The dramatic decline in oil prices, combined with modest sanctions by the U.S. and the European community, appear to have boxed Vladimir Putin into a corner. The ruble has fallen nearly 50 percent in the last six months, and the rickety Russian economy is headed into a double-digit recession at least through 2016. Western observers wonder whether these circumstances will change the behavior of the Russian leader.
The quick answer is, probably not.
Putin’s approval rating remains indisputably high, somewhere in the 80s, even as the Russian economy is in freefall.
Flying in the face of such universally depressing data causes Western leaders and pundits to brand Putin as “living in another world,” calling his behavior “erratic and unpredictable.” It is, if you measure him against Western norms; but understood on his own terms and within the context of Russian history, Vladimir Putin is remarkably consistent.
Vladimir Putin is a Russian nationalist through and through. He believes Russia has the right, indeed the obligation, to rule all Slavic peoples, despite their desires. His view of history sees Ukraine as malorussiya, “Little Russia,” a subset of the great Russian people.
Thus, the modern Ukrainian state can be nothing other than a temporary aberration. Hence, Putin calls the fall of the Soviet Union the “greatest tragedy of the 20th century” — not the World Wars with nearly 100 million deaths globally, nor the Holocaust with the murder of six million Jews, nor even the demise of a totalitarian state responsible for killing 20 million of its own people.
Perhaps most critically, Vladimir Putin is KGB. It is said of the former KGB, “Once and agent, always an agent.” Typically, we think of work as something people do rather than who they are. But working for the KGB requires a certain mentality, a way of being. Putin never left the KGB; he just got promoted. Without understanding this, you can’t understand Putin.
So, will the implosion of the Russian economy or other setbacks change Vladimir Putin’s behavior?