The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vladimir Putin does not think like we do

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade in Moscow in May 2021. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters)
5 min

In March 2011, I was in the room during a meeting between then-Vice President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (who was then serving as Russia’s prime minister until he returned to the presidency not long thereafter). At one point, Putin told Biden (and I’m paraphrasing from memory), “You look at us and you see our skin and then assume we think like you. But we don’t.” To emphasize his point, Putin slid his index finger down his white cheek.

Putin’s quip from a decade ago reveals important insights into his thinking today — and also helps us to understand what he gets wrong.

In the United States, the dominant analytic framework for explaining international relations today is realism. This theory assumes that all countries are the same: unitary actors seeking to maximize their power or security through rational calculations in an anarchic world. The only thing that matters in the world is power — both the power of individual countries and the balance of power among them.

Those deploying this model to explain Russia’s behavior today (not Putin’s because individuals don’t matter to realists) also offer several prescriptions for how to defuse the current Russia-Ukraine crisis: Freeze NATO expansion and Russia will be content. Offer face-saving concessions that give Russia tangible gains and the threat of war will subside. Don’t arm Ukraine because that will fuel escalation and trigger a Russian invasion.

If Putin thought like us, maybe some of these proposals might work. But Putin does not think like us. He has his own analytic framework, his own ideas and his own ideology — only some of which comport with Western rational realism.

Three tenets from Putinism are particularly important to grasp. First, Putin believes that the West unfairly dictated the terms of peace at the Cold War’s end. In Putin’s view, the West imposed liberal restructuring inside Russia, compelled Moscow to sign lopsided arms control treaties, expanded NATO with no regard for Russia’s interests, and — the greatest sin of all — divided the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union into separate countries and then “systematically and consistently pushed Ukraine to curtail and limit economic cooperation with Russia.” (Actually, it was the leaders of the three Slavic Soviet republics who signed the agreement dissolving the U.S.S.R. in December 1991, not leaders from Washington, London, or Brussels.) Now that Russia is powerful again, Putin is prepared to risk a lot to revise this so-called American imperial order, especially in Europe. He sees this mission as his sacred destiny.

Preventing Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO is therefore only one dimension of Putin’s revisionist agenda. Even if Biden and his NATO allies wanted to offer that concession, Putin won’t be satiated. He will press on to undo the liberal international order for as long as he remains in power. Normalizing annexation, denying sovereignty to neighbors, undermining liberal ideas and democratic societies, and dissolving NATO are future goals.

Second, unlike realists, Putin does not view countries as unitary actors; he looks within countries to distinguish between dictatorships and democracies. Not without reason, Putin believes that U.S. support for democracy abroad threatens his autocratic rule. During Putin’s reign, most crises in relations with the United States have been triggered not by NATO expansion, but by democratic mobilizations — Putin calls them “color revolutions” — within countries, be it Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

On this contentious issue, there is no deal to be had between the United States and Russia as long as Putin is in power. U.S. leaders cannot command other societies to stop wanting democracy. Putin will always fear mass protests and feel threatened by democracies, especially successful ones on his border with a shared history and culture such as Ukraine.

Putin expressed a third idea of his worldview that day in March 2011 with Biden when he proclaimed that “we” think differently. He should have said “I.” All Russians do not think alike, and their ideas and values about domestic and foreign policy have changed over time. Western analysts who treat “Russia” as a unitary actor or who equate Putinism with all Russians are making a mistake. Even today it would be wrong to assume all Russians support war with Ukraine to preempt some fictitious, future threat of NATO expansion. In 2021 Levada polls, most Russians expressed positive attitudes toward the Ukrainian people, and only 17 percent of respondents support unification between the two countries.

The Cold War reminds us that we succeeded before to simultaneously deter Moscow and negotiate treaties with Soviet leaders who also thought radically different from us. For instance, the Helsinki Final Act signed in 1975 represented a major diplomatic achievement to enhance European security. We should aim for a revived version of Helsinki today, but without any illusions about negotiating with a Russian interlocutor who thinks the way that we do. And over the long run, we also should remember that not all Russians think like Putin — and that Putin will not rule Russia forever.