The Power of the Story: Vladimir Putin and the Rise of the Russian Federation

November 3, 2014

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 2, 2003, U.S. and French forces filled the capital city to ensure the unrest and looting, which had been widely predicted by strategists, would not spread. Troops from a carefully crafted coalition poured into Iraq to maintain security along the borders and within the cities. Paul Bremer wisely decided to keep the Iraqi Army intact, and immediately began to structure the security forces with extensive Iraqi military integration. As a result, the Iraqi state remained intact, just as Secretary Rumsfeld had intended. Within hours of Saddam’s fall, U.S. special operations units located a vast arsenal of chemical weapons primed for employment. Saddam’s plans were every bit as sinister as U.S. intelligence analysts had postulated. The evidence was irrefutable. The regime had been conspiring with Al Qaeda for massive chemical attacks in several countries, including the United States. George Tenet’s “slam dunk” case against Saddam had truly come to fruition. Fortunately, the U.S. had acted promptly enough to prevent this massive wave of terror.

The horrors of terrorism, so vividly ingrained in the minds of the world after the attacks of September 11th, had almost been unleashed again. The UN came under immediate fire from the international community, as expert commentators painted the dismal picture of what would have happened on U.S. soil, if the invasion of Iraq had been delayed. Hans Blix was vilified as the great enabler of global terror, while President Bush and Vice President Cheney were celebrated as visionary and courageous leaders. The world was a safer place because the hawks took swift, decisive action. The doves who had sought to prolong the debate were only empowering terrorists. Thankfully, America possessed leaders with the foresight and grit to do what was needed.

Of course, the real story played out differently in every way. Eleven years after the invasion, Iraq is riddled with sectarian violence fueled by ancient rifts between the Sunni and Shia, and threatened by the expansion of ISIL. Yet, the leaders who decided to take America to war were clearly confident in the outcome the invasion would produce. They believed the threat was imminent and immediate violent action was the only solution. Unfortunately, there was a dramatic gap between their understanding of the situation and reality. This article does not intend to explain why they got it wrong, but rather, how difficult it is to get it right.

When we only assume the worst of our adversaries, we lay a trap for ourselves. In preparing for the worse case, we dream up thousands of tragic scenarios unlikely to occur. These unchecked dreams (or nightmares) become our reality and form the lens through which we interpret the actions of our opponents. The trap is sprung when our own narratives lock us onto a dangerous course, and we reject other equally plausible narratives that lack the potential to spiral into violent conflicts. We become prisoners of flawed narratives.

Keeping this prelude in mind, this article examines the narratives surrounding Vladimir Putin and the rise of the Russian Federation. These stories will weave in and out of reality, often making it difficult to discern the line between fact and fiction. The events and the characters will be complex, and the facts will be elusive; however, the moral of our stories will be clear: We must continually scrutinize the narratives we accept as truth, and strive to comprehend the narratives our own actions create for our adversaries. Whether true, false, or somewhere in between, these stories matter, because they drive behavior. Let’s begin with the story of Vladimir Putin.

It was a cold, rainy night in October 1952. Maria and Vladimir Putin, Sr. burrowed into a dirty Leningrad hospital with flickering florescent lights and musty air. After several hours of labor, Vladimir Putin, Jr. was born. His birth fell eight years after the German siege that nearly annihilated the city, and killed more than a million people. The siege left Putin’s father disabled and disfigured, and his mother nearly starved to death. The Leningrad of Putin’s childhood was a harsh and impoverished place that bred a generation of hungry and aggressive children. Putin’s parents endured a series of backbreaking jobs, leaving young Vladimir to fend for himself in the communal courtyards outside of their shabby apartment building. Emerging from an environment of fistfights and drunken thugs, Putin gained an explosive temper. He lashed out violently at anyone who dared cross him.

In his teenage years, defying his mother, Putin became a competitive judo martial artist, earning a black belt at the age of eighteen. He was an average student, and his schoolteachers described him as a troublemaker in class who rebelled against authority and threw chalkboard erasers at other children.

In 1970, Putin became a student at Leningrad State University, and later studied at KGB School No. 1 in Moscow. He began his formal KGB career in 1975, and was primarily stationed in East Germany, where he helped the Soviet secret police manage recruits to spy on the West. His Cold War experiences left him deeply suspicious of the West.

In 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigned and appointed Putin as President, beginning a long and uninterrupted period in power. Intent on reversing the events of 1989, Putin began a campaign to rebuild a strong Stalinist empire under the banner of Russian nationalism. Putin created his own narrative that vilified NATO expansion as an unjust Western strategy of entrapment. The American and European advance—veiled in the name of human rights and democracy—had trampled his nation’s dignity. Leveraging the Russian military and a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, he coerced the former states of the Soviet Union to distance themselves from the West. He punished resistance by strangling the flow of Russia’s cheap energy supplies, and then abruptly transitioned to a policy of annexation.

The first annexation occurred in Crimea, followed one year later by the annexation of eastern Ukraine. Ukraine had sought closer ties with NATO and the EU, inflaming tensions with the region’s ethnic Russians. Agitated by a series of oppressive Ukrainian policies, ethnic Russians catalyzed Russian intervention. Over Western protest, both Crimea and eastern Ukraine voted to join the Russian Federation, paving the way for further Russian expansion. For the first time since 1945, a major power had forcefully challenged a European border.

The EU reacted by imposing limited economic sanctions, but these sanctions were diluted by the reality that much of Europe was dependent upon Russia’s vast and inexpensive energy reserves. Military responses were removed from the table, since Putin hadn’t attacked a member of the NATO alliance. The world hoped that Putin’s conquest would halt in Ukraine, as echoes of President Obama’s September 2014 speech in Estonia filled the airways: “An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘who will come to help,’ you’ll know the answer—the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America.” Despite the strong rhetoric, pacification seemed the preferred response, invoking comparisons of British and French appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War. The World Wars had bred outright pacifism across Western Europe, and Obama’s strong-arm rhetoric gave these states one more opportunity to let the United States handle the dirty work.

The Russian expansion unleashed a wave of Russian nationalism among ethnic Russian enclaves and pro-Russian minorities across Eastern Europe. Unnerved by events in Ukraine, and emboldened by its U.S. and NATO partnerships, the Estonian government implemented a series of blatantly oppressive policies aimed at squelching potential ethnic Russian uprisings. These policies had the opposite effect, and gave rise to an ethnic Russian insurgency that directly threatened the stability of the Estonian government.

Recognizing the scenario as ripe for further Russian military intervention, the United States attempted to deter Putin by imposing harsh sanctions on the entire Russian gas and oil sector. Russia responded with a crippling cyber attack on the Estonian government infrastructure, and massed Russian troops on the Estonian border. The world was transfixed on the crisis in Estonia as undeniable evidence of Moscow’s military involvement surfaced. This was NATO’s defining moment. Ever since Estonia became a NATO alliance member in 2004, skeptics doubted NATO would ever invoke Article 5 in her defense. Was it all a bluff in the name of Russian deterrence? Putin was counting on it—but he was wrong. In response, NATO unleashed a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes on the Russian troops massed on the Estonian border. Like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, this single violent event cascaded, as the world was compelled to choose sides in the war between the two great nuclear powers. World War III began.

Fortunately, much of the real story has yet to be written, and there is still cause to hope it will end differently. This narrative combined a variety of sources: some left wing, some right wing—sprinkled in with a few facts, a double dose of speculation, and a healthy serving of outright fabrication. Manipulating a narrative is easy, but determining if a story is true is often more difficult. If we take a more critical look at a few chapters of this story, we can better understand why Putin annexed Crimea, and piece together some of the narratives that govern his behavior. To this end, let’s look at the world through the eyes of Vladimir Putin.

It’s clear that Putin wants to create a powerful, secure, and prosperous Russia that isn’t surrounded by Western security alliances. He also maintains responsibility for the plight of ethnic Russians dispersed across Eastern Europe. These interests hardly sound unreasonable. In fact, they sound downright familiar. Would the United States ignore large-scale oppression of its citizens abroad, or welcome anti-U.S. security alliances from Canada or Mexico? Even if we can dismiss these similarities, surely we can’t ignore the fact that Putin violated the border of a sovereign nation (Ukraine) to undermine a government hostile to his cause. Wait, what about U.S. airstrikes in Syria, and our efforts to remove Bashar al-Assad from power? Touché. Putin surely grasps this hypocrisy, and resents condemnations from the West when he takes similar action to secure his interests.

From Putin’s perspective, NATO expansion was a broken promise, a violation of a post-Cold War covenant between Russia and the West. President George H.W. Bush understood that Russia must not be treated like Germany at Versailles. He believed in the possibility of a “Europe whole and free.” In his vision, Central and Eastern Europe were off the geopolitical chessboard, and Russia’s door to engagement with the outside world was wide open. The United States would create a balance of power and sphere of influence across Europe. Russia would have room to stretch its wings and regain its strength peacefully, without Western interference. In the late 1990s, the Bush vision was forgotten and old Western approaches to Europe re-emerged. NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe crystallized the narrative in Putin’s mind that the West was reinvigorating its policy of containment. If this narrative doesn’t match our actual intent, how do rewrite the story for Putin?

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was injurious to the psyche of a proud people. To Russians, that wound was inflicted by the United States. These wounds may never fully heal, but until they do, any U.S.-led actions will be inflammatory. The United States shouldn’t abandon its European allies, but it should lead from behind. Perhaps it’s time for the West to stop slinging Article 5 rhetoric, and let Europeans handle this European problem. Rather than creating hostile policies aimed at changing Russia’s behavior, the United States should focus on modifying the rest of Europe’s behavior. The oppression of any people, including ethnic Russians, is a human rights violation that NATO should firmly condemn.

Russian expansion is a natural counterpunch to Western policies, as Putin seeks to ensure Russia’s regional dominance. As long as the West keeps punching, Putin, the hotheaded and thin-skinned judo martial artist, will punch back. President Bush’s vision for Europe is still achievable, but it will only take hold if Russia is accepted as a colleague (or comrade), not reviled as a threat.

Our worst nightmares about Putin might come true, but considerable evidence suggests there are peaceful alternatives on the horizon. We must recognize that our actions and the narratives we construct play a direct role in either creating that nightmare or plotting a peaceful alternate course.

We must also never forget the consequences of failure. The leaders who sent America to war in Iraq believed swift military action was imperative. They weren’t bad men, but they made a bad decision because they firmly believed in a story that simply wasn’t correct. Their failures are vivid reminders of the power of the stories that surround us. To get the stories right, we must proceed cautiously. We must read and write each chapter thoughtfully. For Vladimir Putin and the rise of the Russian Federation, the narratives we create will make all the difference.


Lt. Col. Derek O’Malley is an officer in the United States Air Force. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


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