Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia great again. He defines great as powerful, nothing more, nothing less. If you keep that in mind, everything he does makes perfect sense.
For example, last week he held a “summit” with North Korea’s dynastic dictator, Kim Jong-un. The meeting produced no news or policy shifts but it allowed the Russian president to demonstrate yet again that whenever a high-stakes game is played, he gets a seat at the table.
This week, a report commissioned by four leading human-rights organizations revealed how Mr. Putin, over the past 20 years, “has turned Russia’s legal system into a tool of repression, using it to suppress dissent, undermine political opposition, and detain anyone the Kremlin views as a potential threat,” as veteran activists Irwin Cotler and Katrina Lantos Swett explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
It’s often said that America has the world’s strongest military because America has the world’s strongest economy. Russia, however, has a per capita GDP lower than that of Portugal or Poland, and its defense budget has been shrinking. Yet its military is in the global top three. In this and other ways, Mr. Putin plays a weak hand well.
Though no communist, he is unburdened by bourgeois sentimentality. You can be sure he has lost no sleep over the death and destruction in Syria, to which he’s made a significant contribution while defending another dynastic dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in alliance with the terrorist-sponsoring Islamic Republic of Iran.
President Obama, who declined to assist Iranians protesting oppression in 2009 and Syrians protesting oppression in 2011, warned Mr. Putin that, should he send troops into Syria in 2015, he’d end up “stuck in a quagmire.”
Instead, Mr. Putin’s intervention paid off as he anticipated. He now has an air base in Latakia (from which Russian warplanes have attacked Mr. Assad’s opponents), and an expanded naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean.
Latin America is a long way from Red Square but there, too, a Russian ally is in trouble, and Mr. Putin has sprung to his defense. In March, he sent about 100 troops — a “rapid deployment force” — to help shore up Nicolas Maduro, the socialist despot no longer recognized by the United States as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned: “Russia’s got to leave Venezuela.” We shall see.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone describing Mr. Putin as charming, yet he wins friends and influences people — all sorts of people.
He sells arms to the United Arab Emirates, and to Qatar, nemesis of the UAE, he has sold a large share of Russia’s state-controlled oil company, PAO Rosneft.
He is making common cause with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president of Turkey, an increasingly unreliable member of NATO.
His alliance with Iran’s ruling mullahs has not prevented him from establishing cordial relations with the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whom he never lectures about human rights and democratic reforms.
On the contrary, just after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Mr. Putin gleefully high-fived Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires. (The Saudi royal could learn from Mr. Putin how to dispatch enemies with finesse and a modicum of plausible deniability.)
In public, Mr. Putin sounds like a liberal internationalist. At a conference in 2007, for example, he asserted that the “use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the U.N.” But he neglected to ask the United Nations for permission before taking slices of Georgia in 2008, and seizing the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Mr. Putin’s East European and Central Asian neighbors respect or fear him — I doubt he cares which. In West Europe, too, we see Mr. Putin’s progress. Germany, the wealthiest European NATO member, one that spends a pittance on collective defense, now seems eager to become dependent on Russia for energy.
The German newspaper Bild recently reported that Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Emily Haber, sent letters to Congress opposing “the tightening of the American sanctions policy against Russia,” and asking that the United States end its opposition to Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that is to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. A congressional source told Bild that members were “shocked” by the ambassador who, it appears, “unambiguously sides with Russia.”
Such bipartisan shock has not received nearly as much media attention as the very partisan conflict over Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. As (Republican) Jamie Fly and (Democrat) Laura Rosenberger of the German Marshall Fund of the United States reported a year ago, the evidence suggests that Mr. Putin’s goal was to “sow chaos” and “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
Mission accomplished. Weakening America or strengthening Russia — the math works out the same either way.
Back in 2001, President Bush looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” A few years later, President Obama was naive enough to think he could “reset” relations with Russia. It’s now established that Mr. Trump did not “collude” with Mr. Putin. What’s unclear is whether he understands the master of the Kremlin any better than his predecessors.
Let me assist: Vladimir Putin has the morals of a KGB agent, the soul of a commissar and the ambitions of a czar. He plays by no rules other than his own. His appetite for greatness — again, meaning power, only power — is insatiable. He will not be ignored. If you keep all that in mind, everything he does makes perfect sense.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.