Vladimir Putin has become known as something of an anti-American and anti-Western blowhard. You dont have to look very hard to find stories that paint him as a conspiracy-obsessed lunatic, someone whose time in the KGB indelibly stained him with dark fantasies of a near-omnipotent and omnipresent West. The Economist has, in the past, been particularly excitable both about Putins malevolence and his anti-Western designs, and one of their senior editors wrote a silly little book arguing that Putin was not only a bad person but was deliberately stoking a new Cold War. And, of course, these people are not totally wrong. Putin really does have a habit of indulging in every politicians favorite game: foreign threat inflation.
However, while recognizing that it exists and can be quite ugly, Ive long thought that it is a mistake to focus only on the irascible and anti-Western side of Putin. Doing so is a mistake because if you focus only on the anti-Western bits you miss a pragmatic and realistic streak that, on some issues, makes Putin eminently comfortable with close cooperation with Western countries. Much more comfortable than many Russians at the high levels of the foreign policy and defense bureaucracies who really do dislike and distrust the West as a matter of principle. Indeed I would argue that Putins realist streak is a lot more important in understanding his foreign policy, and his conception of where Russia fits in the world, than his often ham-handed attacks on Western interventionism, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Realist doesnt mean good or warm or cuddly, but it does mean that Putin is absolutely not someone who is comprehensively anti-Western in outlook.
Therefore, as a public service, I thought I would translate a response Putin gave to a question in the Duma on the NATO transit facility in Ulyanovsk. Its true that this back and forth happened in April, but I think the following is valuable because it provides some insight into a side of Putin that we almost never encounter in the Western press. Sincere apologies if there are any translation errors (please bring them to my attention if anyone notices any) but the general flow of the conversation was not very hard to pick up. Read the following and judge for yourselves whether Putin is a fire breathing anti-Western lunatic who is determined to re-start the Cold War:
Respected Vladimir Vladimirovich: in your report you mentioned foreign threats, and the LDPR would like your opinion about the following. As is well known, the military bloc NATO was founded not as our friend and comrade but as a military competitor. Its impossible not to recall the words of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who called Russia one of Americas biggest enemies, and actually its biggest enemy. The principled position of Russias government was never allow to allow any bases not only on the territory of our country but close to its borders. LDPRs slogan has always been no NATO movement to the east. And now there is information that on the territory of Ulyanovsk oblast there will be a NATO military base. So the question is this: has the leaderships fundamental position changed , or is there something that we dont know or dont understand? Id like you to comment. Thank you
I think that the NATO bloc is, and Ive said this directly to our colleagues, a throw-back to the time of the cold war. It appeared during a time when there was a bi-polar system of world relations. There was an eastern bloc. Thenactually at the beginning there was a Western bloc, NATO, and then as a response to this the Warsaw Pact was created. And today there is no such situation, and its unclear why an organization such as NATO is needed. But it exists. Its a reality of geopolitics, and we need to take that into account. Moreover, in a few situations, NATO really plays a role of a stabilizer of world affairs. Yes they often stick their nose where its not necessary and they go beyond the bounds of their stated activity, and we will react to this in an appropriate manner. Its all perfectly natural. But I repeat, in a few situations NATO plays a stabilizing role. For example in Afghanistan NATO is there with a UN mandate. And I want to speak to you and to everyone here completely independent of their political orientation. We understand whats going on in Afghanistan, right? We want the situation there to be brought under control, right? And we dont want our soldiers to have to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border. We dont want that. Well NATO is in Afghanistan. So good luck to them. Let them get to work. We previously took a decision to support the transit, both in the air and on land, of a few countries such as the United States, Germany, and France. We ought to help them. Thats my position. Help them and help them to solve the problem of stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. Or well have to do it ourselves. You understand the situation, you understand what kind of choice that is? So, back to NATO. If we already allowed transit for a few countries, why is it a problem to allow transit for NATO itself? We need to pragmatically come to an understanding of whats advantageous. Does such a decision correspond with our national interest, or does it not? The promotion of stability in Afghanistan is certainly in our national interest. And weve said this publicly, well help you and so therefore well provide transit. As for Ulyanovsk its not a NATO base, its simply a ground used for moving cargo to their troops. I assure you theres nothing unusual going on, and nothing thats not in our national interest. On the contrary, everything were doing in this sphere is fully in the interests of the Russian Federation and its people