I don’t, alas, have time to give it a proper consideration, but my initial response from watching Putin’s Crimea speech is that this is another of those watershed moments. To me, we are seeing in foreign as well as domestic politics, a new Putin, let’s call him Putin 3.0, an idea I first developed in the most recent Power Vertical podcast. Putin 1.0, in his first terms in office, was characterised by assertive, sometimes ruthless, but essentially pragmatic policy. Putin was no fan of the West and its ideals, but nor did he regard himself as being at odds with it in any fundamental way, only when it tried to impede his own ambitions. Putin 2.0, after the “castling”, his return to office and the unexpected rise of the “non-system opposition”, was increasingly interested in foreign policy precisely as a way of assuaging or diverting domestic pressure. He genuinely seemed — and seems — to lack any real sense of how to build legitimacy in a time of increasing economic trouble, except through well-trumpeted triumphs, from Syria to Sochi. Even so, despite often-bruising rhetoric and such acts as the wilful persecution of US ambassador Mike McFaul (a man whose transparent well-meaning commitment to building bridges and spreading amity was akin to a “kick me” sign on his back in these days of bare-knuckled Moscow), anti-Westernism was a tool, a means to an end, deployed when useful, ignored when not.
Now, though, I can’t help but feel we have Putin 3.0, a man casting aside cerebral notions for a more gut sense of where next to go. A man whose self-image of himself as Russia’s saviour, as well as a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilisation has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenising Western influence, have come to the forefront. From being a means to an end, anti-Westernism becomes an end in itself as is is just the flip side–to him–of preserving and exalting Russian civilisation. The way the usual litany of grievances now seems to have even sharper edge, the sense that Russia must act the way it acts not because it is right but because others did it wrong, a commitment to “re”taking Crimea in absolute contradiction to common sense and, to be blunt, Russia’s real best interests (as Ben Aris has pointed out, even before any sanctions, this crisis has already cost Russian over $400 B, or 8 Sochis…), all of these show a real change.
No, it’s not madness. It’s not even a global danger (remember, Russian civilisation, like the Russian Orthodox Church that buttresses it, is not an aggressively and pan-ethnically evangelistic religion). But as he signs the decree annexing Crimea, it does begin to recast Russia’s relations with the outside world, in a way that will be hard to manage, tough for Russia’s neighbours and also, I suspect, ultimately disastrous for this regime.