Putin, Acting in Character

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, January 5, 2006

National character remains a force in world politics despite the prophets of globalization and one-size-fits-all economic integration. For better, and for worse, humans still see themselves as products of shared experiences and common territory and act accordingly.

At least their leaders do. Vote-seeking politicians and decree-issuing dictators have to find the political center of gravity in their nations. When they make big decisions, George W. Bush, Hu Jintao, Hugo Chavez and the others rely on national stereotypes of the average American, Chinese, Venezuelan et al. that they carry around in their heads. Leaders cannot for very long be other than their understanding of their followers.

It was centuries of accumulated culture -- not genetics -- that compelled leaders in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France and the rest of Europe to respond to a tempest in a gas pipeline this week with familiar and distinctly national behavior.

When Vladimir Putin started a new "cold war" in his own neighborhood by briefly cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine on New Year's Day, he was simply doing what comes naturally: He was being overbearing and clumsy in dictating to people he still considers Russia's vassals. Like the commissars and czars before him, Putin is more comfortable with force than with persuasion.

He brandished Russia's natural gas and oil reserves as his Soviet predecessors once flaunted nuclear rockets. "Energy security," a concept I outlined in this corner in September after hearing Putin explain it in Moscow, turns out be an instrument of intimidation or accommodation, depending on whether Putin likes you or not.

The dour KGB graduate should look to the more light-hearted, distinctly Latino energy strategy of Chavez, whose clever populism has made him Bush's bte noire. Chavez gained far more mileage out of playfully offering -- and delivering -- cheap heating oil to shivering Americans this winter than Putin achieved in his now-stalled attempt to enforce draconian price increases on Ukraine.

National character continued to surface as the problem rolled westward. The Ukrainians -- reflexively portraying themselves as victims responding to the depredations of their more powerful neighbor -- responded by siphoning off their normal share of the gas flowing through the pipelines that cross their territory into Central and Western Europe.

That inflicted the Russian cuts primarily on European Union consumers, who get about 25 percent of their natural gas supplies from Russia. Their howls of pain and outrage on Monday forced Putin to reconsider what he seems not to have considered at all: the likelihood that inflicting economic punishment could backfire on him. Russia promised to restore full supplies.

But the damage had been done. German politicians were muttering about the threat from the east to their stability and the need to do something. Austrians showed their concern by asking others to do something. In Brussels, E.U. officials held nonstop telephone conversations and meetings, emphasizing that they would not take sides between Kiev and Moscow. In Paris, the daily Le Monde warned that "the first war of the 21st century has been declared" but quickly reported official reassurances that France would not suffer in any event: It had already struck separate deals with Norway, Algeria and other suppliers to protect French interests.

Putin compounded his image problems in the West by reverting to form just as Russia moved into the chair of the Group of Eight, the self-selected committee of leading nations that links North America, Europe, Japan and Russia.

The White House agreed to Russia's hosting the G-8 summit in hopes that it would help the Russian leadership learn about post-Soviet statecraft: The Kremlin would experience the responsibilities of building consensus and setting agendas with democratic partners. The learning curve turns out to be steeper than expected.

Putin's brief gas war also shows how two politicians who were quintessential products of their own cultures could both be right -- up to a point -- in an argument over the use of economic warfare in international relations. I have in mind Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterrand.

Fearing that the Kremlin would use energy for political blackmail, Reagan focused American power on stopping the extension of Soviet gas pipelines into Western Europe. In 1982, I asked the French president about Washington's threats to sanction companies that cooperated in the project.

"Economic warfare does not work," an exasperated Mitterrand snapped as he launched into sharp criticisms of Reagan's policy. The interview, I was told later, infuriated Reagan and led to the adoption of sanctions against European companies.

The sanctions were ineffective, as the skeptical Frenchman predicted, and the pipelines were built. But Putin has now come along to validate Reagan's suspicions about blackmail. Putin has inadvertently won half a one for the all-American Gipper.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company