Rather than examining the perspective of Russian national security interests, U.S. officials wrongly think the fate of European peace is in the hands of a single man: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, writes Scott Ritter.
By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News
The war of words between Russia and the United States over Ukraine escalated further on Tuesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin responded for the first time to the U.S. written reply to Russia’s demands for security guarantees that were expressed in the form of a pair of draft treaties submitted by Moscow to the U.S. and NATO in December.
“It is already clear…that the fundamental Russian concerns were ignored. We did not see an adequate consideration of our three key requirements,” Putin said at a press conference that followed his meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Moscow.
Putin said the U.S. had failed to give “adequate consideration of our three key demands regarding NATO expansion, the renunciation of the deployment of strike weapons systems near Russian borders, and the return of the [NATO] bloc’s military infrastructure in Europe to the state of 1997, when the Russia-NATO founding act was signed.”
He detailed what he alleged was NATO’s long history of deception, re-emphasizing the 1990 verbal commitment by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not expand “an inch” eastward. “They said one thing, they did another,” Putin said. “As people say, they screwed us over, well they simply deceived us.”
With some 130,000 Russian troops deployed in the western and southern military districts bordering Ukraine, and another 30,000 assembling in neighboring Belarus, U.S. policy makers are scrambling to figure out what Russia’s next move might be, a choice most U.S. policy makers believe boils down to diplomacy or war.
Rather than examine the situation from the perspective of Russian national security interests, however, these officials have placed the fate of European peace and security in the hands of a single individual: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Interests of an Entire Nation
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Tom Nichols opines that “no one really knows why Putin is doing this—or whether he really intends to do it at all. It is unlikely that his own inner circle even has a good read on its boss.”
Even the president of the United States, Joe Biden, professed a sense of frustration at not knowing what Putin’s objectives are vis-à-vis Ukraine. “I’ll be completely honest with you,” Biden said last month, “it is a little bit like reading tea leaves” when it came to predicting Putin’s next move.
The fact that the U.S. president is at a loss when assessing Russia’s next move regarding Ukraine should send a shiver up the spines of all concerned Americans. One of the main reasons for this confusion lies in the emphasis Biden placed on the importance of only what Putin was thinking, as opposed what the legitimate national security interests of Russia were.
This problem is not unique to the present circumstance, but rather is part and parcel of a national obsession with Putin the man that obviates the reality that Russia is a country whose interests are greater than any single individual, no matter how long serving or powerful.
The problem with focusing on an individual as the embodiment of a nation is that one is trying to solve the wrong problem. Russia’s ongoing issues with Ukraine are larger than Vladimir Putin, and as such, far more complex in defining national goals and policy boundaries. You can’t solve a problem unless you first accurately define the problem; by tying the problem of Ukraine to one man, American policy makers are, in effect, dealing with the wrong problem.
This disconnect from reality is further exacerbated when, as is the case with the majority of so-called “Russian experts” prevalent in America today, one seeks to play amateur psychiatrist by getting into the mind of the Russian leader.
Take, for example, Michael McFaul, the architect of Barack Obama’s infamous policy “reset” with Russia (a little-disguised effort designed to squeeze Putin out of power and replace him with the ostensibly more compliant Dmitry Medvedev). The title of his policy memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia says it all. If you think you have the ability to define the character of an entire nation through the persona of a single named individual, you should be able to provide some insight into the thinking of that person.
But as McFaul himself admitted recently on MSNBC, “I want to state categorically that I don’t know what Putin wants. I don’t know what he’s decided. President Biden doesn’t know. The director of the CIA [William Burns] doesn’t know. I don’t think Sergei Lavrov knows, the foreign minister.”
A moment of honest humility? No; McFaul continues: “And from my experience dealing with Putin in negotiations, I don’t think he has made his own decision yet. I think that he likes this uncertainty. He likes that we’re all talking about, you know, negotiating with ourselves, making counter proposals. He likes to watch that.”
McFaul, by his own admission, doesn’t know what Putin wants, but he freely opines about what Putin thinks and likes. I would respectfully suggest that if you know a person well enough to publicly pontificate on their thoughts and desires, then you probably know what they want.
Perception Over Reality
McFaul honestly stated that he doesn’t know what Putin wants; the rest is simply speculative drivel motivated not by any genuine intellectually-based curiosity about Russia and the man who serves as its president, but rather the need to feed the American mainstream media’s appetite for a narrative that doesn’t challenge that of a White House that sets the tone and content of what passes for news based upon domestic political imperatives as opposed to global geopolitical reality.
Perception is everything; facts mean nothing. This is the Biden administration’s mantra. One only need look to Biden’s July 23, 2021, telephone conversation with then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things aren’t going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden told the beleaguered Afghan leader. “And there’s a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
The fact that U.S. presidential administrations, as a matter of course, manufacture a fact-free narrative designed to mislead a domestic American audience should not come as a shock to anyone who has studied the sickening intersection of public and foreign policy in the United States since the end of the Second World War.
In this vein, one of the central themes that is being woven into the Ukraine narrative is the frenetic nature of decision making by Vladimir Putin.
McFaul described Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 as an impulsive move by Putin, not something long planned, but put into effect only after the 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Kiev. This line of thinking was endemic in the Obama White House where McFaul served. Journalist Susan Glasser, a long-time critic of Putin, quotes an unnamed “top Obama official” in her 2014 article for Politico, “Putin on the Couch.’
“I hear people say we were naïve about Putin and that the president didn’t understand Putin,” the official said. “No. We had a very sober, very steely-eyed realist assessment of Putin.”
But then the “top official” proved they did not. “It comes down to a debate going on in his own head,” the official noted. “He does impulsive, or dare I say irrational, things. I don’t think he’s the realist grand strategist that some people admiringly ascribe to him.”
Glasser ran with the theme, quoting David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lenin’s Tomb, who, speaking about Putin and Crimea, declared, “I think he has improvised, acted rashly and foolishly, even on his own terms.”
Stephen Sestanovich, the U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001, continued this line of analysis, noting Putin’s “bad judgment, emotional decision-making, petty score-settling with little care for long-term consequences,” before concluding “But it’s vintage Putin.”
Even when fellow travelers like Fiona Hill, who doubled as the top Kremlinologist for both George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former C.I.A. analyst who served as a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia under Barack Obama, come together for a pragmatic assessment of Russia, they are colored by their collective Putin-centric approach to all things Russia.
Hill, the author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, recently observed that, “With Putin it’s always important to expect the unexpected. He makes sure that he has a range of options for action and different ways of leveraging a situation to exploit weakness. If all our attention is on Ukraine, then his next move might be somewhere else to throw us off balance and see how we react.”
Kendall-Taylor, whose assessments on Putin and Russia were regularly briefed to President Obama, testified before Congress in 2019 that, “Although Putin’s actions in Crimea and Syria were designed to advance a number of key Russian goals, it is also likely that Putin’s lack of domestic constraints increased the level of risk he was willing to accept in pursuit of those goals.”
These two seasoned Russian hands, both highly influential in terms of advising senior American policy makers, from the president on down, both continue the narrative of Putin as an impulsive, risk-taking gambler, who makes spur of the moment decisions based upon personal intuition.
They, like all the other so-called Russian experts, are wrong.
How Policy Is Made in Russia
The fact is, any Russian expert worth their salt knows what Russia’s goals and objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine are because the Russians told us back in 2008. One of the few genuine Russian experts in a position to influence policy, C.I.A. Director William Burns, put it all down in writing in a February 2008 cable entitled, simply enough, “Nyet means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Enlargement Redlines.” He wrote it while serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Burns, reporting on the Russian reaction to the 2008 NATO summit where the idea of membership for Ukraine was floated, noted that the Russian Foreign Ministry had declared that “a radical new expansion of NATO may bring about a serious political-military shift that will inevitably affect the security interests of Russia.”
The Russians highlighted that when it came to Ukraine, Russia was bound by bilateral obligations set forth in the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership in which both parties undertook to “refrain from participation in or support of any actions capable of prejudicing the security of the other side.” Ukraine’s ‘likely integration into NATO,” the Russian Foreign Ministry declared, “would seriously complicate the many-sided Russian-Ukrainian relations,” and that Russia would “have to take appropriate measures.”
Burns gave the Bush administration the Russian playbook of consequences should NATO seek to move forward on membership for Ukraine. This information was known to McFaul, Hill, Kendall-Taylor, and all the other so-called “Russian experts,” yet they failed to address it (further reinforcing Putin’s claims that “fundamental Russian concerns were ignored”).
The concept that Putin would act “impulsively” in 2014 to a problem outlined concisely and accurately in 2008 by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise shows an absolute disregard for, or ignorance of, how policy is made in Russia today.
There is no doubt that Putin is a very powerful president wielding strong executive powers. But he is not a dictator, nor is Russia set up to be ruled by a dictator.
Russian policy is made by professional bureaucrat-specialists resident in the extremely dense permanent Russian bureaucracy. These bureaucrats, part of the Russian civil servant class, are responsible for turning policy guidance into detailed implementation plans from which the resources needed for implementation are assigned, along with a timeline for completion of the task.
These implementation plans cut across ministries and are designed to consider all foreseeable variables. In short, Russian policy is the by-product of a process which represents the coordinated effort of a vast bureaucracy—the exact opposite of the individual “impulsivity” ascribed by McFaul, Hill, Kendall-Taylor, and others to Putin.
The plan implemented by Russia regarding Crimea in 2014 was born of the Russian concerns expressed in 2008, and were not the knee-jerk reactions of an impulsive, risk-taking Russian President. The same can be said for the situation unfolding in Ukraine today. The fact that Biden and his national security advisors are locked on to Putin as the personification of all things Russia is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of how Russia works or — worse — a deliberate campaign of perception management intended to deceive the American public about the complexities and realities of U.S. policy objectives.
Getting it wrong when it comes to defining policy-making reality in Russia today goes well beyond simply formulating bad policy, which is then incompetently implemented. The United States is ceding the initiative to Russia and its president. At the end of the day, one would be hard pressed to make a case where the executive decision-making powers of Vladimir Putin far exceed those of his American counterpart.
The Russians, however, have a two-fold advantage over the United States in terms of policy implementation. First and foremost, they are dealing with an executive who has been at the helm of the Russian ship for two decades; Putin is unmatched when it comes to knowledge of his system of government, and how to make it work. Even someone like Biden, with his four-plus decades of government experience, operates like a rookie during his first few years in office, if for no other reason than he is, in fact, a rookie.
A U.S. presidential administration in its first term is, literally, starting from scratch. True, there is a standing American civil service (some call it part of the “deep state”) which provides a modicum of operational consistency from administration to administration, but the critical leadership for every administration is provided by the political appointees. As opposed to Russia’s twin decades of consistent policy formulation and implementation, the United States has witnessed during the same time frame four changes of administrations, each one with a radically different approach toward governance than its predecessor.
A Manufactured Narrative
The only consistency between administrations is the need to manufacture narratives used to placate a domestic constituency about policies linked to national defense and, by extension, the defense industry. Here, the demonization of Russia has played a large role in defining U.S. defense needs and, by extension, the acquisition of weapons.
No administration has trusted the American public to engage in a fact-based national dialogue about the “threat” posed by Russia and, by extension, the continued need for NATO. The main reason for this is, if the facts were presented clearly, no American could possibly support the continuation of NATO and, therefore, would not support the elevation of Russia as a threat worthy of hundreds of billions of our taxpayer dollars.
In this way, the United States can produce a class of partisan “experts” on Russia whose only claim to real expertise is the ability to conform to a narrative designed to further a lie, as opposed to seeking the truth. Gone are the days when masters of Russian studies, such as the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, held sway.
Even when the U.S. produced a qualified Russian expert in academia, such as the late Stephen Cohen, the mainstream media negated his true expertise by either drowning out his message in a sea of Russophobic propaganda spewed by his opposite numbers, or just simply ignoring him. Instead, we get the Michael McFaul’s, Fiona Hill’s, and Andrea Kendall-Taylor’s—academics whose sole claim to relevance is their collective embrace of Putin as the personification of all that ails Russia in the world today.
America’s dependence on this inferior class of ersatz Russian expertise has created a congenital defect in American national security decision making that is best expressed as a variation of John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Boyd, a renowned fighter pilot, claimed he could shoot down any opposing fighter within forty seconds from a position of disadvantage employing a decision-making cycle he called the “OODA Loop” (for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).
In short, by executing one’s decision-making cycle faster than an opponent, one “got inside” the decision-making cycle of the enemy, forcing them to react to you, and thereby guaranteeing their demise.
The OODA Loop has been adapted by various non-pilot organizations and entities, from the U.S. Marines to business, as a model to improve operational efficiency. While neither the Russian Foreign Ministry nor the U.S. State Department have embraced the theory, it can be used as a vehicle of comparative analysis when assessing the effectiveness of the respective policy formulation and implementation cycles.
From the standpoint of observing, the fundamental tenant is to collect data using all possible resources. From the Russian perspective, when it comes to Ukraine and NATO, Russia has been focused on NATO policy, both expressed and implemented, when it comes to its eastward expansion, and the applicability of such expansion to Ukraine. The data collected by Russia is fact-based, and singularly focused on the problem at hand, which is the potential threat posed to Russia by Ukrainian membership in NATO.
The U.S., however, with its Putin-centric approach, focuses on the person of the Russian president, without any attempt to match observed actions with anything resembling actual policy. The data collected is of the tabloid variety, focusing on posturing, mannerisms, and photo opportunities.
While Putin does provide a plethora of data in the form of speeches and extended press question and answer sessions, the analysis conducted from these opportunities rarely goes deeper than turning the Russian president’s presentation into a cartoon-like depiction of evil.
The next phase, orientation, is guided by the data collected during the observation phase. Here, the Russians can zoom in on the U.S./NATO centers of gravity, so to speak — that which makes the trans-Atlantic alliance work, and that which could cause problems.
Here, Russia has predicted possible policy options that could be pursued by NATO in response to a wide variety of policy stimuli from Russia and gamed out each to find a range of actions and reaction possibilities that best suit Russian policy objectives.
The U.S., however, continues to focus on Putin, producing material in book, article, and television formats which attack the character of the Russian president while denigrating Russia as a nation (“Russia is nothing more than a gas station masquerading as a country” seems to be a popular jibe.)
By creating a false narrative built around the absolute nature of Putin’s quasi-dictatorial state, the Americans have lulled themselves into a false sense of complacency premised on the notion of Putin’s impulsivity which, by its very nature, cannot be predicted, and as such cannot be deterred through preventive measures.
The third phase, decision, is paramount. Here, the Russians, having gathered data, assessed its value, and formulated policy options derived from the same, pick the option that best suits their policy objectives. They are in control of the timetable, and as such, can allocate resources sufficient to the task.
The Americans, by comparison, remain engaged in the business of demeaning the Russians and their president in products designed for domestic consumption and, as such, virtually useless in the realm of reality.
The final phase, action, is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Here the Russians have initiated a process which not only has them operating at a time and place of their choosing, but also to have positioned themselves to immediately begin the next OODA Loop cycle by having the appropriate sensors in place to collect data regarding any potential American reaction so that new decision options can be rapidly prepared and acted on.
The Americans, meanwhile, are alerted to a potential crisis only through the actions of the Russians. The Americans initiate their own observation process, but their collection mechanism, so firmly rooted in the persona of Putin, is oblivious to the complexity and layering of the Russian action.
Russia, armed with the luxury of time and initiative, can isolate American actions as they take place, beginning a process of action-reaction which Russia controls.
In short, if the current diplomatic engagement taking place between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine were a dog fight, the Americans would be shot down by the Russians inside of forty seconds, guaranteed.
Russia isn’t simply operating inside the American decision-making cycle—they control it.
While the ultimate responsibility for bad policy rests with the senior policy maker — the U.S. president — there is no doubt that successive presidential administrations have been poorly served by the current crop of American Kremlinologists, personified by McFaul, Hill, Kendall-Taylor, and others, who made Putin bashing the standard for what passed for Russian studies.
In short, so long as your world view of Russia conformed with the Putin bashers, you were welcomed into the club; if, however, one opted to take a more nuanced, fact-based approach to Russian studies that went beyond the persona of the Russian president, and explored the complexity of post-Cold War Russia, the powers that be in government, academia and media would relegate you to the trash bin of relevancy.
Every American citizen should realize that they have been poorly served by these slavish servants of propagandized conformity, and the potential consequence of their collective failure — war — stares us all in the face.
If we can emerge from these difficult times intact, it will only be because the Russians—not Biden—picked a policy path that possessed a viable diplomatic offramp.
And if we are so fortunate, then the practitioners of this Putin psychosis —the McFaul’s, Hill’s, Kendall-Taylor’s, and others of their ilk — should be singled out for their respective role in bringing America to such a place policy-wise and treated accordingly — no more sinecures, no more access, no more credibility.
Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.