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What Really Scares Vladimir Putin the Most

Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

When Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced their deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, Bashar Al Assad knew exactly what the deal meant—a lifeline—and whom to thank for it. “It’s a victory for Syria achieved thanks to our Russian friends,” said one Syrian minister.

But as the conflict unfolded—as Moscow staunchly denied that Assad had gassed his own subjects; as it moved its war ships into the Mediterranean; and as it finally stepped in to fill the void left by President Obama’s waffling—Washington struggled to decode what, exactly, those Russian friends were after. Was it about keeping a good client of Russian arms manufacturers? Was it about protecting its base in Tartus, the only Russian naval installation in the Mediterranean? Was it nothing more than a desire to stick it to Uncle Sam?

These explanations, however tempting, distort the truth of Russia’s Syrian policy. The base at Tartus is nice to have, sure, but it is a small one: Most of the time, one ship dedicated to repair and support idles there. The arms sales are nice, too, but they’re just a small fraction of total global Russian arms sales. “India buys orders of magnitude more weapons than Syria,” says Georgy Mirsky, a Russian Middle East expert. And if Russia loses Assad, he says, “Don’t worry, we’ll survive.”

More central to Vladimir Putin’s understanding of Syria is his conservatism. Putin is a preternatural standpatter. He is notoriously averse to firing people; he still writes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. Putin is often said to be a product of the cold war and the Soviet Union, but more than anything, he is a product of their end. The defining moment of his political maturation came in the late ’80s, when the Soviet order, as imperfect and deeply rusted as it had been, gave way to chaos, violence, and poverty, and in which the KGB, the proud elite in which he had served, was humbled and forced to serve as security guards for the new economic elite. It is not for nothing that Putin talks about Russia’s bitter experience with revolutions—a category in which he includes 1991—and about how change is better affected very gradually.

This fear deeply colors Putin’s foreign policy, too. “In general, his worldview is that the world is in such a chaotic, incomprehensible state, that all attempts to influence it with direct action are counterproductive and only bring the opposite of the intended result,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who is seen as a good decoder of the Kremlin’s thinking. Furthermore, the trope of U.S. obligation to do this or enforce that is more than galling to Putin, Lukyanov says. It is incomprehensible. “He doesn’t understand where this sense comes from and who saddled the Americans with this burden,” Lukyanov explains. This is not, in other words, a simple cold war hatred of all things American. According to Lukyanov, Putin is deeply skeptical that the United States—or any one else—can fix a country’s internal problems.

A key element of Putin’s conservatism is checking America’s initiatives abroad so as not to set precedents that could come back to haunt Russia. Putin was spooked when a wave of democratizing so-called “color revolutions” swept through three former Soviet states—and the fact that American money was involved further confirmed his suspicion of U.S. aims abroad. In Libya, the Russians received another shock. They had abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council when the United States and its European allies said they wanted to prevent a massacre in Benghazi. When the intervention resulted in Muammar Qaddafi’s toppling and murder, Putin was reportedly horrified. He is said to have obsessed over Qaddafi’s death and was furious with Dmitry Medvedev, then technically Russia’s president, for not vetoing the use-of-force resolution. (Some among the Moscow chattering classes speculated that with that one abstention Medvedev had forfeited his chance for a second term.) “The only goal in Syria,” says Lukyanov, “is to not allow intervention. ... It sets a precedent. If you allow the Americans to do what they want in Syria, then they can do anything they want in, say, Belarus,” historically Moscow’s most loyal neighbor.

Given Putin’s ideological upbringing and his wounds, he sees the world as a mirror of the one he grew up in: America versus Russia, locked in a long, deep struggle. “He looks for a bipolar world, and if it doesn’t exist, he’ll invent it,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a wizened political consultant who was central to Putin’s first presidential bid and who went on to serve as his adviser. Putin, Pavlovsky says, still hasn’t come to terms with the new geopolitical reality, with its many regional powers, and rather than grapple with it, he has insisted on superimposing the Russia-versus-America reality he knows. Instead of seeing countries on their own terms, “he’s always looking for a patron with whom he can talk,” Pavlovsky says.

But the cold war view is a problematic one for Russia, because it is a struggle it lost. “It’s not policy,” says Pavlovsky. “It’s trauma. America is the trauma of history, and traumas are very serious things.” As a result, Pavlovsky explains, “our relationship to America takes up far too much mental space in the Kremlin.” This is true in Russian culture as well, manifested as an obsession with the United States, both with what it thinks of Russia and with preventing its perceived corrosive influence. (In Moscow, I was a guest on a prime-time radio show dedicated solely to deciphering what the foreign press wrote about Russia. The host was surprised to learn that no such show exists in the United States.)

Putin sees himself as the necessary balance to America’s global power. He likes being the one America has to come to in order to strike deals, and without whom nothing can go forward, in part because it reinforces his view of the world. But by looking to be a counterweight to the United States, Putin’s foreign policy, ironically, becomes prisoner to America’s.

Another problem with this worldview is that it isn’t much of a worldview. It’s what comes together when you sum up the remainders of Putin’s actions, a strange and livid pattern. “It’s not that Putin sits there and thinks about the world,” Pavlovsky explains. “Russia’s actions are often reactive without really thinking it through, without thinking what our goals are, what our place in the world is. We are hell bent on preserving the status quo without even understanding what it is. And when the status quo changes, we get angry and look for the enemy who’s destroying it.” Another problem with this kind of foreign policy is that it lacks staying power. “The status quo always falls apart,” says Pavlovsky. “That’s its defining characteristic.”

Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.