Opinion: Seeing the world through Putin’s eyes


More tellingly, Western leaders are preparing for a protracted conflict, given the slim chance of Russian President Vladimir Putin rushing for an exit, regardless of his losses on the battlefield and mounting challenges at home.

That Putin is doubling down on his short-term efforts with a scorched-earth strategy that targets civilians does not mean he can afford increased long-term costs. The West must recognize that Putin is not one to maintain the status quo or play by other people’s rules. But he’s also not the suicidal type if the pressure mounts.

The future depends on accurately assessing Putin’s intentions through his mindset and worldview, not ours, a capacity for which the West – especially the United States – has always been lacking.

Putin is a former KGB officer who came of age during the Cold War. Intelligence officers, especially those conducting operations overseas, are risk takers but not gamblers. There is rarely a Hail Mary pass in espionage.

Seeking to turn this conflict into an existential clash of civilizations was neither emotional nor out of place for Putin, given his background, which includes a predisposition to use terrorism as a tool.
Catherine Belton, author of “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West”, wrote that while posted to the KGB in Dresden – then in East Germany – Putin worked in support of members of the Red Army Faction, the far-left terrorist group responsible for bombings, kidnappings and assassinations across West Germany in the 1970s and 80s.
Putin is hardly constrained by the post-World War II order or the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules of sportsmanship. He believes the United States and its allies established such rules to promote their own values ​​and interests at Russia’s expense. He was reminded of this experience when he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the bipolar world order he had known.
Putin’s subsequent journey should therefore come as no surprise if we look back over the past 20 years, as long as we don’t try to understand him from anything other than his own perspective.

It is important that we demystify his decisions by understanding that his mindset is the product of a racist, elitist and xenophobic KGB experience in the Cold War era, in which force was justified.

I spent my life in the trenches of espionage conducting intelligence operations against Putin and his brethren in the KGB, FSB and SVR. My encounters offered different insights due to their varying circumstances.

Some were well-scripted two-way exchanges that felt like a cross between a Seinen broadcast of grievances and evangelical proselytizing.

As a CIA station chief, I sometimes had to deal with aggressive Russian intelligence agents who had set their sights on a member of the American community. But most rewarding were the revealing vignettes I gained beyond public view and undercover.

In one of my first experiences, I was picked up by a Russian intelligence officer whom I had cultivated. He would have been a contemporary of Putin, older and older than me at the time. He was highly educated, amiable, and adept at adjusting his demeanor to fit the play – as I said, a spy. The KGB officer appeared in public as polite, erudite and diplomatic.

Relaxed when he was alone with me in his car, he was also a little more tired after a drunken evening. Perhaps because of this condition, I was treated to a long speech describing centuries of legitimate Russian privilege and Western-imposed humiliation.

The exasperated KGB officer argued that the white races of Russia and the United States should live and let live politically and instead focus on “the fifth column threats we shared from the bastards” and the north-south challenges of the “less civilized” who needed to be brought to heel. »

His account touched on “the historical ravages of marauding Mongol hordes”, code for China, “Turkish barbarians across the stans of Central Asia”. Thoroughly lucid, though certainly drunk, he intermingled his observations with misogyny, ethnic slurs and comments about American decadence, ranging from gay people to fast food and, ironically, drug addiction.

In the end, switching to an almost professorial demeanor as he perhaps began to sober up, the KGB officer delivered a scholarly defense of his country’s system. Moscow’s authoritarian model, he explained, rewards conformity and loyalty and benefits the elite. The proletariat simply profited from it in exchange for loyal and unconditional service.

The veteran spy depicts a curiously sketched structure along the lines of a trickle-down social and economic distribution system. His system, he argued, was more efficient and fairer than that of the corrupt and chaotic West.

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Putin is the embodiment of a life of such conditioning whose actions exemplify a firm belief in the more grotesque and literal sayings of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli that the end justifies the means. Ukraine, he believes, like other former Soviet states, is historically a part of conquered Russia because that is what he was conditioned to believe.

The population of these territories, though in his eyes ethnically and socially inferior to the Russians of his own high caste, are rightly his citizens and serfs. Dehumanizing them as well as claiming threats from within enables the use of purges, famines and concentration camps like those that Josef Stalin used without hesitation. And it also explains the perspectives behind Putin’s comments about a “self-purification of society” and his brutal strategy in Ukraine.
Chillingly, Putin’s ability to dehumanize people by calling them treacherous “midges” who must adapt, be re-educated or forcibly expelled is not madness or unique to him. We view such behavior as aberrations, fog of war, or an undisciplined army at our peril. We should recognize his attitude as reflecting a mentality rooted in the historical wrongs to which he and those of his generation believe Russia has been subjected. Knowing this, the West should be determined not to let the conflict in Ukraine continue indefinitely with Putin embarking on a war of attrition.

Although not consciously reckless, Putin suffers from the pride of the powerful. If he is like other Russian intelligence officers I have known, Putin is likely to be naturally defensive when challenged, believing his conclusions to be the product of intensive study, expertise and its own exhaustive tests.

Alternative viewpoints are disrespectful affronts. He will have to realize that he has to cut his losses on his own, but Putin will have realized by now that the intelligence, estimates and ground truth on which he made his calculations and his invasion plans were wrong.

Constraining Putin requires vigilance and calculated risks to keep adding pressures designed to force his hand. The more he threatens, the weaker this hand will be. When Putin is in a strong position, he doesn’t need to bluff; rather, he is simply acting to take advantage of his advantage. While negotiations offer the possibility of a deal, it will only be as binding under the prevailing circumstances, requiring a long-term campaign to maintain the appropriate pressure to bind it.

The cyclical danger, however, will come from the public exhaustion and political complacency that could arise as Ukraine retreats from the headlines. To keep Putin in check is to remember the past as prologue.

Peace will require vigilance and consistency to take advantage of the tangible consequences of aggression. Putin will step up if he can, test our limits, dig in if he can, but compromise out of necessity if he can’t. What Putin won’t do is reform or abandon his vision, so it’s imperative that we understand that vision through his eyes.


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