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How Russia’s strange cultural mindset led to Vladimir Putin’s great miscalculation

The Russian mindset is characterized by cynicism and distrust.
putin's miscalculation
Credit: Xavier ROSSI / Getty Images, Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • For centuries, Russians have perceived the West as a nefarious force undermining the country’s greatness. As a result, the public and elites are cynical and distrustful, particularly of outsiders.
  • This mindset, in part, led Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, a country that he deems vital to Russia’s national security.
  • This catastrophic decision was based on four major miscalculations, all of which are united by a single fatal flaw in Putin’s thinking: that the whole world is every bit as corrupt as he is.

Despite my last name and the fact that I was raised, in part, by my Soviet grandparents (one from Russia, the other from Ukraine), I’m an outsider to Russian culture. Their single biggest mistake in helping raise me was not teaching me to be bilingual. But that was many years ago, when globalization hadn’t taken off, and bilingualism was not perceived as particularly useful.

My grandparents are both gone now, so for insights into the Russian mindset, I turn not only to the news but to the country’s classic literature. Full of gloom and a seeming resignation to fate, the characters cope and make sense of their impoverished, miserable lives with vodka, bitter cynicism, and dark humor. Consider this exchange between Father Ferapont and a monk from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It concerns whether the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and speaks to Father Ferapont:

“The Holy Spirit can appear as other birds — sometimes as a swallow, sometimes a goldfinch and sometimes as a blue-tit.”

“How do you know him from an ordinary tit?”

“He speaks.”

“How does he speak, in what language?”

“Human language.”

“And what does he tell you?”

“Why, today he told me that a fool would visit me and would ask me unseemly questions.”

To be sure, this sort of snarky humor is not unique to Russia. Scandinavian humor is notoriously dark. Besides, much of the time, Russians’ biting humor is a coping mechanism for living under an oppressive government that has casually violated human rights for centuries and habitually lies to the public. Indeed, an old Soviet joke, which has taken on renewed significance, says, “The future is certain; it is only the past that is unpredictable” — a reference to the government’s long tradition of rewriting history to support the regime and its political ambitions. 

The Russian mindset, therefore, is one filled with cynicism and distrust, which importantly, extends all the way to the top. While the Russian public is cynical and distrustful of its leaders, high-ranking officials in the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin, are cynical and distrustful of the outside world. 

As a result, there is a pervasive narrative, fueled by the media and long embraced by the country’s elite, that Russia is and deserves to be a glorious country, but it is being held back by the nefarious West. In her book Putin’s World, Angela Stent explains that Russians simultaneously have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex regarding their role in the world. The former is rooted in the country’s truly impressive history and culture, while the latter is rooted in the centuries-long belief that the West is determined to undermine Russia. Poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev once wrote, “There is not a single interest, not a single trend in the West, which does not conspire against Russia.” That was in 1864. In terms of worldview, little has changed since then — and, ultimately, it is what underlies the war in Ukraine. 

putin's miscalculation
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think

Ukraine’s geopolitical importance

At first glance, Russia’s desire to claim Ukrainian land makes little sense. Russia is, by far, the biggest country in the world, nearly double the size of the U.S. Why could it possibly want more land from a relatively tiny neighbor? The answer is less about land and more about mindset. Vladimir Putin believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He also believes that the former Soviet states, especially Ukraine, aren’t “real countries” and are crucial to national security. Why?

Look at a topographical map of Europe. The European Plain stretches from northwestern France to Germany to Poland and onward to the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and eventually Moscow. Flat land is vulnerable to invasion, and according to Tufts University, Russia has endured three major invasions in its history: One came from the east (the Mongols in the 13th century), but crucially and more recently, two came from the west (Napoleon in 1812 and the Nazis in 1941). Countries like Ukraine, therefore, serve as a convenient buffer zone between Europe and the Russian capital.

Lack of reliable ocean access is another reason. Despite Russia’s enormous size, it is essentially landlocked. Of course, it does have port cities. There is a major port in the far east, Vladivostok, with access to the Pacific Ocean, but relatively few people live in this part of the country. The nation’s power center is in the west, namely in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The latter is a port city with access to the Baltic Sea, as is the city of Kaliningrad, but the problem is that this is NATO territory: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and soon, Sweden and Finland surround the Baltic Sea. Russia’s northern coast is on the Arctic Ocean, which is iced over. 

Tim Marshall summarizes the problem well in his book Prisoners of Geography:

“From the Grand Principality of Muscovy, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist — the ports still freeze, and the Northern European Plain is still flat.”

That leaves only one option, the southern border — but there is no ocean in sight. Instead, Russia has the Black Sea, which has been geopolitically significant since the 1780s. According to the Imperiia Project at Harvard University, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean peninsula and established a port for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the newly founded city of Sevastopol in order to challenge Turkish hegemony. Maintaining control of this port, being the dominant power in the Black Sea, and maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosporus Strait have been national security imperatives ever since.

A brief love affair with the West?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was genuine enthusiasm in the West — not just because the “Evil Empire” had fallen, but because millions of people had become liberated from an oppressive system. There was a genuine desire to establish productive relationships, not just economically but militarily. As difficult as it is to believe today, in the year 2000, Putin floated the idea of joining NATO. The Washington Post relates what Putin said in a TV interview with the BBC: 

“Why not? Why not?… I do not rule out such a possibility… in the case that Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner… Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy.”

If Putin was content with Russia joining NATO, then surely, he could not have had a problem with Ukraine joining, either. Indeed, he said as much in 2004. According to Simon Sweeney of the University of York, the Russians were not happy with NATO expansion, but it certainly was no “red line” issue. Putin himself said that “each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most appropriate.”

So, what changed? Perhaps Putin was lying to cozy up to the West at a time when Russia was particularly vulnerable, or perhaps he legitimately changed his mind. Whatever the explanation, the West had reason to believe that Putin was an eager partner willing to continue and extend the reforms put in place by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. But that didn’t happen. And the likely reason is that, as Angela Stent explains, integration with the West meant more democracy. Putin wasn’t fond of that part of the deal.

Why Russia invaded Ukraine (the first time)

In the early 2000s, there were a series of popular uprisings collectively known as the “Color Revolutions,” which occurred in several former Soviet states like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. All of these were upsetting to Putin, who believed that the West was behind them, but the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 was particularly troubling to him.

As detailed in the book Conflict in Ukraine by Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, for years, Ukraine had been playing footsy with both Russia and the EU. Depending on who was in charge, Ukraine would drift closer to the West, only to turn around and embrace Mother Russia. In 2004, the pro-West, pro-EU politician Viktor Yushchenko mounted a serious challenge for the presidency against the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych, described by Menon and Rumer as an uneducated, petty criminal with a fake PhD. To prevent him from winning, Yanukovych’s allies first poisoned Yushchenko with dioxin. When that didn’t work, they simply rigged the election.

This sparked the massive protests known as the Orange Revolution (with orange representing the color of Yushchenko’s party). As a result of the uprising, the election results were tossed and a new election was held in December 2004, which Yushchenko won. Unfortunately for Ukrainians, Yushchenko was just as inept and corrupt as all the other elites. Menon and Rumer note that, in 2009, Ukraine fell in a global corruption ranking to 146th place, similar to Zimbabwe. Disheartened and apathetic Ukrainians gave the presidency to Yanukovych in 2010. All was well with Vladimir Putin — until 2014, anyway.

During his tenure, Yanukovych used the presidency to amass wealth, media control, and yet more power. At the same time, as Menon and Rumer illustrate, Ukraine’s economy was in the toilet. One reason among many was its indebtedness to Russia coupled with its over-dependence on Russian natural gas. Due to economic mismanagement, the nation also faced default. To survive, Yanukovych tried to wrangle deals out of Russia and the EU. In November 2013, just as Ukraine was about to sign a major deal with the EU — one that potentially could have put it on a track to EU membership — Yanukovych pulled out. 

This is when everything fell apart. Some 800,000 Ukrainians poured onto the streets of Kiev in what is now known as the Maidan Revolution (or Euromaidan), which the government brutally suppressed. During the three-month-long standoff, more than 100 people, mostly protesters, were killed. Likely fearing for his life, Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014, and a pro-Western government took over the country. 

For Putin, who is rather paranoid and lives in constant fear of geopolitical threats (both real and imagined), this was an unacceptable situation. Menon and Rumer explain that Russia felt the need to respond but had few options available. So, it reverted to what it often does: cause problems, particularly in areas populated by separatists. In 1991, Crimea held a referendum that essentially would have placed the region back under the control of Russia, and it passed with 94% approval. Confident that they would have substantial local support, Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014 and eventually annexed it. This successful mission also had the benefit of securing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

Putin’s four major miscalculations

In the intervening years, from 2014 to early 2022, not much changed. The war basically was a stalemate, with Russia controlling Crimea and a sizable chunk of eastern Ukraine. Russia certainly had no incentive to leave. According to a 2018 analysis in The American Interest, the Obama Administration’s response to years of Russian aggression was “weak and underwhelming.” Though he did help coordinate a modest package of sanctions against Russia, President Obama “resisted calls from Congress, foreign policy experts, and his own cabinet to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine” — in stark contrast to the Biden Administration.

This sentiment also was expressed by chess grandmaster-turned-activist Garry Kasparov in his book Winter is Coming. He wrote that “Obama continued to echo [Angela] Merkel, [François] Hollande, and other European leaders talking about ‘finding a peaceful solution’ when there was already a war in progress.”

So, what caused the second, larger invasion that began in February 2022? Unlike the ouster of Yanukovych in the Maidan Revolution eight years earlier, there wasn’t any single precipitating event. Instead, Putin seems to have been reacting to Ukraine’s ever-closer drift toward the West, particularly NATO. What’s ironic is that Ukraine’s chances of joining the EU, let alone NATO, were far smaller before the invasion began. Putin’s invasion accelerated the very scenario that he long feared.

In an interview with Big Think, geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer referred to Putin’s decision as the “single biggest geopolitical mistake made by any leader on the global stage since the Wall came down in 1989.” Bremmer adds, “The misjudgment was massive. The failure was immense and immediate. And the consequences for Putin and for Russia will be permanent.”

Indeed, there were many different elements to his miscalculation:

1. Putin believed that Russia’s military was strong and capable. In an absolutely uncanny video posted on YouTube (see below) in April 2021, journalist and former Duma member Alexander Nevzorov predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine and suffer a humiliating defeat because its woefully inept and under-equipped military would encounter “furious resistance” by Ukrainians. This part of his prediction was spot-on, leading other observers to label Russia’s combat units a “Potemkin military.” Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but the U.S. estimates that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, which include 20,000 deaths. To put that number into perspective, roughly 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in the Afghan war that lasted nine years.

2. Putin neither expected Ukrainians to fight nor to rally around their national identity. This false belief, along with his misplaced confidence in the effectiveness of his military, formed the basis of Putin’s expectation that he could quickly win a war by capturing Kiev and decapitating the government. This plan failed. While Putin believes that Ukraine isn’t a real country, Ukrainians apparently disagree quite strongly. 

3. Putin believed that much of the world’s dependence on Russia’s natural gas and oil would make it impervious to any Western retaliation. To be fair, this was a solid assumption, given the West’s tepid response to the first invasion of Ukraine. (In fact, Europeans had the same assumption as well, namely, that Russia’s dependence on European money would assure its good behavior.) Besides, even if Europe did the unthinkable and rebuffed its energy supply, Russia had willing buyers in Asia. 

The problem with this, as explained in an article in Foreign Policy, is that countries like China and India commanded a steep discount. Also, there is an infrastructural issue, namely, that Russia’s pipelines head west (to Europe), not east (to Asia). On the other hand, oil prices rebounded in early August, and at least one report shows that Russia’s fossil fuel revenues have increased despite a lower export volume. So it remains to be seen if Putin’s assumption proves correct, but it is far from certain. What is likely to be true is that the economic sanctions placed on his country will have long-term consequences, even if it takes a few years before they manifest themselves.

4. Putin believed that Europe and the West were too divided to mount a strong, unified response. This was perhaps Putin’s most grievous miscalculation, but he was almost correct. Even as missiles rained down on Ukraine, countries like Germany — which are heavily reliant on Russian natural gas — were unwilling to take significant action against Russia. However, in a video call with European leaders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky begged for help and declared that this might be the last time they see him alive. 

At that very moment, the entire course of world history changed. Within days, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced — in a sweeping policy change that overturned decades of pacifism and friendly relations toward Russia — that Germany would send weapons to Ukraine, boost defense spending, and endorse major sanctions. Even Putin’s “friends” in Europe, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, turned their backs on him. And, of course, in the biggest irony of all, Putin’s invasion shocked Sweden and Finland into applying for NATO membership, and the EU granted “candidate” status to Ukraine. In complete contradiction to his intentions, Putin accomplished what nobody else could do: unify the EU (along with its transatlantic ally, the U.S.) in common cause and rejuvenate NATO with a renewed sense of purpose.

Inside Putin’s mind

For a man who was perceived for decades as playing a masterful game of geopolitical chess, this was an “own goal” of biblical proportions.

Ultimately, what unites all these miscalculations is a single fatal flaw in Putin’s worldview, which was shaped by his years in the KGB as well as by the paranoid mindset that pervades Russian culture: Everyone lies, cheats, and steals and always acts cynically in their own self-interest. Putin believes that, like him, the West has no principles and is every bit as corrupt as he is. Thankfully, he was catastrophically incorrect. 

Taken a step further, Putin’s beliefs manifest as a deep distrust of democracy, which he believes to be weak and ineffectual. In his mind, autocracy is the solution. The problem is that autocracy fosters corruption. Though Putin remains in power because he has bought off the oligarchs and other powerbrokers, corruption is corrosive and leads to hollow, inept institutions. Putin clearly had no idea how awful his military is — likely because none of the corrupt officials who benefited from the system told him. (This, incidentally, is a major hypothesis about how the Soviet Union collapsed; namely, that the KGB didn’t tell the leadership how rotten the system was because its members enjoyed the spoils of that very same rotten system.)

The result of all this is that historians likely will remember the invasion of Ukraine as a pivotal turning point in Russia’s modern history — one that will accelerate the nation’s decline and trigger the downfall of Putin’s regime.

As for the Russian public, how do they think the war is going? Let’s turn once again to that cynical Russian humor. The following is a joke repeated on Twitter, which was supposedly circulating in Moscow in March 2022:

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“According to Putin, the special military operation is really a conflict between Russia and NATO about world dominance. What’s the situation now?” 

“Russia has lost 15,000 troops, 6 generals, 500 tanks, 3 ships, 100 planes, and 1,000 trucks. NATO hasn’t arrived yet.”

This article was adapted from an essay written by Dr. Alex Berezow, which is now archived at Suzzallo Library’s Special Collections at the University of Washington. 


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