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 Making Sense of a Crazy Mixed Up World

Putin the Meddler

As ever, to understand Russia you must know the man in charge.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

Vladimir Putin

In February, Russia deployed a new cruise missile, an act U.S. officials said violated a 1987 arms control treaty. The following month, Sweden reinstated the draft and held war games for the first time in 20 years, and a NATO group conducted military maneuvers in Lithuania.

But political scientist Brian Taylor cautions against viewing provocative Russian actions — including flyby’s of NATO ships and aircraft and even cyber warfare attacks on electoral processes — simply as “aggressions,” without taking into account how Putin and the Russian elite see the world.

“They’re not doing anything they would define as aggressive,” says Taylor, an expert on post-Soviet Russia. “They would define it as sticking up for Russia’s interests.”

Taylor, the author of three books on Russian politics and leadership — including the forthcoming The Code of Putinism (Oxford University Press) — maintains that Putin and his team see Russia’s foreign policy as a defensive reaction to aggression by the West. “They believe that international politics since the Cold War have been too much in the interest of the United States and very much against their own interests, and that they are not taken seriously by the U.S. and other Western powers.”

Putin emerged in a leadership role 18 years ago, the year after Taylor earned his doctorate, and Putin has dominated his studies since. Taylor believes most commentary mistakenly paints Putin as either a ruthless pragmatist or a strident Russian nationalist, two extremes he says miss the mark.

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“Like most of us, Putin has a complex set of interests, beliefs, habits, and emotions that guide the way he looks at the world and the decisions that he makes,” says Taylor. “If we want to understand Putin’s Russia and what Russia is doing, we have to understand the mentality of Putin and his close associates.”

According to Taylor, Russia views many Western actors as hypocrites, doing things themselves they chastise Russia for doing. That includes election tampering. Russian leadership saw this meddling as payback for U.S. criticism of the 2011 Russian election and subsequent protests in Russia. “Putin believes that the U.S. interferes in Russian elections. He thinks this is part of the way the game is played.”

“One of the things the Russian elite believes and is trying to convince others around the world is that the West doesn’t play by its own rules,” says Taylor. “Anything Russia can do that undermines faith among Western populations in their democratic institutions and procedures is to its benefit.”

Photo credit: Sputnik/Alamy Stock Photo

This article appeared in the spring 2017 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2017 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.