OUT ON A LIMB: Vladimir Putin, Tyrant.

The rational actor theory isn’t always wrong. But it has been contradicted repeatedly by leaders who are willing to risk everything for the prospect of honor and victory, not regarding these ambitions as “vainglorious” delusions but rather as the stuff of historical greatness. The last century witnessed the rise of history’s most tyrannical aggressors, including Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Khomeini. In every case, rationalist-oriented Western policymakers thought that the economic self-interest of tyrants would deter them from all-out war. When Britain and France offered to give Hitler the Sudetenland, they believed this offer would slake his hunger for all of Czechoslovakia and give the Czechs a reprieve. Instead, it encouraged him to further aggression. Similarly, hopes for peaceful coexistence and detente with the Soviet Union were shattered by Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan. As it turned out, the Soviet Union being an economic basket case was not as important to its leadership as restoring revolutionary elan through foreign conquest, as had been done when the Red Army rolled over Eastern Europe after World War II.

The same is true of Putin today. It’s not that he doesn’t want prosperity for Russia. His early popularity was based on stabilizing the ruble. But the economy must rightfully take a distant second place to restoring Russia’s national pride and dignity after what he views as the “catastrophe” of the Soviet empire’s humiliating defeat in the Cold War. Our foreign policy experts too often forget that dictators like Putin don’t have to worry about public opinion and economic performance the same way that democratically elected leaders do. Rulers for life, they can put these to one side for prolonged periods of time in service of the greater goal of national honor.

Although Putin’s ambition is to restore Russian control over its former Warsaw Pact captive states, he in no way wishes to restore the Soviet regime itself. Russian history has long been riven by a cultural conflict between those who look to Europe, the West, and the Enlightenment as the path that Russia should follow and those who are loyal to Slavic nationalism, which is deeply religious and not interested in economic prosperity. In literature, this divide was typified by the different outlooks of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, which Tolstoy crystallized as the difference between St. Petersburg and Moscow. During the era of anti-Soviet dissidence, this split was typified by Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Putin is in the Slavophile camp. A devotee of Berdyaev, a Slavophile critic of Marxism-Leninism, Putin believes that Soviet communism was an import of European rationalism that poisoned the authentic Russian soul, which has nourished the country’s national and artistic greatness.

And as a result of Putin’s goal of recovering Russia’s former captive states,  Putin and his inner circle have “really got that bunker siege mentality — fortress Russia.”