Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Playing Putin bingo

Playing Putin bingo
Published 16 Feb 2016   Follow @heatherwilly

To modify Churchill, 'Putin is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy's updated and expanded edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin is an essential guidebook for navigating the enigma that is Russia's leader. It is based on original research and interviews, along with a deep understanding of Russia itself. The result is a book that is part psychological study and part analysis of Russian domestic and foreign policies.

From the outset, Hill and Gaddy know the rules of the game: 'He (Putin) controls the facts and the stories'. Getting a true picture of Putin is therefore, a challenge, which the authors tackle by breaking him down into six identities: statist, history man, survivalist, outsider, free marketeer, and case officer. There is no single Putin like there is no single version of the truth in Russia (a theme explored in Nothing is the True and Everything is Possible, to be reviewed soon). Putin is a master at psychological games: he seeks out weakness in others in order to intimidate them, and he pushes buttons to find people's limits and how they react to stress. See, for example, the incident of Merkel and the dog. At present these puzzles are frustrating to many analysts but, reading Mr. Putin, I could not help but wonder if these games may ultimately prove to be his downfall.

Is Putin the strategic genius with designs on reclaiming Russia's sphere of influence? Or is he so removed from reality that he is a threat to strategic stability and a madman in control of nuclear weapons? Is he a Bond-esque villain with numerous Botox treatments and training an army of killer spy dolphins? Or is he a populist buffoon striding shirtless through the wildness?

Much of Russia's recent behaviour does suggest it is led by a man full of contradictions, determined to break all the rules and get away with it. Russia continues to occupy Crimea and Putin recently admitted to the presence of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Concurrently, Putin wants to be part of the West, as Hill and Gaddy argue. At the recent Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced it was exploring the possibility of restarting the NATO-Russia Council. Untangling this personality would seem to be essential to understanding Russia itself.

Each of the identities in Mr. Putin offer useful insights, but the ultimate challenge is knowing which identity applies at which time. Are Putin's actions in Syria those of a bureaucrat or a free marketeer? To further complicate matters, Hill and Gaddy's list is by no means exhaustive. Putin's 2000 autobiography, First Person, like Mr. Putin, is structured around different identities: son, schoolboy, university student, young specialist, spy, democrat, bureaucrat, family man, and politician.

Ultimately Putin is a guessing game; his multiple identities are carefully constructed but give the impression of randomness. It seems any action can be described by multiple combinations of these identities at any point in time. Putin's game is not Russian roulette. It's bingo.

The board below combines the six identities nominated by Hill and Gaddy with the nine from First Person to offer a sample board. So let's play Putin bingo. [fold]

In traditional bingo, a random number is called, matched to a board, and the first player to mark boxes in a straight line wins. For Putin bingo, we can call out any of his recent foreign policy moves. Support for Assad: this demonstrates traits of the free marketeer, 'wheeling and dealing and exploiting the economic vulnerabilities of others to gain economic leverage', but is also the behaviour of a history man. Crimea's 'reunification' with Russia: this is the work of a statist, appealing to domestic nationalism and securing the Russian state. It also appeals to the history man in Putin because of Crimea's previous inclusion in Russia. In addition, Russia did not simply 'seize' Crimea, but went to the trouble of holding a referendum — however false it may have been — suggesting a bit of Putin the democrat. Bingo!

What do these random behaviors suggest might be Putin's next move? Hill and Gaddy offer short-term pessimism but also signs of long-term change. In the short-term, 'Russia and the West will remain at war. They will be fighting a new war that is fought everywhere with non-military as well as military means ... There is no definitive endgame. Putin will keep playing as long as he perceives the threat to last'. At the same time, 'Putin still wants to do business with the West'. Putin may indeed stay the course and 'fight dirty', but based on other parts of his personality, he could just as easily reach out to the West if Russian interests suddenly. The risks of this mercurial strategy are that signals could be misinterpreted. Other players in the game, perhaps domestic stakeholders or NATO states, may tire of his rules. Or the game could backfire with Putin being pulled in too many different directions to successfully manage multiple narratives and moves at the same time.

For First Person, Putin allowed journalists to interview his two daughters. At the time, the girls mentioned that their favourite movie was the cyber-thriller The Matrix, in which a programmer finds out he is living inside a computer program where nothing is 'real.' Putin's daughter, Katya, complained at the time that 'Papa didn't have time to see it with us'. I imagine he would have greatly enjoyed the film, particularly the agent Mr Smith who fights to perpetuate the fictional narrative we all live in, and the premise that reality can be created. Mr Smith was ultimately destroyed by being torn apart from within and breaking into pieces. Mr Putin's multiple truths and personalities run the risk of him meeting a similar fate, for what happens if the statist eventually overpowers the survivalist?

You may also be interested in