Monday, March 03, 2014

Putin is Not a Western Pundit

I know the title seems like the observation of Mr. Obvious. But in practice, that truth doesn't filter in to our analysis.

Walter Mead notes that Western pundits did not foresee the Russian invasion of Crimea:

A Politico report calls it “a crisis that no one anticipated.” The Daily Beast, reporting on Friday’s US intelligence assessment that “Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine,” quotes a Senate aide claiming that “no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”

Op-eds from all over the legacy press this week helped explained why. Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and “5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea” weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.

As I have hammered on again and again on this blog when referring to other's actions, our rational is not their rational. Don't mirror-image their thought processes and assume that tells us what they might do. Do read all of that article.

And yes, all you can do is make your guesses about what others do. Sometimes you are wrong. You can be wrong even if all your analysis is correct. So while I speculated about a Russian invasion of Crimea a week before the invasion and was gaming Russian invasion options five days before H-Hour, I claim no particular genius. I'm good, I think, but I can't see into the future.

But I did assume that restoring the Russian empire was a Putin goal and that he could take a chance to add lost territory when presented with an opportunity, including Ukraine. For Ukraine, I even focused on the east and Crimea in particular as objectives.

And when chatter from Russia emerged talking about taking Ukrainian territory, I didn't assume this was just talk for domestic Russian consumption. I was worried. I didn't predict an invasion.

But I didn't rule it out. My analysis was good regardless of whether Putin decided at this time to make good on his objectives. If Putin hadn't invaded right now, that would not have made the analysis good of all those pundits who predicted no invasion.

I know, nobody the pundits know voted to invade Crimea. But there are hard people outside their comfortable circle of friends who think very differently than they do.

If we learn nothing else from this crisis, learn this.

UPDATE: Related.

UPDATE: Good Lord, is Putin even rational by Russian standards, let alone our standards?

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.

If you weren't sure of the veracity of that little reportorial nugget, all doubt should've vanished after Putin's press conference today.

Slouching in a fancy chair in front of a dozen reporters, Putin squirmed and rambled. And rambled and rambled. He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused.

What is going on in his head? The man has lots of nukes and appears off his meds.

Or is he following the old Nixon tactic of appearing crazy enough to do the unthinkable in order to get the Russians to back down?

Pucker factor to 11.