Leon Aron and Vladimir Putin shared a similar Soviet childhood: “When I look at photos of Putin as a young man, I recognize my own ill-fitting clothes,” writes Aron. Whereas Putin joined the KGB and became Russia’s president, Aron emigrated as a refugee to the United States and became one of his adopted country’s top Russia watchers. He wrote an acclaimed study of the Gorbachev years, “Roads to the Temple,” focusing on the corrosive effect of Soviet-era lies about history and their cathartic revelation. He has also written an insightful biography of Boris Yeltsin.
His latest work is a short book, which outlines the historical and cultural impetus behind Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Aron’s argument in “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War”, is simple. Putin is fundamentally a Soviet, not a Russian, creation, with the outlook and mentality of someone who spent their formative years in the heart of the totalitarian system. Putin’s criticism of the Soviet Union is based on the fact that it failed, not that it was based on lies and mass murder.
Putin has “assuaged and used” the post-Soviet trauma: the realization that Russia is mostly a middle-ranking and declining force in world events, not the superpower of Gromyko’s maxim, where no problem could be solved without the Soviet Union’s involvement or consent.
To “Make Russia Great Again,” Putin has done three things. He has weaponized history, recasting the past as a story of humiliation brought about by external malevolence. More accurate would be to say that the Soviet Union’s catastrophic collapse was inevitable but that Russia is the author of many of its own misfortunes.
He has also militarized public discourse. Russia’s armed forces are the direct heirs of those who conquered Nazi Germany in 1945. Similarly, the Ukrainians (and their Western allies) are the heirs to the Hitlerites. In that moral context, criticism is disloyal, even treasonous.
Third, Putin has fetishized nuclear weapons. Swaggering, reckless talk attracts the rest of the world’s attention. So, too, does the development of showy new weapons with names like Sarmat, Zirkon, and Avangard. In truth, these nuclear torpedoes, giant intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic rockets, and the like are mostly some way from reality. But the nuclear option, writes Aron, has become like the “red button in a game show”: a tantalising last-ditch gambit, that could be played for thrills, not real-life devastation.
But what does this mean in practice? Aron argues that the Russian leader is not irrational, but he is ill-informed. After twenty-plus years in power, subordinates hesitate to contradict him or bring him bad news. That makes bad decisions troublingly likely.
Nobody should doubt the Kremlin’s aggressive outlook. But the biggest question is the failure of Western defense and deterrence. NATO countries are many times bigger and richer than Russia. Putin gets his way chiefly because he is willing to accept pain, take risks, and lie brazenly about what he is doing. The West’s weakness is one of willpower.
Aron finishes his book with a scenario of a Russian land grab in Estonia or Latvia, which would create a fait accompli before NATO could respond. In fact, the alliance’s efforts to improve its early warning, defense, and deterrence in the Baltic Sea region are commendable, and improving. But everything depends critically on the United States. That could shift rapidly with a change of administration or priorities in Washington, DC. Keeping American decision-makers focused on supporting Ukraine is proving surprisingly difficult. If that frays, the chances for the rest of Europe look bleak. Perhaps Aron’s next book could be about the home front.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.