To understand Russia’s Vladimir Putin, you need to know what drives him

  • In contemplating Trump's strategy with Russia, it's important to understand what drives Russian President Vladimir Putin: revenge.

  • If you want to understand Putin, a good place to start is reading Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev – and add some research on humiliation.

  • Putin's brand of authoritarian nationalism is very different from Trump's brand of America first nationalism.

"Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone. No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness. She stands alone, unique-In Russia, one can only believe."
- Fyodor Tyutchev, Russian Poet

If you read only the comments from the recent meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit, you'd think it was the start of a great relationship. But that translation of events would be a mistake.

To analyze Putin and Trump's meeting, you need to know who Putin is and what drives his actions. Putin can deny election meddling and agree to a joint ceasefire in Syria but it is what lies beneath this that should matter to the U.S. and the Trump administration.

A way to understand Russia and Putin is to read some of Fyodor Tyutchev's poetry and add some research on humiliation. Tyutchev was a 19th-century poet and career diplomat and most Russians can easily recite his poems from memory.

Visitors to Russia often hear, "You cannot understand Russia with your brain, you can only believe in it." These are Tyutchev's (translated) words and a century and a half later they still offer explanatory power for understanding the country today.

"I am Russian," wrote Tyutchev. "Russian by heart and soul, profoundly devoted to my land."

Putin is more than a little guilty of borrowing from the poet.

"In contemplating strategy toward Russia in the Trump administration, I would recommend they read Tyutchev's poetry and understand Putin has an ax to grind. Revenge is something he does well."

And now to humiliation theory.

Bettina Muenster and David Lotto in their work on humiliation describe it as "associated with retaliatory behavior, even at additional cost to the retaliator. When humiliated, individuals and groups seem to have a particular appetite for revenge. The self, it is feared, will never be the same unless injustice is addressed."

This describes Putin's motivations and actions 17 years after taking the reins of Russia. The U.S. did not show him, nor Russia, the respect he believed his great country deserved. Putin brought strength and confidence back to Russia — a decade of decline and criticism took its toll, and he alone was going to make Russia a country that generated awe rather than contempt and mockery. Putin's overtures to Trump are not to be trusted; Putin doesn't respect Trump, and the West should be wary of cozying up to someone seeking revenge.

A bit of history is required here to round out the picture of why any rapprochement with Russia should warrant suspicion and extreme caution. Putin has a long list of wrongs he wants to right, and he sees an opportunity to do so with Trump at the helm. Do not be fooled — Putin harbors long-lasting and negative emotions towards the west. It is best to view Putin's moves through the lens of payback and retaliation. (Putin is a nationalist, and his world view is anti-western.)

After the breakdown and dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia entered a period of dislocation and disruption. The last years of the union were about pillage from within, or as Steven Solnick described it, "stealing the state." The dirt cheap selloff of state-run enterprises led to the rise of the Russian oligarch that illustrated one slice of Russia's very dysfunctional economy of the 1990s. Its economy was battered and there was little in the way of hope in the aftermath of 1991. Yeltsin was not the leader to revive an ailing Russia. Russians viewed him as a drunk and an idiot. Russia's superpower status evaporated, and the country was on its knees.

To better understand the dramatic shift that transpired consider this: There were regions of Russia threatening to break away from the federation, and oil production collapsed from 12 million barrels per day of production in the 1980s to just over six million barrels per day in 1998. The price of a barrel averaged $16 during Yeltsin's term and to make the bad even worse, the default of domestic debt and the collapse of the ruble in August 1998 wiped out whatever savings people had in banks and under mattresses.

And then Putin came along. He made it his charge to fix the problems of the past, to make the oligarchs work for him rather than vice versa, and to restore order and prestige to a bloody and battered image. It was Putin who ushered in the turnaround, an almost overnight rebranding of Russia from one of failure to one of strength.

Putin's timing was superb. By 2000, Putin was firmly and comfortably entrenched in the White House and a new era for Russia was in the making. Shortly after Putin took office, oil prices started to climb, and with that, Russian oil production. A few years into Putin's first term and the country was back up again producing almost 10 million barrels per day, and the narrative of decline turned into a miraculous transformation. Russians were proud again, and happy to display new, and at times ostentatious displays of wealth and glory.

Fast forward to 2001 and Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call George. W. Bush on September 11. Putin's message to the United States: "We, more than anyone, understand the feelings of the American people. In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people -- we are with you." And we remember Bush himself thought he had looked into Putin's soul and found a man he could trust. What is important to remember about 2001 is that the signals Putin was putting out suggested a desire to get closer to the West — to cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism, engage more directly with NATO and be viewed as a partner. By 2004, the narrative had once again shifted, and a 2004 cover from the Economist sharply summed it up, "The Challenger: Putin against democracy, the West, and all-comers."

It's been downhill since. Putin's interpretation: The U.S. rebuffed Russia. Russia saw the U.S./West as planting the seeds of dissent through the funding and establishment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and meddling in the elections of its neighbors. Putin did not view the protests in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan as being indigenous and organic but rather coerced and co-opted by western NGOs and the CIA. Russia viewed these revolutions as being orchestrated by the West and as an affront to its sphere of influence. The United States was trampling on Russia's near abroad. One State Department official in 2006 suggested considering how the United States would respond if Russia started to fund and populate Mexico with nongovernmental organizations.

In 2008, Russia went into Georgia, and in 2014 annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. They didn't pay much of a price and believed then as they do now, that their might makes them right. Russia is succeeding in countering attempts to weaken the state. Sanctions have now been in place for more than two years and Russia manages to get by — and, Putin would argue — thrive. Oil production reached over 11 million barrels per day in 2016 and the first half of 2017, almost surpassing the all-time high of 11.7 set in 1987.

Putin is not offering to show his hand, and he continues to seek any strategic advantage where he can find it. His brand of authoritarian nationalism is different from Trump's brand of America first nationalism. Putin has a free hand in what he does and how far he can go, whereas Trump's limitations lie in the democratic institutions that safeguard the United States against despotism and authoritarian overreach.

In contemplating strategy toward Russia in the Trump administration, I would recommend they read Tyutchev's poetry and understand Putin has an ax to grind. Revenge is something he does well.

Commentary by Carolyn Kissane, academic director of the graduate program in global affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU School of Professional Studies. She is also a clinical associate professor, teaching graduate-level courses examining the geopolitics of energy, comparative energy politics, energy, environment and resource security.

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