What exactly does Vladimir Putin really want? The Russian president has taken a conventionally weak hand and transformed the country into one of the most disruptive powers on the 21st century global stage.
In her new book, "Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest." longtime Russia expert Angela Stent puts forth two key ideas — that the West played a key role in allowing Russia’s ascendance, and that the West may also not be prepared to deal with the depths of Putin’s convictions and his ambitions for Russia’s future.
"I think often the United States does not give Russia and Russians enough respect," Stent told On Point's Meghna Chakrabarti. "Whether it's some of the things that President Obama has said, when he called Russia a 'regional power'or said that Putin reminded him of a bored schoolboy slouching in the back of a classroom — I think you can go back to the 1990s. I think maybe we did sort of have an arrogant attitude. Many Russians, as they rightly should be, are proud of their country and believe that they should get more respect."
On the Russian psyche
"The Russians believe — and this is something that Putin wants them to believe and talks about a lot — that they are an exceptional civilization. Now, of course, many countries believe that they're exceptional, including the United States. But if you take the size of the country, its history, they believe that they are a unique civilization, that they're a civilization that doesn't necessarily believe in individualism, but much more collective, and that they are in many ways superior to the West. And, today, Putin talks about the fact that Russia is the true inheritor of Christianity as it was, not the what he calls a satanic decadent Christianity of the West.
"There has always been historically this feeling of superiority, and yet the consciousness that economically and materially, in many ways, they have always lagged behind the West, and the West has looked down on them. And I think you get a sense of grievance that then feeds into a sense, also, of superiority. And that can sometimes be quite lethal combination."
"This is not a power that's on the rise. It's declining economically, it's declining demographically, and yet, it still does have the ability to project power in this disruptive way."Angela Stent
On what the U.S. missed after the fall of the Soviet Union that gave way to Putin
"I think the West believed that once communism collapsed then Russia would be free to become a democracy like the West. And we looked at what happened in some of the East European countries, Poland, for instance, that did after the collapse of communism mov fairly quickly toward what looked like a democracy. And I think we misunderstood that a lot of what we didn't like about the Soviet Union wasn't really so much the Marxist, Stalinist ideology, but it was because of Russian history and the Russians' idea of their place in the world. And it took us, I think, more than a decade to realize that the reason things didn't work out the way we wanted wasn't because the Russians were communists, but actually because they were Russians, and they have this very different world view.
"I think, to some extent, in the beginning in the middle of the '90s, there were very well-intentioned people in the U.S. administration who talked to Russians who appeared to believe in all of these Western values and the Western way of life. We talk to Russian liberals who told us things that we wanted to hear, and I think to some extent they really believed them. We just failed to understand the depth of the resentment in post-Soviet Russia about what had happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin very much articulates that when he says that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. I think we failed to understand that. And then I think we didn't realize what it was like for the Russian people. ... Suddenly, when Putin came back, we began to realize that he was just trying to restore what he believed Russia should rightfully be and and get rid of what happened in the 1990s."
"We've made mistakes, but we've also been faced with a Russia that really hasn't been willing to accept what we believed was the post-Cold War international order, and now Russia wants to change it."Angela Stent
On Russia's current role in the Middle East
"It's really quite amazing. Putin has sensed an opening, a vacuum, which he moved in and very cleverly, if you like, exploited. Russia always supported the Assad family. The Soviet Union and Syria had close ties. And the Russians were supporting Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, but not materially very much. And then it appeared as if Assad was going to get defeated in 2015. And, remember, before that, President Obama had said there would be a red line in Syria if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, it did so, and then in the end there wasn't a red line because the U.S. and its allies did not move in more robustly there. That's when Putin sent his planes out. They began a bombing campaign in Syria. And they've really ensured that President Assad will survive.
"But it goes beyond Syria, too. Russia, unlike in the Soviet times, pursues a very pragmatic policy in the Middle East. I spoke to a senior Israeli diplomat who said to me that Russian policy in the Middle East, it's aggressive and it's flexible, but it's cognizant of its own limits. And so, unlike the Soviet times, Russia talks to all parties on all sides of the conflict. It talks to Shia states, the Sunni states and to Israel. I think two of the more remarkable developments in the past couple of years have been the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia on the one hand, which the Soviet Union never had diplomatic relations with during the Cold War period, and with Israel, which was, again, a very fraught relationship for a very long time. Why? Because both of these countries believe that Russia can use its influence on Iran to temper Iranian ambitions. I think they're probably wrong, but they all look to Russia as the one country that can do that."
"I think the West believed that once communism collapsed then Russia would be free to become a democracy like the West."Angela Stent
On the Russian projection of power
"The one area in which Russia has always been able to project power is through its military. Even though its military is much smaller and weaker than that of the United States, it can still project enough power so that it can disrupt in Ukraine, in the Middle East or wherever else.
"But the economic fundamentals are really quite bad, and Putin spoke about that a couple of days ago. The population is declining. And it's unclear whether that can be reversed. It has crumbling infrastructure as you said. There are many rural areas where there's great poverty and there's no running water. And yet there are cities like Moscow that are kind of gleaming where people live pretty well. The rate of growth is about 1.5 percent per annum. The Western sanctions have affected the Russian economy adversely even though they haven't changed Russian behavior. So, yes, this is not a power that's on the rise. It's declining economically, it's declining demographically, and yet, it still does have the ability to project power in this disruptive way."
On the source of tension in U.S.-Russia relations
"We've certainly made mistakes. I wouldn't blame the West for all of this. I think there's a fundamental incompatibility between what Russia, under Putin, has sought, which is a recognition of the post-Soviet space as its sphere of influence and an acceptance by the United States and its allies that they wouldn't try and bring countries like Ukraine or Georgia into the West. That's really what he has wanted. And then, also, a recognition of Russia as a great power whose interests are as legitimate as those of the United States, even if they're different from those of the United States. And we have, understandably, not been willing to concede those issues at the moment. That might change one day. We've made mistakes, but we've also been faced with a Russia that really hasn't been willing to accept what we believed was the post-Cold War international order, and now Russia wants to change it. I think you can fault the West for not — the United States — for not having as clear a strategy toward Russia, not knowing what it wanted from Russia, whereas Putin seems to have developed a pretty clear strategy of what he wanted from the world and he has been pursuing it."
Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.