Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 meeting, July 2017.

For Putin’s 65th Birthday, Insights From America’s Top Experts on Russia

October 06, 2017
RM Staff

Russian President Vladimir Putin turns 65 this Saturday, Oct. 7. He is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin (if you count his time as prime minister), but still reportedly plans to run and all but certainly get re-elected for another six-year term in March 2018. Who is Mr. Putin? What are his views, policies and goals, and how have they impacted America? To help answer these questions we have put together a collection of insights about Putin from some of America’s best experts on Russia.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

New Cold War/saber rattling:

  • Henry Kissinger: Putin should come to realize that, whatever his grievances, a policy of military impositions would produce another Cold War. For its part, the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington. (The Washington Post, 03.05.14)
  • Leon Aron: To Putin, the end of the Cold War was a humiliating defeat of a great and glorious state. It was the equivalent of what the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was for Germany. Hence, the overarching strategic objective of Putin’s policies, both domestic and external, is to recover and repossess the political, economic and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state at its fall. (Foreign Affairs, 12.15.16)
  • Steven Pifer: The Russian president’s apparent infatuation with nuclear weapons could stem from several factors, some more troubling than others. First, Putin seeks to project the image of Russia as a superpower. But Russia is not the Soviet Union; [it] has a vulnerable, resource-dependent economy and offers little ideological appeal. Lots of nuclear weapons provide the only thing that makes Russian power “super.” Second, although Russia is modernizing its conventional forces, NATO maintains qualitative and quantitative edges, while China has greatly increased its conventional capabilities. Nuclear weapons offer an offset for conventional force disadvantages. Third, Putin may see benefits in making the world think he is a little crazy when it comes to nuclear arms. That intimidates others, which seems to be one of his preferred tactics. Fourth, and more alarmingly, the Russian president may see nuclear weapons not just as tools of deterrence, but as tools of coercion. That would be new and potentially dangerous. (Brookings Institution, 06.17.15)
  • Anatol Lieven:  Russia’s restraint in Ukraine shows that there is no serious reason to fear that Mr. Putin is ready to create a new, worse international crisis by attacking the Baltic states or Poland. (New York Times, 03.18.16)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • Steven Pifer and Fiona Hill: In spite of the saber-rattling, Mr. Putin and the Kremlin do not want war with NATO. Mr. Putin is not hell-bent on the destruction of Russia or his presidency in a nuclear exchange. But Russian security elites know they lack the economic and military resources for a major conventional conflict, so Moscow has to accomplish its goals without triggering total mobilization—through hybrid tactics and bullying, including threats of a nuclear strike. (New York Times, 06.16.15)
  • Roger McDermott and Stephen Cimbala: Putin’s actions in Crimea were not entirely sui generis: They were preceded by a context of demands upon Russia from its post-Cold War military and geostrategic setting, compared to that of the Soviet Union. Putin’s policy is not the result of psychodrama. It is the product of his having lived in strategic history and his (and our) understanding of that history. (The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 10.14.16)

Missile defense:

  • Roger McDermott and Stephen Cimbala: Ironically Putin’s irredentism in Ukraine may result in a NATO re-reboot of its missile defense plans and a decision for placement of missile defense components in Poland after all. In turn, Russia’s response might be to fortify its Kaliningrad exclave with Iskander missiles, a high-precision tactical ballistic missile system very accurate for short distances and capable of being used with nuclear warheads. (The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 10.14.16)

Nuclear arms control:

  • Olga Oliker: Putin’s language on nuclear weapons is encouraging in that he speaks of improving, not increasing, the force. Putin’s question to Trump about a New START extension suggests an interest in keeping the agreement going at least until 2026—right around the time Russia’s all-modern force can be expected to come into being. (Arms Control Association, May 2017)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Leon Aron: [Russian] intervention in Syria … is particularly indicative of Putin’s conviction that restoring Russia’s superpower pride by being able to win geopolitical games anywhere in the world is essential to his regime’s legitimacy. (Foreign Affairs, 12.15.16)

Cyber security:

  • Angela Stent: In reference to allegations of Russian hacking: It’s a way of reasserting Russia. Whatever the truth, Russia is back. (The Washington Post, 09.16.16)
  • Fiona Hill: I think we will see more cyberattacks as [Russian security] agencies try to prove their worth. Russia also has a presidential election coming up, in 2018, and Putin has to put himself up for “relegitimation.” Elections do matter in Russia, insofar as they put popular faith back into the presidency. And Putin wants to make sure there will be no outside efforts to influence that election, as he believed happened in 2011-12 elections. So we can imagine more preemptive aggression coming from Russia as a deterrent. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)

Elections interference:

  • Leon Aron: The Russian president acts as if he imposed on himself a historical mission to rebalance the world's "correlation of forces," as the Soviets used to say in Brezhnev's time. Resentment and restoration looked like his twin mottos. While leaving the door open to cooperation with the U.S. on antiterrorism, arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, Mr. Putin came to view the rest of geopolitics as largely a zero-sum game: If the West wins, Russia loses—and vice versa. What happened during the 2016 presidential election, then, was not an anti-American one-off. It was part of a sustained policy, a tile in the giant geopolitical mosaic of Russian resurgence that Mr. Putin has set out to construct. (Wall Street Journal, 08.08.17)
  • Matthew Rojansky: We are now simply seeing what it looks like when a major power acts in furtherance of what it understands to be its interests, irrespective of U.S. interests. (Quartz, 08.19.16)

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • Thomas Graham: The U.S. doesn’t just have a Putin problem. It has a Russia problem. … Global developments may have shifted the specifics of the rivalry, and technological advances may have increased its risks. But the areas of disagreement have stayed have constant: values, zones of influence, the principles of world order. (Politico, 08.12.17)
  • Henry Kissinger: Starting with American support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Putin has gradually convinced himself that the U.S. is structurally adversarial. By “structural,” I mean that he may very well believe that America defines its basic interest as weakening Russia, transforming us from a potential ally to another foreign country that he balances with China and others. (The Atlantic, 11.10.16)
  • Henry Kissinger: For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one. (The Washington Post, 03.05.14)
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski: Nothing has hurt Putin more in the international dialogue with the West than the words of President Obama, who credited Russia with being a significant regional power. He didn't have to say more in order to score a point that hurt. (Transcript of remarks at the Wilson Center, 06.16.14)
  • Angela Stent: Putin is still recovering from belittling remarks [that Obama made when he described the country as a regional power]. (The Washington Post, 09.16.16)
  • Matthew Rojansky: First, we need to stop obsessing over Putin. Our problem is with Russia. Putin stands in the mainstream of a centuries-old Russian foreign policy tradition and worldview and he enjoys broad elite support and popular consent for his policies. Any approach premised mainly on "being tough" with Putin (as Hillary Clinton promises) or on charming him into making a deal (as Trump does) misses the point entirely. (New York Times, 10.25.16)
  • Dmitri Trenin: Putin wants partnership, but not in the sense that he works on the U.S. agenda and gets paid a commission for helping out. He understands the U.S. is much stronger than Russia, but he nevertheless demands a relationship of equals. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 09.13.13)
  • Dimitri Simes: Putin is not anti-Western, but unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, he is unsentimental toward the West. The downside of Putin’s experience in international affairs is that there are few to whom he will turn to for advice; he likewise has no interest in moral guidance from Western leaders, whom he considers hypocritical in attempting to force Russia to play according to rules they don’t follow. (Politico, 03.13.14)
  • Angela Stent: For President Putin, whose mission has been to restore Russia’s role on the world stage and negate what he sees as the disastrous legacy of the 1990s, the fundamental goal is to have the United States treat Russia as though it were the Soviet Union. That means recognizing it as a fully sovereign great power whose smaller neighbors enjoy only limited sovereignty, and America’s equal whose legitimate interests must be respected. The goal would be to create a new tripartite Yalta system, where the United States, Russia and China agree to divide the world into spheres of influence. (The National Interest, 08.17.2017)
  • Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon: Putin is not an aberration among recent Russian rulers, as he is routinely depicted to be in the West… His policies toward the West are a logical evolution and, in important respects, a continuation of theirs, grounded in a similar understanding of Russia’s destiny.In Moscow’s reading, the United States had masterminded the revolution [in Ukraine] to install a pro-Western figure as president over the candidate endorsed by Putin. Putin soon came to view the revolution in Ukraine as a dress rehearsal for regime change in Russia itself. Putin believed it was part of the United States’ larger effort to construct a unipolar world based on its values and interests, a world that it could dominate with little regard for other major powers. In response Putin began working to fortify Russia against Western influence and interference. The Kremlin sponsored nationalist youth movements—notably Nashi (Our Guys)—partly to provide street muscle in case a color revolution was to emerge. And it clamped down on civil society, especially Western-funded non-governmental organizations, which, as Putin saw it, were promoting a Western agenda in Russia with the guise of fostering democracy. (The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • Graham Allison: I think the good news story is that the demonization of Putin has not made America safer. I think Putin is demonic and he’s a dangerous character. And I think his behavior is dangerous for us. That’s a reality. But just demonizing him and blaming him for things—I have to ask about our security: At the end of each round, are we better off, are we worse off? And the answer is, we’re worse off. (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 07.31.17)
  • Thomas Graham: The demonization of Putin is a reflection of our declining confidence in our own capabilities. It's easier to blame Putin. He's pursuing Russian national interests, but he's not running world affairs. (NPR, 01.18.17)
  • Angela Stent: Trump said in his inaugural speech that we will not get involved in other countries’ domestic affairs, suggesting that we are backing off from regime change and democracy promotion. That is music to Putin’s ears… The hints … suggest that Trump acknowledges Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space, as Putin likes to call it, and that the U.S. won’t interfere there. (Financial Times, 02.09.17)
  • Paul Saunders: Consider Russia’s policy toward the United States in the fall of 2001, immediately following the September 11 attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely known as the first foreign leader to contact President George W. Bush following the attacks. He appears to have made a strategic decision to assist the United States in order to pursue a closer relationship. If President Putin becomes convinced that he will never be able to build a functional relationship with Washington—no matter what he does or who is in power—American preferences will lose much of their remaining power in restraining Russia’s conduct. (Russia Matters, 03.17.17)
  • Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon: If the United States remains rudderless, Putin will be unable to engage Trump on the issues with which he most needs his help. And Russiagate won’t prove to have been a masterful maneuver. (The Boston Review, 07.24.17)
  • Dmitri Trenin: He understands the vast asymmetries between Russia and America. He knows that the arms race with the United States undermined the Soviet economy; a repeat of it would kill Russia’s. He likely realizes that self-imposed isolation, via sanctions on Western companies, would be much worse for Russia than any U.S.-driven attempt to isolate it from without. He should see that fanning xenophobia and anti-Americanism at home would hardly bring any benefits but instead would hurt relations with other countries, not just the United States, and retard Russia’s development still further. The Soviet Union tried to deal with the United States from a position of an equal, which it was not, and eventually quit the stage; the Russian Federation, starting from a position of weakness, has to be smarter. Putin, the judo fighter, certainly gets it. (Foreign Policy, 07.31.17)
  • Matthew Rojansky: For Putin, dysfunction is useful since it reinforces the longstanding narrative that Washington aims to contain Russia geopolitically and degrade it economically, with the ultimate objective of regime change. This narrative yields one inescapable conclusion for the majority of Russian voters: Only Vladimir Putin is capable of guaranteeing their safety and wellbeing. (The National Interest, 07.07.17)

II. Russia’s relations with other countries

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Putin has only a handful of contacts with U.S. and European insiders and thus a very incomplete grasp of what motivates or drives Western leaders. Finding himself too far outside their political perspectives and interactions, Putin falls back on his (and Russia’s) age-old threat perceptions. He looks for, and finds, plots and conspiracies. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Robert Legvold: There's no question that President Putin and those around him are designing a foreign policy intended, first, to support what they see as the requirements for a strong state. That means mobilizing a population, asserting Russia, even demanding a right to respect in the international community that in many respects the power of Russia may not justify. … Secondly, as they think about the outside world, by and large I think their principle objective at this stage is maintaining strategic independence so that they're not viewed as essentially a tool of any major power. (Carnegie Corporation, 10.19.2016)
  • Andrew Weiss: Vladimir Putin has gone global in recent years, launching a Russian-style charm offensive in far-flung locales where the Kremlin’s influence had been all but written off. Russian voices, fingerprints and footsteps have been showing up over much of the Middle East and Europe, parts of Africa and even in Latin America. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 08.04.17)
  • Angela Stent: The eternal question of whether Russia really belongs to Europe complicates the EU-Russia relationship. Putin has said "Russia is a natural member of the 'European family' in spirit, history and culture," though he has made it clear that Russia does not seek to join the EU. But Russians have become disillusioned with Europe's lecturing of them and remain divided over whether to join Europe or pursue a Eurasian path. Despite this mutual ambivalence, and though Russia is a challenging partner, the EU as a whole remains committed to encouraging the Kremlin to become more European. The alternative is a more obstructionist Russia isolated from the West. (The National Interest, 03.01.07)

Russia’s relations with China:

  • Graham Allison: The relationship between Xi and Putin is very thick, very tight. They are, I would say, best buddies, actually. (CSIS, 07.31.17)
  • Dimitri Simes: You should not be surprised if Russia would introduce a new element of global instability by signing a security agreement with Beijing, and there is a considerable interest in Beijing in strengthening security ties to Russia. So far, Putin has not wanted to pull in that direction, because he wants to have a Western option, because he wants to have an American connection. He also does not want to be Beijing’s junior partner. But if you deprive him of the European-American connection, we may alter the geopolitical balance by putting Russia closer to China. (New Republic, 03.03.14)
  • Paul Saunders: In short, while Putin is clearly eager to work with the United States, he is prepared to do so only on terms that do not damage what he views as Russian interests. Putin also has his eye on Russia's other options—China—and even the capacity to play a central role in alternative institutions outside the West. (The National Interest, 09.11.06)

Russia’s relations with Ukraine:

  • Henry Kissinger: One has to analyze how the Ukraine crisis occurred. It is not conceivable that Putin spends 60 billion euros on turning a summer resort into a winter Olympic village in order to start a military crisis the week after a concluding ceremony that depicted Russia as a part of Western civilization… I saw Putin at the end of November 2013. He raised a lot of issues; Ukraine he listed at the end as an economic problem that Russia would handle via tariffs and oil prices. The first mistake was the inadvertent conduct of the European Union. They did not understand the implications of some of their own conditions. Ukrainian domestic politics made it look impossible for Yanukovych to accept the EU terms and be reelected or for Russia to view them as purely economic. So the Ukrainian president rejected the EU terms. The Europeans panicked, and Putin became overconfident. He perceived the deadlock as a great opportunity to implement immediately what had heretofore been his long-range goal. He offered $15 billion to draw Ukraine into his Eurasian Union. In all of this, America was passive. (The National Interest, 08.19.15)
  • Henry Kissinger: There was no significant political discussion with Russia or the EU of what was in the making. Each side acted sort of rationally based on its misconception of the other, while Ukraine slid into the Maidan uprising right in the middle of what Putin had spent 10 years building as a recognition of Russia’s status. No doubt in Moscow this looked as if the West was exploiting what had been conceived as a Russian festival to move Ukraine out of the Russian orbit. Then Putin started acting like a Russian czar—like Nicholas I over a century ago. I am not excusing the tactics, only setting them in context. (The National Interest, 08.19.15)
  • Steven Pifer: A weak Ukrainian government incapable of meeting the challenges before it ensures that the Maidan model will have little attraction for the Russian populace. This consideration could mean that Mr. Putin wants a failed Ukrainian state. (Testimony before U.S. Senate, 03.04.15)
  • Steven Pifer: Putin sees Russians & Ukrainians as one people. Said so in Kyiv in 2013. Does not understand he thereby denies Ukrainian history, culture. (Twitter, 05.26.17)
  • Graham Allison: Most of the territory that is now Ukraine was part of Russia for most of the past millennium, and will remain so in the mind of Putin and his associates for the remainder of their lives. (The National Interest, 06.06.14)
  • Robert Blackwill and Dimitri Simes: Taken in isolation, Russia’s conduct in Ukraine presents geopolitical and moral challenges but does not threaten the vital U.S. national interests described above. There are no grounds for a European domino theory or fear that a compromise with Moscow would be a new Munich. Vladimir Putin is no Adolf Hitler and Russia is no Nazi Germany. A united NATO stands in sharp contrast to the divided Europe that Hitler exploited in 1938. And Putin, with his background as a ruthless but cautious intelligence operative, can hardly be compared to the German racist demagogue. (The National Interest, 11.16.17)
  • Dmitri Trenin: The emphasis Moscow placed on the issues of language and ethnicity in Ukraine marked a dramatic change from its previous agenda of backing the territorial and political status quo and dealing exclusively with sitting governments toward a proactive policy of rearranging parts of the post-Soviet space where sizeable Russian minorities live. It appeared that Putin began to implement the ideas of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had proposed in 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the creation of a Russian state on the territory of the then Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the mainly Slav-populated northern part of Kazakhstan. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.22.14)
  • Matthew Rojansky: Yet if by violently deposing their president, Ukrainians managed to bring change that would improve their standard of living while shifting their country’s geopolitical orientation toward the West, the implicit message to Russians would be deeply dangerous for Putin and his own “power vertical.” In fact, Putin was already convinced since at least 2011 that the West—mainly the U.S.—was behind “color revolutions” in Georgia (2002), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), and that Russia was next on the list. (Perspectives on Peace & Security, August 2014)
  • Michael Kofman: No surprise that Vladimir Putin, who does not believe in rule of law, has a poor appreciation for the legal consequences of Russia’s actions [in Ukraine] and the financial costs it could bear later on. (War on the Rocks, 09.07.15)
  • Olga Oliker: We think what’s good for Russia is stability in the neighborhood, economic growth. But Russia, or at least Vladimir Putin, thinks what’s most important is that Russia is taken seriously, and that a strong Russia is one that sticks to its guns and gets what it wants. … We’re going to have to demarche strongly and suck it up. Putin wouldn’t have done this if he wasn’t willing to pay. (McClatchy, 03.01.14)
  • See also the “Missile defense” and “U.S.-Russian relations in general” sections above and “Putin’s objectives/strategy/vision” section below.

Russia's relations with other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Henry Hale: In recent years, it has become fashionable among Russia-watchers to blame that country’s democratic woes on its strongman president, Vladimir Putin. But this fails to explain why so many other post-Soviet countries have similar or greater levels of authoritarian rule. Some see Russia as exporting autocracy to its neighbors, but the post-Soviet political systems that most resemble Russia’s today actually appeared far earlier, years before anyone outside of St. Petersburg had heard of a midlevel city official and former KGB lieutenant-colonel named Putin. (The Journal of Democracy, July 2016)
  • Steven Pifer: Mr. Putin’s concept of Russia as a great power includes a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. He does not seek to recreate the Soviet Union; the Russian economy does not wish to subsidize those of other states. But Moscow does want its neighbors to take account of and defer to its concerns, particularly as regards relationships with Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. (Testimony before U.S. Senate, 03.04.15)
  • Steven Pifer and Fiona Hill: Putin does not want to re-create the Soviet Union. He wants deference from neighboring states. He knows that EU association agreements would pull states from Moscow's economic and geopolitical orbit. Keeping them in requires leverage. In past disputes with neighbors, Russia has used natural gas price increases and cutoffs, embargoed key imports and stoked inter-ethnic tension as a means of pressure or simply as payback. (Brookings Institution, 02.07.14)
  • Michael Kofman: After 14 years in power, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated one thing for certain—he can learn, and it seems he has the West all figured out. After a decade of war, the United States has come to realize that all of its military might translates poorly into the ability to achieve political ends in another country. Vladimir Putin learned the opposite from his experience in pacifying Chechnya and crushing Georgia. Even at its worst, his military can achieve political ends on the Russian periphery. (The National Interest, 04.25.14)

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Putin’s personality

  • Henry Kissinger: Putin is a serious strategist—on the premises of Russian history. (The Washington Post, 03.05.14)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Putin is best understood as a composite of multiple identities that stem from those experiences, and which help explain his improbable rise from KGB operative and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to the pinnacle of Russian power. Of these multiple identities, six are most prominent: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer and Case Officer. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: As a case officer in the KGB, Putin had learned how to identify, recruit and run agents, and acquired the patience to cultivate sources. He also learned how to collect, synthesize and use information. These tools proved invaluable in bringing Russia’s oligarchs to heel. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Anatol Lieven: The president’s personal abstemiousness and intense self-discipline are part of the Putin image, an essential aspect of what makes him the anti-Yeltsin—which makes him admired by a large majority of Russians. He gives no impression of playing an assumed role. (The Globalist, 12.03.07)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: His family’s harrowing tale from World War II fits neatly into the national historical narrative—one in which Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. The critical lesson from centuries of domestic turbulence, invasion and war is that the Russian state always survives in one form or another. Every calamity weathered reaffirms Russia’s resilience and its special status in history. This has been a rhetorical touchstone for Putin, as well as for many others from his generation. … Throughout his presidency, Putin has raised survivalism from the personal to the national level. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Graham Allison and Dimitri Simes: Everyone knows that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state with which to try to do business. Putin is a KGB man. His view of the world, and Russia’s place in it, was shaped by formative experiences as an intelligence operative. He carries with him deep scars from the collapse of the Soviet Union—which he believes was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. A fierce patriot, he is determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power of which his fellow citizens can be proud. He is prepared to play rough and has built formidable military capabilities he is not reluctant to use. And Putin is especially sensitive to any signs of disrespect. Nonetheless, in pursuit of his goals, he has shown himself to be a strong, strategic, pragmatic leader who has played a weak hand more effectively than many who had more advantages. (The Belfer Center, 12.18.16)
  • Matthew Rojansky: If you’re Vladimir Putin, you're effectively Russia’s new czar. It’s an absolute system. It’s an authoritarian system. That means that any threat to the stability of that system is a threat to you personally. He has been a pretty dynamic leader. You can strongly disagree with the nature of where he is going with domestic and foreign policy, but the economy is beginning to recover. It has been shrinking the last couple of years, [but now] beginning to recover. Russia is in global headlines every single day; for Russians to feel like “we have a dynamic leader” is actually not that big a stretch. (CSPAN, 07.31.16)
  • Fiona Hill: Putin is a practitioner of realpolitik in its starkest form. In his interactions with regional leaders, Putin has laid out his view that all the states that emerged from the USSR are appendages of Russia. They should pay fealty to Moscow. (The National Interest, 02.24.15)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Many in the West underestimate Putin's willingness to fight for as long and as hard (and as dirty) as necessary to achieve his goals. (“Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” April 2015)
  • Dimitri Simes: Putin is a strong Russian patriot who sees the state as a key driver of society. He does not view democracy as an end, but rather as a means of government under appropriate circumstances. (Politico, 03.13.14)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Putin has no reliable interlocutors in the West from his perspective, only a handful of intermediaries. And he simply does not trust anyone. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Judo moved the street kid from anything-goes scraps into formalized matches. It gave him insight and techniques to figure out ways of pushing bigger, stronger opponents to the mat while protecting himself. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: In the domestic and foreign policy arenas, Putin constantly sizes up his opponents and probes for physical and psychological weaknesses. Putin’s adaptation of Nixon’s “Madman Theory” approach helps flush these weaknesses out—it helps gauge reactions: They think I’m dangerous, and unpredictable, how do they respond to this? Have I got them unbalanced and on the back foot as a result? Then Putin tests his opponents to see if they mean what they say—will they also be prepared to fight, and fight to the end? If they are not, then he will exploit their empty threats to show them up, intimidate, deter and defeat them. If they are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves that get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. In judo you can win on points over the course of a series of matches even if you are far smaller than your opponent and lose some of the individual rounds. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Contrary to the prevailing external assessment, Putin is a strategic planner. The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread. Putin thinks, plans and acts strategically. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Fiona Hill: Putin is, himself, a political performance artist. Putin’s appearances are carefully orchestrated to suit the mood of his audience. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • Fiona Hill: Putin personally—as he underscores—finds it hard to trust anyone. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • Andrew Kuchins: My read on Putin over his decade and a half in power is that he is a brutally cold, calculating pragmatist in foreign and security policy, combining pursuit of his perception of Russian national interests, which almost always correspond with Russian public opinion, along with his main goal of preserving his political power. (Politico, 03.13.14)
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski: Although Putin displays a picture of Peter the Great in his office, his reliance on a KGB entourage and his professed admiration for his KGB predecessor, Yuri Andropov, indicate that Putin is no Russian Atatürk. His geopolitical mindset reflects the thinking of the last Soviet generation and not of the first post-Soviet generation. (The National Interest, Fall 2000)
  • Steven Pifer: Vladimir Putin lies. Blatantly. Publicly. And, apparently, without chagrin. … While Putin may play fast and loose with the truth, he appears to be a rational actor who calculates costs and benefits. The challenge for the West is to structure agreements so that it remains in his interest to observe them. (CNN, 03.20.15)
  • Dmitri Trenin: To Putin, however, religion is more than a personal matter. Christian Orthodoxy, in his view, is a spiritual and moral guide, the essence of Russia’s unique civilization, and without it the country’s history and its classical literature and the arts cannot be fully understood. To Putin, the “Byzantine symphony,” an alliance of the state and the established religious organizations, first among them the Russian Orthodox church, is the core of national unity. (The Guardian, 03.27.17)

Putin’s objectives/strategy/vision:

  • Henry Kissinger: [Putin’s view of international politics] is the heritage of the worldview identified with the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, as exemplified in his 1880 speech… Its passionate call for a new spirit of Russian greatness based on the spiritual qualities of the Russian character was taken up in the late 20th century by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Abandoning his exile in Vermont to return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn … called for action to save the Russian people who had been “driven out” of Russia. In the same spirit, Putin has railed against what he has interpreted as a 300-year-old Western effort to contain Russia. (CapX, 08.02.17)
  • Steven Pifer: Several factors motivate the Russian president. First, rebuilding a Soviet-era sphere of influence is a key element of his vision of Moscow as a great power. A Ukraine tied to the European Union punches a big hole in that vision. Second, pulling Ukraine (or, at least, Crimea) back toward Russia plays very well with Putin’s conservative political base. Third, Putin may actually buy into some of the Russian narrative on Ukraine—i.e., that a U.S.-directed and funded cabal of neo-fascists overthrew the Yanukovych government and is now bent on terrorizing ethnic Russians—just as he saw the 2004 Orange Revolution as orchestrated from abroad. (Politico, 03.13.14)
  • Timothy Colton: From day one, the declared priority of Russia’s second president—it is no exaggeration to call it a sacred priority for him—was to engineer political and social stability. His chosen course reflected the instinctive embrace of control for control’s sake of a career silovik, the Russian catchword for an associate or veteran of the security and military services. But Vladimir Putin also took a more philosophical view. Disorder was not only inherently undesirable, he affirmed in the “Millennium Manifesto” published in his name on the eve of his appointment as acting president on December 31, 1999, but was a stumbling block to normal life and development—and nowhere more than in Russia, given its tumultuous history. (MIT Press, Spring 2017)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Putin has the same priorities today that he laid out at the beginning of his presidency in December 1999. His larger strategic goal is ensuring the defense of Russia’s interests—which are tightly fused with, and now largely inseparable from, his own and his system’s interests. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Another aspect of Putin’s strategic approach is to simplify and streamline his leadership at home and his interactions abroad. By creating a system in which he only has to deal with a small number of actors, Putin frees himself from having to deal with details and messy dynamics. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Henry Kissinger: When Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, the reset inevitably faltered. To understand Putin, one must read Dostoyevsky, not “Mein Kampf.” He knows that Russia is far weaker than it once was—indeed far weaker than the United States. He is the head of a state that for centuries defined itself by its imperial greatness, but then lost 300 years of imperial history upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is strategically threatened on each of its borders: by a demographic nightmare on its Chinese border; by an ideological nightmare in the form of radical Islam along its equally long southern border; and to the West, by Europe, which Moscow considers a historic challenge. Russia seeks recognition as a great power, as an equal, and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system. (The Atlantic, 11.10.16)
  • Matthew Rojansky: Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin’s overwhelming concern has been to sustain the primacy of the Russian state, and with it his own personal power and security. (Politico, 03.13.14)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: From his earliest days in the Kremlin, Putin has pursued the goal of restoring and strengthening the state—by rediscovering and taking back Russia’s fundamental values, re-energizing its historical traditions and abandoning the practice of blindly copying abstract Western models. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon: Putin now finds himself at a crossroads. He has advanced the goals he set for himself 17 years ago: Russia is stronger militarily, has a higher international profile, and is a power to be reckoned with. But the path forward for sustaining Russia as a great power remains unclear and numerous economic and social problems lie ahead. (The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • Leon Aron: After his election as president in 2000, Putin added to this agenda an overarching goal: the recovery of economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state in 1991. Although he has never spelled it out formally, Putin has pursued this objective with such determination, coherence, and consistency that it merits being called the Putin Doctrine. (Foreign Affairs, 03.08.13)

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Dmitri Trenin: Russia’s political system is clearly czarist, and Putin is the leader closest to a present-day absolute monarch. But the Russian president is not as detached from reality as he is often portrayed in Europe. Rather, it is the current European leadership that operates in an environment with no parallel elsewhere. While Putin’s liberal critics long ago lost patience with him, and some Russian elites may feel increasingly uneasy amid his drive to “nationalize” them, the president manages to stay in touch with ordinary Russian people. This fact, rather than government propaganda or various forms of manipulation, is the secret to Vladimir Putin staying in power—with the consent of the governed. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 12.22.14)
  • Graham Allison: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia was on its knees, dependent on Western assistance and consumed by its own internal affairs. In that context, it was not surprising that Western leaders became accustomed to ignoring Russian perspectives. But since Vladimir Putin took over in 1999, he has led a recovery of Russia’s sense of itself as a great power. Fueled by rising oil production and prices that brought a doubling of Russia’s GDP during his 15-year reign, Russians increasingly bridled at such treatment. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • Andrew Kuchins: Putin resonates with many Russians because he is seen as the embodiment of the humiliation, status deprivation and grievances that the country has purportedly suffered. Putin's task is to take back what a certain streak of Russian nationalism views as—not only rightfully but sacredly—what should be Russian. Obama may satisfy some supporters and even some critics by taunting Putin and Russia as a "regional power" of no great consequence acting out of "weakness." This will only bait the bear to lash out to demonstrate who is really weak and who is strong. It is a game that Obama is not psychologically equipped to understand, let alone win. (CNN, 03.30.14)
  • Olga Oliker, Hans Binnendijk and Christopher Chivvis: President Vladimir Putin has attempted to minimize the difficulties and deflect blame toward the West, but the problem is serious and no one is to blame but Mr. Putin himself. His efforts to destabilize Ukraine have brought painful sanctions upon Russia, reinforced its dependence on oil and isolated its economy. Mr. Putin is well aware that his popularity rests on economic, social and political stability. A severe downturn could erode his domestic support. To save himself, he may again resort to the dual levers of nationalism and foreign adventurism to shore up his popularity at home. (New York Times, 12.30.14)
  • Anatol Lieven: To judge by the elections and every opinion poll in this area, the overwhelming mass of the Russian establishment and Russian people approve of Putin’s foreign-policy record. If Western governments want to pursue reasonably good relations with Russia, this is the reality with which they will have to work. For the foreseeable future, like it or not, what we see is what we will get. (The National Interest, 04.03.12)
  • Anatol Lieven: Consider, for a moment, if Putin were to fail. There is no Thomas Jefferson waiting in the wings. Instead, he would almost certainly be replaced by a figure and a movement that are just as authoritarian but more nationalist, more anti-Western, more populist and less committed to market reform. (The National Interest, 04.03.12)
  • Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy: Putin has made a virtue of this outsider status throughout his presidency, stressing his connections to “ordinary” Russians and distancing himself from Moscow’s resented elites. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski: President Vladimir Putin’s new team is composed of individuals who, with no exception, could now be serving in the higher echelons of the Soviet government (particularly the KGB) if the Soviet Union still existed. Putin’s own political lineage is quite suggestive in that regard. He is a third-generation apparatchik: his father was a Party functionary, while his grandfather even served on Lenin’s and then Stalin’s personal security detail. (The National Interest, Fall 2000)
  • Matthew Rojansky and Harrison King: As his writings make clear, Putin has an abiding faith in Russia’s unique destiny as a global great power, but he sees himself as the only leader with the comprehensive vision, experience and willpower necessary to achieve that destiny. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 02.28.12)
  • Robert Legvold: Watching all this distress, the average Russian credits Putin with sparing the country the same, and for most Russians, having been through the 1990s, stability ranks very high. Added to the deepening and spreading sense of nationalism (the “krimnash” [“Crimea is ours”] tee-shirts are less on display, but the sentiment persists and the 85 percent support for the annexation has scarcely budged since March 2014), together with the strong tendency to blame Russian woes on the United States, this sense of Putin’s leadership as the best guarantee of continued stability helps to explain Putin’s popularity. (The National Interest, 09.25.15
  • Rawi Abdelal: Over the past 10 years, during which time Putin has led the country as president or premier, he has strengthened Russia’s nascent capitalist economy and institutions. However, in the process, he has stoked the Kremlin’s apparently infinite appetite for power. That, I believe, represents a growing threat, not only to Russia’s development but also to companies that wish to do business there. When Putin won the presidential contest in March 2000, the previous decade of anguish had left him in no doubt that Russia’s problems stemmed from the state’s weakness. In his eight years as president, Putin did everything he could to reinforce the Kremlin’s power. He filled the administration with people he trusted from his days in the KGB and Saint Petersburg’s city government, and he instituted policies that increased the power of the center at the expense of the provinces. Putin recast the state’s relationship with the oligarchs, forcing some, such as Boris Berezovsky, into self-imposed exile and sending others, notably Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison. Other oligarchs quickly learned to play by Putin’s three rules: Do not get involved in politics; do not buy politicians; and pay your taxes. (Harvard Business Review, February 2010)
  • Graham Allison: Even after the great financial crisis of 2008, Putin still believes that Americans are the masters of finance and economics. He has often expressed his deep conviction that the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He has reflected on the analysis by former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar that identifies the squeeze on Soviet finances caused by the sharp drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s as the primary proximate cause of that event. (National Interest, 11.11.14)
  • Dmitri Trenin: In much of what he was doing, Putin responded to the paternalistic demand of the bulk of the Russian people who had not particularly succeeded in the post-Communist era. Not only did he genuinely win elections, which under his rule became a means of confirming people in power not replacing them. He also cracked the code of staying in power in a country that had rejected both his predecessors, the once widely popular Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. When faced with the choice, early on, to go with the elites—including the intelligentsia—or with the ordinary people, he chose the latter. (The Guardian, 03.27.17)
  • Anatol Lieven: In the case of Russia, anyone professing to respect the views of ordinary Russians must also recognize that a majority has supported Putin and his authoritarian program because their experience of pseudo-democracy in the 1990s was so terrible. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 01.14.05)
  • Anatol Lieven: I think there is a strong chance that Putin will try to take Russia in a more authoritarian direction but his capacity to change the country is limited. There is certainly no possibility of a restoration of totalitarianism. (CNN, 03.23.2000)
  • Andrew Kuchins: It may have been Putin's bellicose rhetoric and shirtless photo opportunities that grabbed headlines overseas, but the fact is, his popularity was fundamentally based on the perception of growing prosperity for Russian citizens. The problem for Putin now is that the remarkably felicitous combination of economic factors that fueled his popularity for so long seems to be crumbling around him. (CNN, 12.07.14)
  • Andrew Kuchins: The image he has created and promoted of himself as a dynamic, energetic, macho kind of guy has been popular I think with the Russians. (ValdaiClub.com, 09.14.2010)
  • Henry Hale: Putin's chief contribution was to succeed where Yeltsin failed and then to take this success further than Yeltsin most likely intended. Putin's success in this endeavor is partly due to his tougher leadership, partly due to his greater popularity and partly due to a change in incumbent thinking that occurred through historical contingency. (Journal of Eurasian Studies, Jan. 2010)
  • Brian Taylor: Putin's claim to rule, subscribed to by many both in Russia and the West, is that he rebuilt a strong Russian state after the "Time of Troubles" associated with the Soviet collapse under Mikhail Gorbachev and the "wild nineties" of Boris Yeltsin. This tale, although not entirely without merit, obscures a more fundamental truth: in many important ways, the Russian state remains very weak. Moreover, this is true not in spite of Putin's efforts, but because of them. … Putin showed little interest in improving the quality of the state—the degree to which the state and its officials serve the interests of the population in a fair manner that promotes the general welfare. (The Montreal Review, January 2012)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Michael Kofman: Putin’s 15-year track record of achieving political ends through force does not look bad compared to the U.S. experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Indeed, the Kremlin understands quite well the interaction between violence and politics. It has to, because it does not have access to strong alternatives compared to countries like the United States. Russia’s economic, information and diplomatic powers are highly contextual and often geographically limited. (War on the Rocks, 09.07.15)
  • Olga Oliker: Russian leaders have often sought to remind (or convince) their constituents of their strength and authority by being visible and in control at military exercises. While Putin, recently returned to the office of president by popular vote, has no particular reason to fear for his continued power, he clearly thinks that it's never a bad idea to remind the public that he is also commander-in-chief. (The RAND blog,10.31.12)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Brian Taylor: Putin relied on the police, the secret police and prosecutors to weaken the political influence of some powerful forces that had bedeviled Yeltsin. Russia's regional governors, who had acquired disproportionate influence not only in their own regions but in national politics, were transformed into cogs in Putin's system of vertical power with the help of law enforcement agencies, who under Yeltsin had often been "captured" by the governors. Similarly, major oligarchs who controlled important media outlets or refused to play by the Kremlin's rules found themselves exiled or jailed. Opposition politicians, political parties and human rights groups were harassed by police and prosecutors. (The Montreal Review, January 2012)
  • Henry Hale: On August 9, 1999 … the vast majority of observers saw Putin as a sure loser, especially after he received the apparent “kiss of political death” in the form of an endorsement by the unpopular Yeltsin. During his tenure in presidential structures and then the government (as FSB chief), Putin cultivated a reputation as a fair, competent administrator. When Putin invoked modern gangland slang to aver that he would “whack” Chechen terrorists “in the john” if he found them there, much of the public took comfort in someone they saw as finally taking action to restore security and order. (Demokratizatsiya, April 2004)

Photo credit: Photo from the Russian Presidential Press Service via Wikimedia Commons shared under a CC-BY-4.0  license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.