Convinced of His Own Exceptionalism, Putin is Both ‘a Pragmatist and a Fool,’ Milshtein Says

July 24, 2014
Russian Leaders on Red Square on Victory Day 9 May 2014. Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev /ITAR TASS

Staunton, July 22 – In a commentary titled “Forewarned and Armed,” Ilya Milshtein argues that tragically “there are no particular reasons to hope that Putin will change his approach” in Ukraine. Instead, the Moscow analyst says, he will proceed in ways that reflect his beliefs in his own exceptionalism and in his ability to intimidate the West forever.

Both those beliefs are wrong, Milshtein says, and reflect in turn that while Putin is a pragmatist at the tactical level and thus often successful, he is a fool at the strategic level and is leading Russia toward a terrible defeat, albeit one he doesn’t see coming because it will not look like those of others who have behaved as he has.

Western leaders have proceeded very cautiously in response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Russian involvement in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner because they are dealing “not with a Milosevic or Saddam but with a nuclear power capable of destroying all life on earth. Beginning with its own.”

But the Western response up to now has not prompted Putin to change his course and likely won’t at least anytime soon, Milshtein says. Sanctions won’t frighten the Kremlin. Moscow will simply respond by behaving even worse. One can’t treat Russia like a schoolchild who misbehaves; he will simply “terrorize the entire class.”

Putin, however, “has another problem,” Milshtein argues. “The victor in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea, a politician with impressive ratings in Russia, and a man who has run everything directly” from planting the “sugar” bomb in Ryazan in 1999 to reshuffling the leadership in Moscow, is convinced of his “own exceptionalism and invulnerability.”

Putin “almost from his first months as president began to orchestrate his besieged fortress which no one wanted to besiege.” He has convinced himself that he can do what he wants because he can threaten the West with the proposition that if it opposes him and he feels himself driven into a corner, he “will become even more dangerous.”

That has worked for him in the past, Milshtein says, and Putin “believes that by sharpening the situation to the limit he will psychologically outplay his opponents.” But this only shows how far from reality he is.

Putin is “a pragmatist and he is a fool, accustomed to victory.” And that mixture “defines his political style.” And today, even in the wake of the shooting down of the Malaysian plane, he thinks he can continue by saying that the Ukrainians or the West are to blame rather than himself or his country.

The Kremlin leader “knows that he is lying and he knows that Western leaders know this as well.” But that is in the nature of his game: “One against all!” Unfortunately for Putin and others as well, he simply does not understand the nature of the West. And that failure, one reflected in his response to the Malaysian plane downing, will destroy him.

The West is slow to anger but when it is aroused, it can draw on its enormous resources and defeat its enemies, Milshtein says. That has been true with smaller enemies like Milosevic or Qaddafi, and it can be true with Russia.

“In the era of conventional world wars,” this process “ends with the bombing of Germany. In the era of nuclear weapons, it will hardly go that far although anything might be possible.” But “the task of isolating and neutralizing” Putin is now on the agenda. As US Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “for Putin the moment of truth has arrived.”

“The destruction of 300 passengers of the airliner and most important the reaction of Moscow and its bandits,” Milshtein argues, represent Putin’s crossing of a line he did not and perhaps does not fully understand is there. And there will be consequences, perhaps truly terrible ones.

“In essence,” the Moscow commentator says, Putin “has already achieved his goal.” He has “frightened humanity to death, but it is too numerous and too well armed with various technologies” for him to “further risk live and peace on earth” by continuing. It would be better, Milshtein says, if Putin would recognize that.

Two things remain unclear, although they are not raised by the commentator: Is Putin capable of doing so? And is the West prepared to act ever more forcefully if he doesn’t? The recent past is not encouraging on either point; the next few days and weeks will provide an answer to both.