Recognizing the Scale of Putin’s Threat Is Not Praising Him

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a commemoration ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Victory Day, which marks the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in WWII, in central Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2021. (Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via Reuters)

No conservative in his right mind should be praising Vladimir Putin as a good or wise leader. But a clear-eyed understanding of Putin requires recognizing his strengths, and the advantages he brings to his conflict with Ukraine, and his broader rivalry with NATO.

Lawrence O’Donnell scoffingly doubts that Putin is smart.

Putin did spend the first fifteen years of his career in intelligence, working for the ruthless and brutal KGB. Putin was stationed in East Germany and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.  He has not only climbed the greasy pole of Russian politics, he has eliminated all of his rivals. And what Putin has managed to do in foreign policy, in defiance of world opinion and the U.S., over the past two decades is striking: the Russia military has helped establish pro-Russian breakaway states on its border with Georgiaannexed Crimea, and occupied the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. And this is separate from Russia’s cyber-warfare, hacking, meddling in U.S. elections, assassinations of dissidents on United Kingdom soil, irradiation of British passenger airliners while carrying out those assassinations, arming idiotic separatists who shoot down passenger airliners…

Evil is not always dumb. If you don’t like calling Putin “smart,” then can we agree that he is shrewd, shameless, and opportunistic? That he and his regime sniff out weaknesses and vulnerabilities in rival states, and exploit those weaknesses relentlessly?

As the biography Mr. Putin contends, the Russian leader probably doesn’t understand the West as well as he thinks he does. But the reverse is also true; American presidents and other western leaders have consistently underestimated what Putin is willing to do and what he will do. As Walter Russell Mead observes today, whether or not Putin is smarter than the average head of state of a Western nation, Putin is probably gutsier:

Mr. Putin is, first and foremost, a gambler who is accustomed to taking large risks against long odds with a cool head. He is not infallible by any means, but he has years of experience in taking calculated risks, defying the odds, and imposing his will on stronger opponents. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, he can surprise and outmaneuver his opponents because he is willing to assume risks they would never consider, and so to attack in times and ways they can neither imagine nor plan for.

This is not praising Putin; he’s an evil SOB, a cold and malevolent soul and one of the most dangerous men on the planet. But the only thing more dangerous than flinching in the face of Russian aggression is heading into a conflict while underestimating Putin’s capabilities or will.

In Lawrence’s “Putin isn’t smart” assessment, we hear an echo of Barack Obama’s dismissive assessment of Putin and Russia in 2016: “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.” Critics on the right, and more than a few Russia experts, warned that Obama was underestimating Putin. There’s no reason to do that again.

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