I think Julia Ioffe has it just right. In a TNR article this week she tells us a bit more that we might have thought we knew of the inner workings of the mind, if not the soul of the Russian president.
Putin is the President of the country Russia, and we still, at least those of us who still remember the Soviet Union, listen to what he says, still give him some power to influence the happenings in the world, power that he, let alone Russia, no longer has, power that the Soviet Union successfully manipulated with some success throughout the nearly two generations of cold war between them and us.
Putin had served between 1975 and 1991, the last years of the Soviet Union, as an officer in the KGB or the main security agency for the State. Now given the way he has refused during the past 13 years as de facto Russian head of state to initiate a rapprochement of his country with the Western democracies he must sorely lament Russia’s loss of super power status and its perceived capacity to stand up to the Western powers.
In 1991 the Soviet Union and immediately thereafter the KGB were dissolved and Putin was without position and country. He moved to Moscow, joined the fledgling government of Boris Yeltsin and just 8 years later, Yeltsin, apparently unable to bring order and security to the new country, appointed Putin acting President. Evidently Putin as a former officer of the State Security Agency promised security for the new Russian state.
And in that regard he may have been successful. Certainly a strongman president, along with lots of oil and gas, have made the country Russia more secure than during the turbulent Yeltsin years. But at considerable cost. For Putin, the president of the country, is no more near to submitting himself to the rule of Law than was his original employer, the KGB. When he lost his job in that organization he was only 39 years old, and he seems to never been able to swallow and digest that loss.
Now he’s at least a major irritant, a thorn in the sides of the Western democracies. Evidently that’s something, because he does seem to like to “stick it to us,” and usually by words and actions that bring no great benefit, (other than cash) to him or his country.
Russia today under Putin’s direction is a Mafia state, and while the Mafia family does well the people for the most part are kept by the policies of their government from living freely and fully in a Western-like open and free and liberal democracy.
In her TNR article Julia Ioffe has the best answer I have yet seen to the question of why Putin acts the way he does.
What Really Scares Vladimir Putin the Most
BY JULIA IOFFE
…. central to Vladimir Putin’s understanding of Syria is his conservatism. Putin is a preternatural standpatter. He is notoriously averse to firing people; he still writes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. Putin is often said to be a product of the cold war and the Soviet Union, but more than anything, he is a product of their end.
The defining moment of his political maturation came in the late ’80s, when the Soviet order, as imperfect and deeply rusted as it had been, gave way to chaos, violence, and poverty, and in which the KGB, the proud elite in which he had served, was humbled and forced to serve as security guards for the new economic elite. It is not for nothing that Putin talks about Russia’s bitter experience with revolutions—a category in which he includes 1991—and about how change is better affected very gradually.
This fear deeply colors Putin’s foreign policy, too. “In general, his worldview is that the world is in such a chaotic, incomprehensible state, that all attempts to influence it with direct action are counterproductive and only bring the opposite of the intended result,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who is seen as a good decoder of the Kremlin’s thinking….
A key element of Putin’s conservatism is checking America’s initiatives abroad so as not to set precedents that could come back to haunt Russia. Putin was spooked when a wave of democratizing so-called “color revolutions” swept through three former Soviet states—and the fact that American money was involved further confirmed his suspicion of U.S. aims abroad. …
“The only goal in Syria,” says Lukyanov, “is to not allow intervention. … It sets a precedent. If you allow the Americans to do what they want in Syria, then they can do anything they want in, say, Belarus,” historically Moscow’s most loyal neighbor.
Given Putin’s ideological upbringing and his wounds, he sees the world as a mirror of the one he grew up in: America versus Russia, locked in a long, deep struggle. “He looks for a bipolar world, and if it doesn’t exist, he’ll invent it,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a wizened political consultant who was central to Putin’s first presidential bid and who went on to serve as his adviser. …
Putin sees himself as the necessary balance to America’s global power. He likes being the one America has to come to in order to strike deals, and without whom nothing can go forward, in part because it reinforces his view of the world. But by looking to be a counterweight to the United States, Putin’s foreign policy, ironically, becomes prisoner to America’s.
Another problem with this worldview is that it isn’t much of a worldview. It’s what comes together when you sum up the remainders of Putin’s actions, a strange and livid pattern. “It’s not that Putin sits there and thinks about the world,” Pavlovsky explains. “Russia’s actions are often reactive without really thinking it through, without thinking what our goals are, what our place in the world is. We are hell bent on preserving the status quo without even understanding what it is.”