According to Greg Miller of The Washington Post, Donald Trump and his advisers differ on how to approach Vladimir Putin. While Trump tweets that “[e]verything will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia,” and looks forward to “lasting peace,” his advisors air scathing assessments of Russian policies.
Indeed, Putin has confounded and confused U.S. presidents and their advisors, intelligence analysts, and academics since his unlikely rise to power. He has been portrayed variously as a master chess player, a reckless egoist, a business-like statesman, and a street thug.
Here at War on the Rocks, Joshua Rovner and Michael Kofman have disagreed on the wisdom and clarity of Putin’s grand design, and indeed whether any such thing can be said to exist. “Putin is a bad strategist,” Rovner writes. “He does not understand the relationship between military violence and political objectives,” and his “ham-fisted” seizure of Crimea, amongst other blunders, has “almost ruined” the chances of Russia’s return to great power status. Kofman disagrees, arguing that Putin is playing a weak hand — as the leader of a “regional power in structural decline” — with some skill. It’s too soon to judge the ultimate success of his challenge to the rules-based international system, but Putin has made progress on this score, and seems secure at home. The Russian leader understands strategy perfectly well, in Kofman’s view. The real problem is that America doesn’t understand Putin.
To try to cut through the confusion, we analyzed every word President Putin has ever said on the major issues of foreign policy — a big data approach to the vexing problem of understanding one man.
We use a technique known as operational code analysis. The origins of this approach lie in U.S. government efforts to understand the behavior of the Bolsheviks after World War II. Nathan Leites, a Soviet expert and sociologist, posited that the regime was acting based upon a set of rules and political maxims rooted in their ideology and revolutionary experiences: a Bolshevik operational code. Alexander George saw the potential for the approach to be useful beyond the single case of the Bolsheviks. More recently, the technique has been refined into a rigorous framework for the content analysis of public speech by computer algorithm.
In this modern form, operational code analysis involves isolating the imagery of power and control deployed by leaders as they talk about the political world. Statements a leader makes about other actors and their own approach are categorized as hostile (punishments, threats, or words of opposition) or cooperative (appeals, promises, or rewards.) By aggregating a large number of these statements, the approach produces a read-out of how the leader expresses their beliefs about international relations. Public speech is taken to reveal, at least to some extent, the world as it exists in the mind of the speaker.
To fuel the analysis, we collected Putin’s speeches and interviews about foreign policy from the Kremlin’s archive. With our analysis based upon over one million words spoken by Putin, we think this is the most extensive study of the Russian president undertaken so far.
What we found was surprising: On most issues of foreign policy, Putin scores as a fairly mainstream world leader. To reach this conclusion, we compared Putin’s rhetoric to other states-people of his era: leaders of the great powers on the one hand — such as Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, and Angela Merkel — and leaders of rogue states on the other — such as Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and Mahmood Ahmadinejad. We established that great power leaders talk about international politics differently than rogue state leaders, and found that Putin spoke (and by implication, thought) more like the standard great power leader than the rogue leader.
Except for one thing: his obsession with control. Putin talks about his own and Russia’s control over events to an extent rarely seen, scoring consistently above the normal levels of other political leaders. All politicians want to stay in charge, and all states-people like to think of their country as shaping international affairs, but Putin represents an extreme case.
Combing the biographical literature for explanations, we were drawn to the hypothesis advanced by Mary Elise Sarotte, Ben Judah, and Fiona Hill, which suggests that Putin’s firsthand witnessing of the collapse of Soviet power in East Germany left a lasting mark on his worldview. As a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, he felt personally threatened by crowds protesting the East German regime, and appalled that Soviet power was not employed to protect the KGB building: “I got the feeling then that the country [the Soviet Union] no longer existed. That it had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure — a paralysis of power.” We are convinced that avoiding a similar paralysis of Russian power is the central motivation of Putin’s international strategy.
While our techniques generate no direct measure of strategic competence — and so we cannot definitively settle the Rovner-Kofman debate — we can say that Putin’s strategy appears protean and multifaceted. We found little evidence that Putin is a great chess player with a consistently pursued grand design. Instead, he is more of a shameless opportunist. Our data supports the views of Gleb Pavlosky, Putin’s longtime associate, that “Putin is good at tactics. He has a vision. But there is no strategy in between.”
Those who see him as a master grand strategist argue that he has always been driven by opposition to NATO — a classic realist reading of how a Russian leader should think about the encroachment of a competitor military alliance into his sphere of influence. We did indeed find that his recent public speech about NATO, and the Western powers more generally, was hostile.
But this is a recent development, dating to the crisis that led to the ouster of former Ukrainian president and Putin ally Victor Yanukovych. During the early to mid-2000s when his economy was riding high on the oil market boom, he expressed a moderately cooperative attitude toward NATO, the United States, and the European Union. In short, our analysis is more supportive of the views of Russia specialists such as Michael McFaul, Kimberly Marten, and Lilia Shevtsova — that Putin is an opportunist who deploys anti-Western rhetoric as it suits his tactical purposes — than those of John Mearsheimer, who sees Putin as a master strategist driven by a consistently anti-NATO worldview.
So what? We think, first, that systematic analysis of public speech is a useful technique, providing copious open-source intelligence that can give a read-out on the puzzling behaviors of inscrutable leaders. But our approach has inherent limitations. If Kofman is correct, then Western confusion about Putin is already the result of taking his statements too literally — an error we will merely have confounded with our content analysis. Putin’s comments, Kofman asserts, are “not official declarations of policy, but instead [play] a supporting theatrical role to whatever strategy is being implemented.” While we do not agree that public speech contains only or primarily misleading information, it is important to remember that our dataset almost certainly includes some disingenuous speech and excludes transcripts of private deliberations and records of secret operations. That is merely to acknowledge the obvious: that no one approach to understanding a world leader’s thinking is sufficient on its own. The work of integrating multiple sources of intelligence and applying policy judgements must still be done.
Nonetheless, there are policy implications to this analysis of Putin. First, he has behaved for the majority of his time in office as the rational leader of a great power. Throwing up one’s hands and declaring him outside of the mainstream is to underestimate his normalcy, or, put another way, to overestimate the virtue and cooperative instincts of the standard leader. Second, our data show that Putin’s approach varies by issue. It should be possible to work with him on some policies, like fighting ISIL (his rhetoric on terrorism is astonishingly violent and brutal), while segmenting others. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments at his Senate confirmation hearing — that the United States should cooperate with Putin based on common interests and be steadfast in defense otherwise — seem to us to be essentially correct.
Finally, given the centrality of control to Putin’s formative political experiences, and its prevalence in his public rhetoric, it is important to recognize that the disintegration of order and threats to his own power are red-lines for Putin. On the one hand, this suggests being cautious about making any move that looks like it targets the basis of his authority. On the other, should coercive diplomacy be necessary, Putin’s fear of losing control represents the sharpest stick with which to poke him.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. His research interests are in political leadership, foreign policy analysis, and representations of politics in popular culture. He is the author of Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and Leaders in Conflict: Bush and Rumsfeld in Iraq (Manchester University Press, 2014). Follow him on twitter @sbdyson.
Matthew J. Parent is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. He has research interests in international relations theory, foreign policy, and military technology.