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To understand Putin, view the world through a different lens Add to ...

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In trying to understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent on seizing Crimea and breaking Ukraine, many observers try to impose a Western mindset on the Kremlin ruler. Surely he won’t risk seeing his country ostracized? Surely he understands the damage this will do to Russia’s already imperiled economy?

But to expect Mr. Putin to behave like other G8 leaders is to misunderstand the man and his mission.

U.S. President Barack Obama – the man many are looking to to rein in Russia as the crisis in Ukraine continued to escalate dangerously – famously looks to healers such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln for inspiration, leaders who sought to bridge worlds and smooth differences.

Mr. Putin’s politics are of a very different origin. His personal idol is Yuri Andropov, a man – like Mr. Putin – who rose from KGB agent to the top job in the Kremlin. One of Mr. Putin’s first acts upon coming to power 15 years ago was to restore a plaque commemorating Mr. Andropov to the outside of the former KGB building on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

Mr. Andropov’s field career seems instructive today. He became famous in Hungary as the “Butcher of Budapest” for the role he played – as Soviet ambassador to the country – in convincing a reluctant Nikita Khrushchev to send the Red Army in to crush Hungary’s 1956 pro-democracy uprising. More than 3,000 people were killed in a week of fighting between Soviet troops and Hungarian protesters.

A dozen years later, it was Mr. Andropov – now head of the KGB – who warned the Soviet Politburo that the peaceful protests of the Prague Spring were in fact a NATO-backed attempt at a coup-d’état in Czechoslovakia. Again, he recommended sending in the troops to keep a Soviet satellite from tumbling under Western influence.

The logic was that if one Soviet satellite was allowed to choose its own course, the rest of the region might follow suit. Mr. Andropov believed the Politburo needed to use force in Budapest and Prague, or they’d quickly be facing similar revolts in Bucharest, Warsaw and East Berlin.

The USSR was loudly criticized in the West for using its military to force its will on its satellites. But Mr. Andropov accurately predicted that the West wouldn’t dare intervene for fear of having to fight the Red Army. His actions ensured Soviet sway over Eastern Europe for another three decades.

This lens – Cold War, zero-sum-game – is the same one Mr. Putin uses to view the recent revolution in Ukraine. Mr. Putin and his coterie truly believe the West was behind the uprising in Kiev (and there is evidence to show the United States and its allies played more than a passive role). To the shrunken Russian empire of 2014, a pro-Western government in Ukraine is as dangerous as a free Hungary or Czechoslovakia was to the Soviet project in Eastern Europe.

Russia, first and foremost, fears a spillover of Ukraine’s popular revolution to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which saw a string of mass anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012. Ukrainian participation – which now seems impossible – was also critical to the success of Mr. Putin’s pet project of the Eurasian Union, a trading bloc of post-Soviet countries that is supposed to come into existence next year.

But a red line has also been drawn around Ukraine because the Kremlin has decided to put an end to what it sees as 20 years of hostile advances by NATO in Eastern Europe. Moscow was largely silent (in part because Mr. Putin hadn’t yet come to power) when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the Western alliance in 1999. It fumed in 2004 when seven more countries – including the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – were added.

The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest was the final straw. Though NATO put off deciding on membership applications by Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin had already decided that it couldn’t wait until NATO, already pressing against the north of Russia – the Estonian border is just over 150 kilometres from St. Petersburg – was also on its western and southern flanks. The Kremlin had become convinced the West was intent on reviving the Cold War.

At the end of the Bucharest summit, Mr. Putin declared NATO enlargement a “direct threat” to Russia. “We have moved our troops out of Eastern Europe and got rid of heavy arms in Europe, in general. What did we get in return? A base in Romania where we are now, a base in Bulgaria and [anti-missile defense] bases in Poland and the Czech Republic,” he said. “Why don’t we talk about this in the open, honestly and directly with all our cards laid out on the table?”

Mr. Putin is certainly laying his cards on the table now. And he does so while staring at a portrait of Tsar Nicholas I that he had installed in the antechamber of his Kremlin office shortly after coming to power 15 years ago. It’s hard to miss the significance of that portrait now.

Nicholas I is much-maligned by historians in the West as the man who led his country into the disastrous Crimean War against the combined forces of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.

But in Russian lore, the Crimean conflict is remembered as a defining moment in the country’s history – a glorious defeat, in which the country finally stood up to its enemies.

That the Crimea Peninsula – and particularly the Black Sea port of Sevastopol that the tsar’s troops defended for a year in the face of superior enemies – wound up outside the Russian Federation when the USSR collapsed is an absurdity in the minds of most Russians and many Crimeans.

Mr. Putin’s power play there now would make no sense to Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. But it would surely get an approving nod from the ghosts of Mr. Andropov and Nicholas I.

Follow me on Twitter @markmackinnon

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