Strong or weak, bully or buffoon? Will the real Russia please stand up?

December 17, 2014

Russia's President Putin speaks during a commemoration of the Hermitage's 250th anniversary at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

The West has been unable to develop a coherent strategic policy toward Russia. There is little agreement on what Russia is and how to deal with it, too much speculation about what President Vladimir Putin will or will not do.

The United States, the European Union and their allies all see different faces of Russia to confront, dismiss or engage. Years of cyclical relations, engagement and disappointment, confrontation and compromise, have spawned many “Russias” for the West. Each image lends itself to a different set of policy prescriptions.

In Western capitals, understanding of Putin’s Russia has devolved into competing narratives and constituencies. Some continue to look for opportunities to engage; others seek solely to contain, and still others pragmatically hedge. Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine is the worst crisis since the Cold War. Yet in response the West has jettisoned sober analysis instead of turning to it.

A cacophony of voices mixes facts and anecdotes to create a fractured vision of Russia. The country is not, as Winston Churchill once said, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The riddle seems to be solved — with many contradictory answers.

Russia is a relatively weak power, dependent on a primitive resource-extraction economy; yet its military adventures are an existential threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most powerful military alliance in the world. Or the country is strategically nefarious in seeking to undermine the European Union by funding right-wing parties across Europe; yet it is a bungling reactionary power that has mismanaged relations with neighboring states. There is apparent certainty that its actions in Ukraine will produce a strategic defeat.

Russia's President Putin is seen on a screen as he addresses to members of parliament and other top officials in the Kremlin, at a retirement home in Stavropol

Moscow is also cited as a threat to Europe’s future by presenting a conservative alternative to more progressive European values. Even though Russian society, marked by a high divorce rate and corruption, does not seem to abide by conservative values — except for recent anti-gay legislation.

The contradictions do not end there. Is Putin a calculating strategist playing high-stakes poker, or “boxing himself into a corner?” He has transformed Russia, according to many observers, into a proto-fascist state, paradoxically led by a cynical mafia-like elite that has no ideology of its own. Putin is alternatively described as an ex-KGB officer, a tsar with uncounted stolen wealth who rules over his own set of oligarchs — even the latest reincarnation of Benito Mussolini.

That Putin is still defined by his lackluster KGB career — as opposed to his 15-year personal rule over Russia — is startling. In the United States, however, the term “ex-KGB” is still loaded with nefarious meaning.  Everyone nods their head when they hear it, as though the acronym is filled with personal experience and meaning for them. Amateur psychoanalysis has largely replaced professional policy analysis.

Meanwhile, the West is still wondering if Putin is in complete control in Russia after tightening the screws on the last vestiges of opposition voices. Or is he a fledgling autocrat dependent on public support that cannot last?

It is strange that such an autocrat, and apparent imperialist, is so wary of even minor Russian military casualties in Ukraine because the public at home won’t accept this price for his policy. If Russia’s elites are so brilliant at engineering public opinion, why can’t they untie their own hands?

If Moscow is constrained by previous decisions, then why did Russia engage in a bilateral reset with the United States in 2009? Why did Putin turn so drastically toward repression in 2012?

Every nation has contradictions. But even for Russia, there are too many of them. At some point, Western analysis began to devolve into shadow puppetry.

It is hard to say what killed an objective view of Russia in the West. Most likely it was a combination of wishful thinkers, perpetual alarmists, Russia apologists, unreformed Cold War warriors and those promoting the vision of a post-Cold War world.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the state defence procurement and acquisition at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi

Could it be that we are only now seeing the real Russia — a repressive state with an aggressive foreign policy? That is unlikely. Plenty of experts are busy writing history backward from this point of conflict in 2014; they assert that this version of Russia is the one that was always lurking in the background.

Russians who oppose Putin are also perplexed. They keep insisting that Russia is not Putin, and Putin is not Russia. Yet he enjoys 85 percent approval ratings, and his critics do not. Even more unsettling is the possibility that many who don’t support Putin believe he has not gone far enough.

We know from Aeschylus that “truth is the first casualty in war,” so we understand why Russia’s state-controlled media so effectively destroyed any sense of truth in its reporting on the Ukrainian revolution in Kiev and on the broader Western policy to support Ukraine. Since protesters first appeared on the Maidan, the square at Kiev’s heart, Moscow has led a cynical, and effective, propaganda campaign against its own people — and against audiences abroad.

An unrestrained information war from Moscow we understand — and should expect — in this crisis. But why the West lost objective reality in its approach to Russia remains the real mystery.

Perhaps it is a miracle that Washington and its European allies have managed to agree on sanctions and, so far, stick together. This may not have happened, however, if pro-Soviet separatists had not shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

The spectacle of France trying to figure out a way to deliver Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia — one of which is named Sevastopol, a town in Crimea — demonstrates that major European allies don’t all see Moscow in the same light.

Now as Russia buckles under a currency crisis it cannot control, some look on gleefully, while others shudder with fear. Countries like Poland, which perpetually worry about Russia growing too strong and aggressive, will now have to reckon with those that always saw the real danger to Europe as Moscow becoming too weak and unstable.

In retrospect, it is easier to understand why the White House treads so carefully in Ukraine. The stakes are high and, right now, countries and experts alike seem to be presenting their own version of Russia to leverage a desired policy outcome.

For President Barack Obama, this probably makes what Washington should do about Moscow as clear as mud.


PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a commemoration of the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, December 8, 2014. REUTERS/Dmitry Lovetsky/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen as he addresses to members of parliament and other top officials in the Kremlin, at a retirement home in Stavropol, December 4, 2014.REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) chairs a meeting on the state defense procurement and acquisition at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, November 27, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Putin will lose nothing in his ventures because he has invested nothing; his holdings will keep him in economic power, one way or another, after his departure from the New USSR presidency. Putin’s political philosophy is that “Money rules.”

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

This constant ignoring of the facts such as the control the US wields over the worlds economies and the blatant use of that power to topple governments regardless of there public appeal or perception on the world stage. Is why people are waking up to the idea that these journalists are not in fact honest but have there own agendas. it is self evident that the only nation which truly bullies others is the US yet again and again we are subjected to the propaganda spouted by so called experts who will not within there articles be open minded and honest. As to the comment by SixthRomeo below can he truly believe that all American Presidents have not done the same as Putin backed by the equivalent of the so called oligarth backers of Putin i.e. banks and big business.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

He is a demagogue with only the intent to enrich himself. What’s there to do. He is just like our leaders. The longer he stays in power the wealthier he gets and so he has made up a strategy of fear and fake strength (just like our politicians) so that dumb people in Russia think he is a strong leader. It’s really pretty standard ruling class stuff. It’s just too bad Americans are too dumb to see it. But hey, in this world of self interest where all is fake and no one really cares, I say more power to him and to our fake leaders too. Most people admire the big scams, the great thefts, that people get away with. The US citizens in general love their criminal leaders and admire their audacity, so good luck to you Mr. Putin, we really don’t hate you, it’s just that some of our leaders are jealous of your wealth.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

America does not need an elaborate ‘Russia policy.’ Russia is perfectly capable of ruining itself. As we see clearly here with Putin, who is driving their economy into the toilet over some failed boondoggle in Ukraine. He really needed Chernobyl back that bad? Good. Take it. Your country is a joke to the world.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Whilst Russia has caught a nasty cold from the global slowdown they have at least managed to throw a spanner into the western attempt to encircle it with pseudo NATO countries and missile stations. The hoped-for outcome is that a large chunk of sane nations will stymie the ambitions of American and European ambitions guided from back stage by the Wall Street banking clique in concert with Goldman appointees in the Bank of England, Bundesbank etc. along with the armaments firms and any other similarly grasping, unprincipled, psychopathic politicians who combine to wreck any movement toward a positive outcome for the sane people of this planet.

When arch schemer Henry Kissinger is confounded by this American move to acquire for itself this chunk of a next door neighbour of Russia’s, then we are surely part of a new reality in which the Cuban missile crisis pales into insignificance.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

Seventy percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was in league with al Quaeda. We know this to be an untruth and now all sorts of ridicule and hyperbole are being directed at Russia and it’s leader.

The media which directed Americas belief in 2003 is alive and very active right now with little regard for the outcome of war with Russia which, it has been admitted by the military, will go straight into a nuclear deluge. Thankfully, Obama is reluctant to apply the extra sanctions which his government eagerly passed into law. If this was McCain we would all be feverishly digging fall out shelters.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

Buffon of course..

Posted by ZebecXebec | Report as abusive

Its always fun when the comments to the article confirm the thesis of the article.

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

It is always good when the comments on the editorial confirm the editorial’s thesis.

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

Glory to Russia and Vladimir The Righteous!!!

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Once Mr. Putin takes care of the traitorous oligarch elite the Russian star will shine again.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Will the real Russia please sit down and shut up?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

A perhaps overly simplistic view would be that the US military industrial security complex with its associated think tanks and politicians have to keep the money flowing in.
Americans have “been there, done that” putting hundreds of thousands of troops including reservists all over hostile deserts and religiously backward populations in unwinnable wars for the benefit of oil field services and logistics corporations and others.
Russia is worthy of taxpayer funding for new high technology weapons and sales to allies etc from a bigger share of GDP for “protection”.
Putin can probably count on the Russian people to rally behind their leadership and make sacrifices when under threat.
It is all a racket.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

This article should be titled:

“Seems like nobody understands Putin and Russia – and neither do I.”

Posted by charles73 | Report as abusive

Ah this is great! Thank you so much Reuters for returning the comments to your articles.

Posted by norcalguy101 | Report as abusive

Why russians like Putin? Maybe because he improved their lives.

Posted by Whitrix | Report as abusive

Author seems to forget that Ukrainian revolution was paid by US and that they chose
new government. As for Putin, he tries to protect interests of his country. Imagine
if Putin put strategic missiles in mexico or Canada. NATO pushed too far. They didnt have any clear threat except few jihadists and it is not good for business.
Now with Russin in their sight they can spend trillions and nobody would dare to question since they protect them. Author thinks that if Russia is weak they should stand down. He forgets that Russia, like Iran or China , cant do this, because their people dont like to be humiliated.

Posted by ajrolaf | Report as abusive

What confuses the West is that Russia and Putin have been models of self discipline and restraint in the face of Western economic aggression. It confuses the West that Russia is surviving their economic onslaught, an onslaught unprecedented in history. Russia has always been underestimated by her enemies.

What country has a military history in other countries like America. _United_States_military_operations

Posted by smiley1 | Report as abusive

“Strong or weak, bully or buffoon? Will the real Russia please stand up?”
Will the real Michael Kofman please stand up?

Posted by PeterLoneTree | Report as abusive

Russia is becoming irrelevant under Putin. Foreign investment cash is headed out of Russia, rather than into it. Technological talent, business talent, marketing talent, film and entertainment talent, literary talent…. all leaving Russia to other countries. Why would they stay in Russia and be 30 years behind?

Putin is babysitting a giant empty K-mart and thumping his chest on the roof.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Some analysts believe Putin is being aggressive because ordinary Russians overwhelmingly want their leaders to create an empire, expand and dominat etheir neighbours.

Rather than eductae them, he goes along with whatever makes for short-term popularity.

So… it seems we’re dealing with the Russian people, not just their leader. And that’s rather sad.

Posted by RunForIt | Report as abusive

A narcissist article, like many of the comments also. Why is it that so many westerners assume only western actions or reactions or opinions count? The dark underside to this is that this attitude denies agency to Russians, or Ukrainians for that matter. Nobody paid much attention to Ukraine when it was wasting away under a corrupt extremely pro-Russian government. The Russians heavily influenced, if not outright controlled, everything that Ukrainian government did, which included negotiating and almost signing a minor long-term trade agreement with the EU. And now it’s coming out the Russians were always in on and kept informed about these negotiations. In fact before this crisis, there was plenty of talk in official Russia about hooking up in some way with the EU. The puzzling question is why did Moscow go hysterical when their Ukrainian puppet was on the verge of signing this agreement? Why did they make the idiotic decision to try to pull the plug at the last minute? The Ukrainians to their credit finally had enough and swept away the puppets and Russia reacted even more hysterically, ending up with an isolated and very expensive to subsidize and maintain Crimea and an even more worthless scattered belt of rust-belt towns on the eastern edge of Donbas. The Russians broke it and now own it. And they themselves removed from the Ukrainian political sphere the most hide-bound pro-Russian regions that always acted as a brake on Ukraine’s westward ambitions. Now Ukraine is the most consolidated and pro-western it has ever been. So much prattle by propaganda trolls and naive western commentators about CIA plots and all that. Perhaps it was most sinister and ingenious CIA among the top echelon of Russian policy makers to make them shoot themselves in the foot…

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive