probably indicates that she has a much more visceral understanding of the post-Soviet character than do her G7 colleagues.
It is easy to overplay the importance of individuals in these matters. We usually prefer to see world events through the vivid lens of personality rather than by dry analysis of economic and social data. We are also living in an era of vast assumed knowledge. We have so much information to hand we forget that there is so much we do not know, not least what is going on in the heads of people making momentous decisions. Of course we can never know for sure. But thinking harder about what motivates these people, what makes them tick and how they might react to a range of different provocations is a good place to start. After all, President Putin has been an international public figure for over fourteen years; plenty of time to determine whether his KGB bosses’ original assessment of him still holds true.