RICHARD BUTLER. Putin is different.


A special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, just published, focuses on the deteriorating US-Russia relationship. It poses the question of whether a new Cold War has started and publishes a range of relevant, articles.

The article by Fiona Hill, Director of the Center for the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution is impressive (, volume 72, issue 3). It discusses Vladimir Putin’s origins, nature, what he has become, the nature of the state he runs, and most importantly how he views the US and other western countries.

Having traced Putin’s political origins in the St Petersburg government and the KGB, she defines him as “the operative as autocrat”, asserting that he is “without precedent either in Russian history, or at the top of a modern state anywhere in the world”.

Conventional western analytical approaches don’t yield a useful understanding of Putin or suggest effective ways of dealing with him. On the other hand, Hill asserts that, because of his formation, Putin has a surprisingly limited understanding of the West: “ a very incomplete grasp of what motivates or drives Western leaders and the contexts in which they operate”.

There is significant mutual incomprehension.

On that point, Hill provides a fascinating insight into a language issue: “Putin’s language is loaded in Russian – a simple translation into English of what he says does not convey the deeper meaning behind the words and expressions”. Western interlocutors and audiences are likely to misunderstand key messages. Putin has a similar difficulty with western messages, in particular those from the US.

The central portion of Hill’s article is entitled “Seeking Security”. It describes Putin’s assessment that the US continues to threaten Russia and means it harm. The reasons given for his view are credible.

President Obama’s 2014 description of Russia as no more than “a regional power” was received with deep offense and possibly fuelled Putin’s determination to act beyond Russia’s “near abroad”.

On the critical question of what does Putin want, globally, Hill’s answer is “ his big mission is to get Russia a seat at the table with the West, on Russia’s terms which he declares is on “equal” terms with the United States.”

Her prescription of how others should deal with this unique leader is to negotiate with him. Unlike important advisors and centers of influence in Washington, today, she does not suggest that a desirable policy towards Putin would be to threaten him. That would simply conform to stereotype and lead to serious conflict.

Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the United Nations and later, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

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4 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. Putin is different.

  1. Avatar slorter says:

    The only trouble is the article comes from a neoconservative American think tank !

  2. Avatar Robin says:

    Thank you for this article (and thank you by the way for this excellent site, one of the very few intelligent offerings from our country). However, from reading Fiona Hill’s essay, there are a few areas in which I think are incomplete and would like to comment upon.

    For example, her understanding of Putin’s economic thrust does not take into full account the tug of war between the so called ‘Atlanticists’ within the Russian power structure, those who profited from the lean years immediately post the Soviet breakup who work towards Russia as being integrated within the Western sphere even if it means subservience to the West and the traditional Russian nationalist, about whom I will expound later. The current Russian Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev is believed by many within Russia to belong to this grouping along with the Russian banking and finance arms of the bureaucracy and there has been quite the internal battle between these forces with the latter, non Atlanticists, appearing at last to gain control of the Russian economy, much to the Russian man on the street’s approval.

    From our viewpoint of Russia, virtually on the other side of the planet, it is easy to think that Russia is an autocracy. However, to suggest that Putin is a one man band is to my mind a stretch. One only has to look at Sergey Shoygu, the Minister of Defence, to realise that here is a man who is from one of the far off Asian republics of the old USSR (Tyva Republic) who, by sheer ability, has risen to his position and appears to be one of Putin’s most trusted people. In addition, Sergey Lavrov, orginally a Moscovite, certainly appears to have Putin’s complete confidence in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Thus, it appears that while Putin is the undisputable head of the country, he surrounds himself with men of unquestioned ability, thus making a troika at the least.

    To the idea that Putin ‘fall(s) back …. on age old threat perceptions’ it would be wise to recognize that Putin was born and raised in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. This city suffered over 650 days of siege which lead to mass starvation and cannibalism within World War 2 and it left an indelible mark on all those from that city. From what I understand Putin’s mother suffered greatly there and this would have undoubtedly influenced him from an early age. Given that NATO now has cannon within range of St Petersburg, the first time since World War 2, would definitely give strength to any thought by Putin of ‘threat perceptions’.

    As to the statement that he lies then all I can say is welcome to the club. Just how often do we get the truth from our own politicians? In fact, our previous Prime Minister was deposed purportedly because of his deceptions amongst other things so this charge against Putin is meaningless in this context. More importantly, how much have we lied to him? Let those without sin cast the first stone etc etc.

    There is undoubtedly a language and cultural barrier between Russia and the West, one straddling the divide between the East and the West and the other solely a child of the western heritage. Surely however this should lead to honest and sincere attempts at understanding from both sides, not the hysteria we are normally presented with from our own media and political class? I think more maturity from the West could alleviate this problem.

    Sadly, the US today is regarded by many within the West as being the most dangerous actor upon the world stage if the latest opinion polls regarding this are to be believed. I must admit my own bias in this matter as I too do not see the US in terms other than the world’s most powerful country most willing to enforce its will by any means, thus leading to death, destruction and general despair on the planet.

    In the last decade, we in the West have been regaled with news reports of ‘colour revolutions’. If the analysis of past western intelligence operatives is anything to go by, these ‘revolutions’ appear more like orchestrated uprisings staged by US operatives for the benefit of the USA. Most recently the colour revolution with Ukraine has given enough evidence to support that thesis alone which, given the role of Ukraine with Russian history would surely give the people of Russia grounds for paranoia. The latest attempt to destabilize Syria is another example of this policy which appears to be blowing up in the US’ face.

    One area that the writer did not touch upon but which I feel is most important to the people of Russia is their Orthodox Christianity. When modern day Russia was first founded back in the 9th century at Kiev by a combination of Viking adventurers and large landholders in the area creating the country called ‘Rus’, the religion was a mixture of both Nordic and local paganism. This changed in the 11th century when the leader of the country was baptized by a Greek Orthodox priest, the baptismal font being an object of veneration today to the Russian people at its site in (by memory) Sebastopol, Crimea. In addition, one only has to read the works of most of the major Russian writers and poets (Solzhenitsyn being the most recent and a Putin admirer) to understand that Russian Orthodoxy and, may I suggest, a good smattering of Siberian mysticism underlies the Russian psyche. Therefore, it is no surprise when Pussy Riot stimulated fornication upon the alter of Russia’s supreme Orthodox church in Moscow that there was quite the outcry to which Putin, himself a sincere follower of Orthodoxy had to react. And it was this church (whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t find quickly) was rebuilt by Putin in 2 – 3 years after it had been destroyed by Khruschev under Stalin’s orders in the 30s, once again to near universal acclaim within Russia.

    Imagine stimulated fornication happening on the alter in St Peter’s Basilica or Westminster Cathedral. The reaction would be the same here as in Russia. Though not a ‘religious’ person, I can certainly sympathise with that reaction. I also find it instructional when I hear that Putin recharges his batteries by going into the Siberian wilderness with only a couple of companions for a week or so. The overtones of mysticism are there and must be recognised as part of Putin’s personality. This ties in well with the Russian view of themselves as being the ‘balancer’ between East and West and is quite noticeable in many writings from contemporary Russia who see the West as being completely out of psychic kilter and that their role is to ‘rebalance’ the planet by non violent means. Take it as you will but that attitude is strong from what I have read within Russian society.

    All in all though this is an excellent beginning in the quest to ‘understand’ Putin and Russia.

  3. Avatar H says:

    Direct link to the full text of the piece by Fiona Hill discussed above:

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