What is Putin thinking? After aligning himself with China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, invading a free neighbor, suffering up to 30,000 military dead, revulsion of world leaders, unifying NATO, he suddenly gives a speech vilifying Western values, warns “all things come to an end,” says we are acting as “God’s messenger.” What goes on in the mind of Russia’s leader?
From one perspective, Putin’s mind is probably hard to unpack, awash in machinations of a former Soviet intelligence officer, an insecure and unrepentant autocrat, a transparently messianic and narcissistic megalomaniac. Other than that, he seems – perfectly normal.
From another perspective, however, his thinking may not be irrational, just hungry for historical reaffirmation of Russia’s place in the world, a nation boxed in by China’s economy and modernizing military, plus a reunified West led by the US, devoted to democracy, liberty, and equality, not centralized power and autocracy.
Putin came to political consciousness when the Soviet Union was a superpower, served in Eastern Europe as an intelligence officer, saw the Berlin Wall crumble, fled, then rose to power on Russia’s oil economy and the notion that Russia was still a superpower.
What does the world look like to such a leader – now? Not very inviting. Even before Russia undertook its disastrous attack on Ukraine, the world was slipping away. Putin’s oil economy was up and down. belligerence toward the West growing, relations with China tightening, along with domestic repression.
Then, with the world assuming he possessed a strong conventional military, he invaded Ukraine – an act Biden could have deterred, but one Putin felt confident executing. This disastrous undertaking has cost more dead than ten years of occupying Afghanistan, and incalculable loss of prestige. Today, he has 80 percent support at home, but this may also change.
That said, opposition to Putin – even against a backdrop of fear, new laws punishing “fake news,” and trimming protests – is real. Putin knows, despite current popularity, a wave of discontent could rise this winter as Western sanctions kick in, tens of thousands of young men do not come home, and food gets short.
More, he knows other facts. The world thought Russia possessed a well-trained, well-equipped, high moral military. That turns out to be untrue, huge gaps – compounded by combat losses – in readiness, capability, and reach. More embarrassing, Putin apparently did not foresee this misfire.
All this points to lost prestige, confidence, perceived capability. Global condemnation may widen, going from outrage over mass human rights violations to a global food crisis, as winter comes. Russia has blocked agriculture and shipping from Ukraine, which experts say may create global famines.
So, with bad news getting worse, what is Putin thinking? What is to be achieved by a speech threatening the West ideologically, morally, and even militarily? The answer is probably simple.
China and Russia declared a “security pact” in February 2022, playing off Biden’s weakness and internal US divisions. In that pact, they pledge to redefine the world, ending the post-WWII political and military consensus, the premium on human rights, democracy, individual liberties, self-determination, and free elections.
Rather than timeless rights, well-recognized in our Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva and other conventions, China, and Russia aid to advance communism and autocracy.
On its face, this seems untenable, but China and Russia want a “new world order,” permission for lawlessness at home and abroad, backed by superior military might. President Xi and the Communists have pushed this agenda, and now Putin is doing his part.
So, what does Putin’s speech really mean?
First, Biden and NATO must wake up, fund their respective militaries, and be prepared for surrogate and direct confrontations. The game is on, ideologically, economically, and with respect to military strength.
Second, Biden and Democrats must wake up, stop placating China, stop pretending Iran and North Korea – allied with China and Russia – are benign, keep sanctions tight on all parties, appease none.
Third, Biden and Democrats must understand “peace through strength” – a policy articulated by Reagan, followed by Bush 41 and Trump – is not a bumper sticker, not words but a strategy that prevents war.
Fourth, Biden and Democrats must understand – once and for all – that security begins at home, with reduced inflation, energy independence, border integrity, the rule of law, safe streets, respect for police, the corporate sector, public opinion, and the Supreme Court, not to mention state and individual rights. Cohesion at home is a measure of geopolitical strength, or “a house divided falls.”
Last, while Putin’s speech seems irrational, histrionic, and accusatory, it is typical for a nation that, during Soviet and post-Soviet times, has been insecure and is losing a war. The best defense is a good offense, and Putin is working to preempt the loss of support at home. That said, US leaders must understand this new China-Russia nexus as real, persistent, and dangerous.