Putin’s dangerous game

By Igor Khrestin

Russia’s president has built his power on a dark form of nationalism he may struggle to
control – especially if he seems to be losing the war in Ukraine

Leon Aron, Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War. AEI Press, October 2023, 232 pp.

In July 2007, I was working at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, when a curious letter from Russia landed on my desk. Neatly handwritten in English, the letter was framed as an “appeal to the American Nation, [and] to the relatives of the injured and dead in Afghanistan and Iraq.” The authors blamed the State Department and other U.S. government bodies not only for the invasions of those two countries but also for attempts to “meddle” in Russia’s internal affairs. The letter warned that unless Washington changed course, confrontation with Moscow would be “irreversible” and that Americans would “pay the price for that and die.” It then concluded with a rousing call for “the great American people” to “take to the streets” and “cry for the resignation of the President and dismissal of the State Secretary!” 

The letter bore the insignia of an organization called Nashi (meaning “ours” in Russian), which had been created in 2005 by Vladislav Surkov, then a top adviser to President Vladimir Putin. Surkov, often described as the éminence grise of President Putin’s ideology, had set up Nashi to function like the Hitler Youth or the Komsomol: to indoctrinate young Russians into the regime’s ideology and then set its trained cadres loose to root out internal enemies and other deviators from party lines.  

While Nashi’s letter may have seemed silly to its U.S. readers, and while it obviously failed to achieve its goal – the great American uprising has yet to occur – it nonetheless represented something dark and dangerous: the dramatic anti-American turn in sentiment among Russians, especially young Russians. The year the letter arrived at AEI marked the end of the post-Cold War honeymoon. Russia under President Putin was embarking on a new, much more frightening path, and Nashi’s message was just the start.  

In Riding the Tiger, a concise and informative new book, Leon Aron – AEI’s top Russia scholar, a Soviet émigré, and (full disclosure) my onetime boss – sets out to explain this turn in Russia’s attitude and contextualize President Putin’s dream for the restoration of the Soviet empire. It’s a dream President Putin loyally serves, and also one that Western policymakers should keep in mind as they make Ukraine policy today and figure out how and where else to confront the Kremlin around the world.  

The road to war

Six months before the Nashi letter, on Feb. 10, 2007, President Putin delivered an address to the annual Munich Security Conference. The speech shocked the audience at the normally sedate event by condemning the “unipolar world” in which there is “one master, one sovereign.” Accusing the United States of having “overstepped its borders in every way,” President Putin condemned NATO’s recent expansion into central and eastern Europe, asking “against whom is this expansion intended?” Describing Russia as a “country with a thousand-year history,” he said that it reserved the right to carry out an “independent foreign policy.”  

Evidence of what that meant soon followed. In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied a fifth of the country’s territory – land it controls to this day. Six years later, following the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which President Putin called a “Western-led coup,” little green men – Russian troops without identifiable insignia on their uniforms – poured out of their bases in the Crimean Peninsula, ultimately seizing it, while Moscow-backed proxies occupied swaths of Ukraine’s east. The next year, President Putin sent warplanes and pilots to Syria to save the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad. And then, on Feb. 24, 2022, President Putin decided to go all in on Ukraine and sent his army streaming across the border, inciting Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. 

The tiger that President Putin is riding is the blood-and-soil Russian nationalism and anti-Western patriotic fervor that he himself              has sown.

Riding the Tiger is arguably the first book to be published since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that aims to explain not how President Putin does things, but why. The tiger that President Putin is riding is the blood-and-soil Russian nationalism and anti-Western patriotic fervor that he himself has sown with groups like Nashi. Aron argues persuasively that President Putin’s main fear is not the West but rather dismounting this wild animal. Given Russian history – its citizens have not been forgiving of leaders who lose major wars – President Putin’s anxiety is understandable. After Czar Nicholas II lost first to imperial Japan in 1905 and then in World War I, he was violently overthrown. President Putin is determined to avoid such a fate by modeling himself on a leader who won his wars regardless of the cost: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin.  

Aron explains that, in 2012, President Putin took his first strides toward his goal of becoming a modern-day Stalin with a new set of reformist policies. Responding to a stagnating economy and the mass falsification of the December 2011 parliamentary elections, popular anti-Putin rallies had sprung up across 100 Russian cities and towns. These protests constituted the first genuine threat to President Putin’s rule and drove him to turn to Stalin’s playbook. President Putin reacted to the protests by centralizing power and extinguishing any remaining embers of the post-Soviet freedoms the Russian people then enjoyed. As Aron writes, “From a relatively mild authoritarian system in which the government had been largely indifferent to what its subjects thought and believed in so long as they did not seek to challenge it, [President Putin] began to mold the society to fit into an increasingly rigid framework separating the state-mandated right from the state-deplored wrong.”  

Stalin’s shadow

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, experts offered various explanations for the collapse, including economic stagnation, the Chernobyl disaster, President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program, and the Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan. But as Aron’s previous book, Roads to the Temple, argues, the most powerful driving force was actually the moral awakening of the various peoples living under the Soviet yoke, including the Russians themselves. This awakening involved coming to terms with the horrific legacy of Stalinism, acknowledging war crimes committed against the Soviet Union and its constituent republics, ending the pervasive stukach (or “snitching”) culture, and embracing pluralism 

During the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin became the imperfect vehicle of Russia’s moral cleansing and its uneven progress toward democracy. (Aron also wrote President Yeltsin’s definitive English-language biography.) When President Yeltsin appointed Putin as his successor on New Year’s Eve in 1999, few in the West knew who the new president was. He seemed to fit Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia itself: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  

In Riding the Tiger, Aron argues that President Putin is “first and foremost an ardent Soviet patriot.” President Putin sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our time” and blames it primarily on weak and subversive elements inside Russia, including slovobludy (“mindless blabbers,” or unpatriotic and unprincipled windbags) and konyukturshchiki (“timeservers,” or servile bureaucrats motivated only by financial gain). President Putin also blames the “enemies outside,” meaning the Western powers that took advantage of the Soviet Union’s moment of weakness to effectuate its political, economic, and social collapse 

On taking office, President Putin’s first order of business was to restore Soviet state symbols. In December 2000, less than a year into his reign, he reinstated the Soviet anthem. In June 2007, President Putin ordered comprehensive education reforms that legitimized almost every aspect of the Soviet experience, including Stalin’s crimes. Aron argues that these educational reforms have helped lead to the rebirth of the Soviet Union, “not as a political entity but as a living legacy and an inspiration.”  

Aron argues the West was too slow to notice President Putin’s goal of preventing Russia from joining the “common European home” envisioned by President Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President. While the West should have been positioning itself to prepare for confrontation, it instead embarked on a series of misguided policy resets. Washington indulged Moscow’s cheating on their missile defense agreements, and Europe grew ever more dependent on Russian energy supplies, even after Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. President Putin pocketed these concessions, took stock of the failures of Western policy in Syria and Afghanistan, and concluded the United States and its allies were a paper tiger – no match for the ferocious animal he was riding to restore Russia’s glory.  

The butcher’s bill

The Soviet Union’s victory in World War II – or the Great Patriotic War, as it is popularly known in Russia – is the ideological centerpiece of President Putin’s restoration. He relies on it to justify not only the current legitimacy of his regime but also any future sacrifices that will be made in Ukraine, where an estimated 300,000 Russians have already died.  

President Putin sees those deaths as part of the price of Russia’s revival as a major power – and so expects the Russian people to stoically bear the cost, as their grandfathers and grandmothers did in the war against Nazi Germany. Aron notes that a new term has emerged in Russia during President Putin’s time: pobedobesie, a portmanteau of pobeda (“victory”) and bes (“the devil”), meaning to be “possessed by victory.” President Putin’s rehabilitation of Stalin’s legacy is a necessary part of this new Russian philosophy in spite of the fact that Stalin probably killed more Russians than Hitler.  

The devastation wrought on President Putin’s armies by Ukraine’s defenders does not mean the West need not worry about the danger he represents, Aron argues. President Putin’s government has threatened to use Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal as a tool of war, even in a local conventional conflict such as this one, and the idea – which is often reinforced in graphic terms by Russia’s pliant state media – seems to have been accepted by the public. To support this claim, Aron cites the great Russian author and Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, who said in May 2022, “Sometimes I think that if we had a television show in Russia, where the winner of the show could press the red button live, there would be a lot of takers.”  

The force of President Putin’s wedge is being tested on Ukraine’s battlefields right now, but it won’t be the last place he tries it.

This is the frightening reality of President Putin’s neo-Soviet renewal the West must understand and learn to confront. Aron quotes one of President Putin’s guiding Russian proverbs: “Klin klinom vyshybayut!” – or roughly, “to push out a stuck wedge, hit it with another wedge!” The force of President Putin’s wedge is being tested on Ukraine’s battlefields right now, but it won’t be the last place he tries it – unless the West can muster an equal or more powerful wedge to match.  

To President Putin, hard power is all that matters in global affairs. The use of conventional force in Ukraine and other recalcitrant post-Soviet states, as well as the threat of nuclear attacks against the West, will be the primary elements of Russian statecraft for the foreseeable future. With its population pacified and no political challenge in sight, Russia’s economy has moved to a war footing, much like the Soviet Union’s did during World War II. The West is now faced with the hard choice of either matching President Putin’s actions by helping Ukraine win and investing more in collective defense or giving up and letting an iron curtain descend on the European continent once more.  

As Aron’s book demonstrates, President Putin has put himself in a situation where he cannot dismount the tiger he rides, or the wild animal will consume him like it did Nicholas II. In modeling his rule after that of Russian tyrants like Stalin or Peter the Great, President Putin has created an environment where his regime’s survival necessitates external aggression and internal oppression. The only way that he can maintain his modern-day Stalinism is by stripping the Russians of what few liberties they have left while he attempts to rebuild the Soviet empire through victory on the battlefield. The West must wake up to President Putin’s aspirations and act accordingly. 

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