I have received an uncommon number of replies to the material re. Vladimir Putin which I distributed a few days ago. That is not entirely surprising. People find it hard to make him out. He gets under their skin. Unusually, that seems due less to what the man actually does than what he is. I personally have a far more benign view of Putin as a statesman than most others. That has come across in other commentaries of mine. To delve into detail, though, is not the point of these remarks. I simply will make two assertions. One, he has been more forthright in elaborating his views about world affairs, his conception of Russia’s place in the world system, and the most salient issues of his times than any other leader of a major power whom I can recall. Two, the vast majority of the analysis and interpretation of Putin and his policies is singularly distorted, misleading and often a downright misrepresentation.

 The question that fascinates me is „why is this?” In trying to answer it, I will climb farther out on the limb where I already am perched. The first thing to say is that it is normal for humans to be anxious, if not fearful, of what they don’t understand.  Putin is not easily understood because he fits into no simple category. He is not a ‘type.’ His complex personality demands an unusual amount of application and sophistication. Both qualities are scant these days.  

Second, he stands in stark contrast to his predecessor – and, perhaps more important, what we expected of a post-Soviet Russian chief. Stephen F. Cohen put it succinctly:  

“At the time of Putin’s succession, they expected and wanted a sober Yeltsin. That is to say someone content to be subservient to the United States, marginalized in Europe and a non-factor elsewhere in the world. In addition, lucrative investment opportunities were foreseen in the usual neo-liberal fashion. It soon became apparent, though, that Putin was a formidable leader bent on applying his singular talents to restoring the Russian state and the country’s legitimate place in global affairs. That made him, and the renewed Russia that he was fashioning, unpalatable.”   

That turn of events greatly irritates us. For it complicates American foreign policy, it challenges our vision of a liberal „new world order,” and it implicitly raises uncomfortable doubts as to whether our America-centered conception of world history as a pageant of progress is as immutable as we have thought.  

A third element is that of envy. At the top, where ambition is rampant, envy accompanies it. Putin is difficult to match. Our leaders experience him as an intellectually, ideologically and in his cool-headed political mastery as well – a rare commodity. Obama couldn’t stand the man. That was not because Putin’s Russia did anything outrageous to threaten the United States. Rather, it stemmed from the psychology of a somebody who himself exhibits a pronounced superiority complex and who then encounters someone as intelligent as he, at least as well read, better versed in the ins-and-outs of international affairs and possessing far more sophisticated diplomatic skills. Moreover, Putin has the well thought-out convictions which is Obama’s short suit. Perhaps most disconcerting, Putin has the habit of meaning what he says and then doing it. One might assume that such a trait would appeal to his interlocutor. Instead, in the minds of Western leaders that just makes him all the odder, since they themselves habitually pursue fragmented policies unguided by coherent design or sustained strategy.* (Besides: what do you make of a grave Kremlin leader who records a quite passable version of Blueberry Hill in English. Imagine the stir in Moscow if Obama responded with Moscow Nights in Russian!) 

Finally, truly exceptional persons who know what they’re about and have the rare quality of being prepared to act on it in other than a narrow instrumental fashion trouble us. They are unpredictable. They might do things we are unprepared for. Their motives might not be as narrowly self-interested as we are accustomed to. Logically, the most fruitful way to deal with them is through candid engagement. Putin’s combination of self-confidence, clarity of thought and articulateness open the way to doing exactly that. Is there anyone on our side ready and able to do so? 

P.S. China’s Xia poses a somewhat similar dilemma, although the West’s mode of address has been more modulated. Apprehensions about China are more deep-seated and Xi is a less accessible personage.


The text represents the point of view of the author

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/John Hopkins. His articles on international affairs and public policy have appeared in International Affairs, SURVIVAL, Foreign Policy, World Politics, Politique Étrangère (Paris) and Internationale Politik (Berlin). He also is the author of Terms of Engagement: The United States and The European Security Identity, Washington, D.C: Center for Strategic and International Studies), and Toward A More Independent Europe. Egmont Paper, Brussels: Royal Institute of International Relations, Professor Brenner has held previous teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and the Brookings Institution.

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