To secure his power at home, Russia's President is testing its limits abroad. Sooner or later the west will have to stop himby Chrystia Freeland / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
What does Vladimir Putin want? Russia’s President’s annexation of Crimea in the spring, and continued aggression since then, have made this one of the world’s most urgent questions. We need to understand what he wants if we are to figure out how much of a threat he poses and how to contain him. So far, most efforts to answer this puzzle have taken their cue from the 19th century, seeking to explain Putin either as a player of Metternich-style realpolitik, or else as a Greater Russian nationalist. Both versions miss what is new about Putin and the political problems he is trying to solve.
In analyses of what Russia will do next, there is a lot of discussion of the strategic interests of the Russian state. But to frame the question in that way is fundamentally to misunderstand political power in Putin’s Russia. Putin is the ruler of an authoritarian regime, but he has no revolutionary party or ideology to secure his hold on power—for this KGB apparatchik, it really is the case that l’état, c’est moi.
Putin poses a novel challenge to the world order because his political objective is new, too. His goal, since he first entered the Kremlin in 2000, has been to work out how to be an authoritarian ruler in a middle-income country and in a post-Cold War world in which the techno…