We are used to thinking that Mr. Putin sees the West as a hostile force that aims to destroy Russia. But I believe that for Mr. Putin there are two Wests: a bad one and a good one. The “bad West” is represented by the traditional political elites that currently rule Western countries: Mr. Putin appears to see them as narrow-minded slaves of their electorates who overlook genuine national interests and are incapable of strategic thinking. The “good West” consists of ordinary Europeans and Americans who, he believes, want to have normal relations with Russia, and businesses who are eager to profit from close cooperation with their Russian counterparts.
In Mr. Putin’s thinking, apparently, the bad West is declining and doomed while the good West is slowly challenging the status quo with a raft of nationally oriented leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and even Donald Trump in the United States, ready to break with the old order and fashion a new one. Mr. Putin believes that the war against Ukraine and all its consequences, such as high inflation and soaring energy prices, will nourish the good West and help people rise up against the traditional political establishment.
Mr. Putin’s wager appears to be that the fundamental political shifts in Western countries will in time bring about a transformed, friendly West. Russia will then be able to return to all the security demands it set out in its December ultimatum to the United States and NATO. This may seem wishful to the point of impossible. But that doesn’t stop it from being what Mr. Putin expects to happen.
There is some good news. The very fact that the plan seems realistic to him should, in the short term, prevent any nuclear escalation. But the bad news is that sooner or later, Mr. Putin will face reality. It is in that moment, when his plans are stymied and his disappointment high, that he is likely to be most dangerous. If the West seeks to avoid a catastrophic clash, it needs to truly understand what it’s really dealing with when it comes to Mr. Putin. [Continue reading…]