Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin has controlled his country for 15 years, we are still unclear on what sort of man he is. A newly inaugurated George W. Bush looked him in the eye, got a “sense of his soul,” and found him “straightforward and trustworthy.” When Hillary Clinton took office as secretary of state she pulled her “reset button” stunt, forgiving Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia the previous year but with no indication that Russia would behave differently. President Obama, unaware of a live microphone under his nose, whispered to Putin’s instrument, President Dmitri Medvedev, that he would have “more flexibility” to co-operate in missile defense negotiations after his reelection.
Now that Putin is sending troops westward into Eastern Europe, people are eager to figure out his character and ambitions.
Matthew Kaminski argues that Putin is moving against Kiev’s Maidan revolution because Ukraine has become “the alternative to the Russian authoritarian project.” Putin’s domestic project seems to have even wider international dimensions. In 2005, he told the Russian Parliament that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century. This together with military and economic flexing on the Russian frontier suggest a Putinist plan to reestablish the old empire. Robert Zubrin claims that Putin, a former KGB agent, is not a repositioned communist but a “Eurasianist” who is building a new form of totalitarian state that combines elements of communism, Nazism, ecologism, and traditionalism.
Whatever he is, Putin is a Machiavellian, and anyone who reads him otherwise becomes his “useful idiot.” The Machiavellian ruler artfully combines the lion and the fox, perfecting the use of force and fraud. Putin invaded Crimea with thousands of troops, but stripped them of identifying Russian insignia and claimed they were all “local self-defense forces.” The perfect fraud requires “coloring” one’s crimes so they appear justified.
Machiavelli wrote, “… the one who has known best how to use the fox has come out best. But it is necessary to know well how to color this nature, and to be a great pretender and dissembler … and he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.”
So Putin moved on the pretext of aiding the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine who were suffering “intimidation and terror.” He said, “Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” though there have been no reported incidents against Russian speakers and he claims he has no troops in Crimea.
He presents himself as a deeply religious man who treasures the crucifix his mother gave him, a defender of international law, and an opponent of extreme nationalists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites. Machiavelli counseled that a prince “should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion.” Appear … not be. Putin understands that.
On a playground, it is fairly hopeless to encourage friendliness in bullies by treating them as friends or to encourage trustworthiness by trusting them. In international politics, especially with characters like Vladimir Putin, it is calamitous.