Hands Up If You Were Ever Surprised by a Putin Move
Be honest now
As someone who followed the Russia-watching blogosphere since there was such a thing I can tell you that almost every commentator got Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 wrong. Most everyone spent months explaining why Putin wouldn’t opt to unseat Medvedev after just one term, only for Vladimir Vladimirovich to contradict them.
The only commentator I recall getting it right was Mark Chapman over at The Kremlin Stooge, who not only correctly called Putin’s return, but also hailed it as a necessary course correction after the liberal, pro-Western fiasco that had been Medvedev, particularly in relation to Libya.
If we had today’s vocabulary back then we would probably say that Putin had pulled a “based” move.
I don’t blame others for guessing wrong. I myself was also leaning more in the direction that Putin wouldn’t yet make the return. (It wasn’t something I was writing about, but as a reader I had my opinion/hunch.)
But — and here’s the key thing — I did learn my lesson. I learned the lesson that Putin is capable of surprising his blogosphere lawyers, including by going in a more “based” direction than they would anticipate.
Putin then pulled yet more “based” stunners over the years by leaning into the anti-gay stuff (which was a grassroots initiative that activists fought for for years and was originally rebuked in Moscow), taking over Crimea, sanctioning EU food imports, abruptly canceling South Stream, intervening in Syria, amending the constitution…
All of these caught most of his online hagiographers by surprise and yet many of them — not having learned any lessons — continue to make highly confident predictions on what he will and will not do. Usually by discounting the “based” option and assuring us that the saint-like and infinitely-patient Putin simply wouldn’t wade into such controversial territory. At what point do people with such a poor track record of guessing Putin’s next move stop making know-it-all prophecies and at what point do they cease to be listened to?
I am the world champion of criticizing Putin when he deserves it, but even I have never known him to bluff. If he is assembling a force in south-western Russia that would allow him to take a drive into Kiev (and he is), then there is a decent chance that that is something he is contemplating and something that is on the table.
It doesn’t have to mean that a military escalation in Ukraine is the most likely outcome. And it doesn’t have to mean that Russian preparations are quite as far along as American media and functionaries are claiming. But for anyone to say they know for a fact that a Russian military resolution of the Ukraine conundrum is not coming just means that what they’re doing is explaining their emotional state to us. There is no way to know that for certain. If someone is claiming high certainty it means they’re not engaging with information with their mind, but making a guess reinforced by their internal emotional state. Because only emotion can give you such (false) certainty, but the limited set of data we have can not.
If Putin gives himself an option it is quite possible he has done so because he wants to have that option.
Some Russian nationalists think he’s going for it, and want him to, and others think he should have already done it way back in 2014. And there are Russian governments who would have done it. Putin, a Yeltsin appointee and a Sobchak protege who sided with the 1993 Yeltsin presidential coup, is more liberal than 75% of Russians, or at least he started out that way. A different, more nationalist leader, might have prepared for this move and ordered it into action many years ago.
We can gravitate to texts that speak from emotion and thus to texts that express the emotion we already feel and have that confirmed, or we can be grown-ups, shut down feelings and look at it logically. Are military capabilities being massed? Yes or no? Can we know for a fact they won’t be ordered into action? Yes or no?
Putin has already undone Khruschev’s legacy on Ukraine. If you’re someone like I who didn’t see that coming, then how can you be certain he won’t also move to undo Lenin’s legacy of spinning off Russian territory into an Anti-Russia? Specifically, after he wrote that that is something the country he is the president of can not allow?
Putin ordering live-fire escalation would come as a huge shock and surprise to me. He has surprised and shocked me before. He has probably surprised and shocked you before as well.