Dealing with Putin

Vladimir Putin is playing a dangerous, high-stakes game with serious life and death consequences. Yet in psychological terms, it is important to remember that the Russian president suffers from deviance, distress, and dysfunction. In many ways he resembles an injured animal that has been cornered.

Putin already invaded the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine over eight years ago and his goons occupy the territory. To date there have been 14,000 deaths and 750,000 displaced persons. Now the situation in the Ukraine is escalating.

Amassing more than 175,000 highly trained troops (some 100 tactical battlefield battalions) on the eastern Ukraine border, with artillery and tanks ready to go, demonstrates not a position of strength but of weakness. Trying to unwind the end of the Cold War and reassemble the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is decades out of sync with reality. Making NATO the fall guy is outrageous and silly. It won’t work. We won. Invasion is a hopeless act and would be a costly mistake for both Putin and Russia. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t do it.

The United States needs to make it abundantly clear that two realities firmly color America’s thinking about Russia in 2022.

1) Russia is weak. The United States is a superpower, alone in the world. Russia, by contrast, is a dwindling, defeated middle-power aspiring to be greater. Militarily, the United States is far stronger than Russia, has bases around the world, and is also far superior technologically. It also has a robust alliance of allies, which Russia lacks. Legally, institutionally, and freedom-wise, the United States is in a league far beyond Russia, and Russia today is not the Soviet Union.

The United States is a vibrant democracy, Russia is not. Economically the United States is 15 times larger than Russia and Russia has been declining in just about every category. The United States ranks far above Russia in education, technology, and intellectual capital and remains unsurpassed as the leader of the free world.

Putin is in fact a “paper bear,” to coin a term, and we need to stand up to the wounded former mid-level KGB intelligence officer. It does not mean, however, that the United States or NATO should send in combat troops.

2) Russia has a complex. After its loss in the Cold War, Russia under Putin has but two related goals, which have gotten more extreme the longer he has been in office.

The first is to be respected as a proud nation, rooted in a long history as an important European power and as a superpower. 

Putin is commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces. The country still has significant military might with nuclear weapons, a thriving navy, and many troops. Russia spends some $70 billion a year on its military budget, a 20-fold increase in the last decade. With 1 million active military and 2 million reserves, Russia is a formidable fighting force. The navy consists of four fleets and a standing flotilla that include nuclear submarines.

Some 1,765 deployed nuclear strategic warheads and another 2,700 non-deployed strategic warheads are ready to fire. Another 2,510 warheads are available but under dismantlement.

The second goal is at times obscured and at others weaponized in an information war and not so secret diplomatic and counteractive measures.

That goal is simply: the demise of the West.

Moscow wants a reversal of the historical process begun in 1989 when Eastern and Central Europe peacefully reclaimed freedom and eventually brought down the communist Soviet empire.

As one pundit put it, “Shorn of Marxism-Leninism, the Kremlin today is driven by an ideologically versatile illiberalism willing to work with any political faction amenable to its revisionist aims.”

Russia wants to reset the trans-Atlantic Alliance using destabilizing efforts. Exploiting every crisis, Russia exacerbates nearly every situation by its maligning intentions. Fomenting disintegration, its motives revolve around predatory strategies to divide and conquer.

Using aggression and subversion, Russia no longer has to depend on the deployment of the Red Army on its western flank. The Communist ideology, equally, has no sway and is out of fashion.

This means Russia meddles constantly to incite confusion and the demise of Western governments and our societies. Some on the Left in those countries actually are co-belligerents with Russia, as are the American Marxists who likewise seek the demise of America, its values, institutions and Constitution. Putin’s not so secret plan is to supplant the West and achieve a restoration of Russian power and influence because of its deep-seated inferiority complex.

Putin’s brief tele-meetings with Joe Biden were neither the huge breakthrough nor the disaster that many of his opponents had declared in advance. They were instead a pragmatic dose of realism about the need for serious relations with Russia, where it is, and who it is. They offered “constructive dialogue” as a way forward. The diplomatic talks this week in Geneva could also help to walk back the mounting crisis.

Unfortunately, in the end, it is all up to Putin, and the wily strategist knows he has few cards to play and deserves no trust, which is why he is so dangerous.

Unlike Donald Trump, who always put his own spin on the situation and upset the global elite with his America First approach to foreign relations, Biden is behind the eight ball and has very bad, inept advisors.

Calling the recent tele-meetings frank, fruitful, and future-oriented around new challenges, Biden capitulated and waivered—apparently willing to give in to at least some of Putin’s outrageous and illogical demands. After all, he and Obama did something similar when it came to Crimea years ago. Just look the other way. It too will pass. Moreover, everyone in the world witnessed Biden’s unbelievable Afghanistan debacle. Putin and his generals certainly noted the utter calamity.

Putin himself recently said, “The Cold War is over.” Yet neither Biden nor Putin seemed desirous to jointly rebuild the bilateral relationship around mutual interests. Putin actually threatened nuclear war and an end to all relationships with the West, while Biden trotted out the same old worn economic sanctions card—which Putin couldn’t care less about.

We badly need a dose of Trump’s realism and Mike Pompeo’s resolve right now. 

Recall Trump, in a prepared opening statement at an earlier summit, said “diplomacy is preferable” and that “new pathways to improve stability were tabled today.” Biden, the hot head who knows nothing about either the Cold War or the Russian inferiority complex just blows steam. He thinks you can curse at an opponent and get your way. As Robert Gates famously observed, Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy question for 40 years. This is no exception, but the stakes are higher than ever. Putin knows Biden is senile, frail, and weak and therein lies the looming danger. He may dare to do things a rational actor never would.

How can this dire situation be resolved—or at least unwound? 

Playing at international relations (or making war) against a weaker opponent is not easy. Fear of losing can cause you to be timid, while overconfidence can lead to unforced errors. You don’t want to lose or even suffer a setback. This makes for a sizable mental challenge requiring patience and focus (especially when up against a foe like Putin).

First, don’t underestimate your opponent—they are hungry, perhaps desperate, for an upset. Showing overconfidence will backfire. Threats won’t work. You need to play point by point. Don’t let your mind wander. Weaker players always come out strong and with bluster, but they can’t keep up and suffer from self-doubt. 

Stay in control. Be extra focused. Try something new, something different to catch the other side off guard and to end the match—for good. 

I think the United States needs to make a bold offer to Russia. 

We should allow them gradually, on good behavior and with verification, to join NATO. That’s right. They can be a part of the West much like Russia has long desired—going all the way back to Peter the Great. We will respect their culture and history much as James Billington suggested in his classic historical book, The Icon and the Axe

But we will not put up with their militarization, lack of respect for human rights, frightful biological weapons program, or attempts to hack us or engage in disinformation. 

This is a once in a lifetime deal. Putin could be the champion of a new Russian order, instead of a faded and impossible discredited Soviet past.

Take it or leave it. 


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About Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, scholar-diplomat-strategist, is CEO of the thought leadership firm The Roosevelt Group. He is the author of 18 books, including The Plot to Destroy Trump and, with Felipe J. Cuello, Trump's World: GEO DEUS. He appears regularly in the media, as a keynote speaker, and on television around the world. 

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images