May 4, 2016

Marvin Kalb on Putin and Crowds

By Amila Golic, Program Officer
 
 

Marvin Kalb arrived in Moscow on January 26, 1956. It was forty degrees below zero, and Kalb, fresh off the train from Helsinki, nearly got back on it, his breath stopped by the blistering cold air. But stay he did, working first at the US embassy and then establishing himself as the Moscow reporter for CBS News. It was the beginning of a 30-year career as an award-winning journalist.

On April 14, Kalb brought his veteran insights on Russia to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for a discussion on his most recent book: Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War

Putin has become an object of fascination, a puzzle of a statesman. Since the 2013 protests in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, much has been asked about the man who has concentrated the country’s political power in his hands. Who is the man behind the shows of bare-chested machismo, the head of state presiding over a declining economy yet enjoying an 82% approval rating? Is he a tactician, deftly reacting to maneuvers as they come, or a strategist with grand, serious ambitions for his country?
 
Perhaps we give him too much credit. Although Kalb admits Putin is “a strange man,” he believes Putin is ultimately decipherable. The key to Putin, Kalb argued, is that he is a man frightened by crowds.

“He likes a crowd that he organized. But crowds that are spontaneous—that erupt, that represent a political force opposed to his vision of the way things are supposed to be—terrify him.”

That fear of crowds shaped Putin’s actions toward Ukraine—both in the uprisings of 2013 and in the 2004 Orange Revolution. Following the Orange Revolution, Kalb said, Putin “was determined to make sure that his kind of person got into power in Ukraine. And he succeeded. It cost him a great deal of money but in that period of ‘04 to ‘05, he seated the entire Ukrainian government structure with his people.”

After protests erupted in 2013, when Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, Putin was once again moved to act by “that fear of crowds that he doesn’t control and more than anything, he was stunned by the strength of the democratic movement in Ukraine,” said Kalb. In December and January, he moved Russian troops to the border with Ukraine so that, according to Kalb, there were 40,000 soldiers stationed there by February 2014.

“The little green men arrived, and we didn’t know who they were,” Kalb recounted.

Putin’s forceful reaction to the protests in Ukraine resulted in the brazen takeover of a foreign country’s territory—and revealed his ultimate goal: A new international order.

The annexation of Crimea, so Kalb, represented a transformational change in the nature of the East-West relationship. Putin “had violated a fundamental precept that had been established in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Communism died, there was a new world order so to speak.”

According to Kalb, Putin “believes powerfully that the international system as it exists today is unfair, it is wrong, and it has to be changed.” That is why Putin “would like nothing more than to dismember NATO and to create an environment of chaos in which the leaders get together and then create a new Yalta II [conference].”

And that is exactly what he is doing, said Kalb: “He teases us. He plays games with Article 5 of NATO. ‘How far would you guys go?’ He sends generals to Western forums and they talk about the use of nuclear weapons. Why? He’s not going to use nuclear weapons but he wants to inject fear, uncertainty, instability...”

When asked what the West can do in response to these tactics, Kalb called for unity, but shared doubts.

“If it were possible, and I don’t see it as possible right now, we have to present a unified, firm, strong, Western alliance and response to what it is that Putin is doing.”

That kind of unified Western response is impossible right now because America is not the country it was in the years after World War II, “in charge with a strong strategic vision of where we want to go and how we’re going to achieve that,” Kalb said. “And at this point,” he continued, “there is no reason for [Putin] to believe that the West is going to be unified in their strategic vision of Russia and create some kind of bulwark against further Russian action.”

Thus, the explanation for Putin’s current success may lie in the West’s own weaknesses—a puzzle that is likely to remain undecipherable.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

Archive


One More Question with Tyler Cowen

We asked Tyler Cowen, author of "The Complacent Class," how the American dream relates to America's foreign policy. See what he said.


| By Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: War and Peace in Asia

China’s military expansion in the South China Sea and rising economic influence command increasing attention, but North Korea, Japan, and other regional actors are shifting power beneath the surface. On the latest Deep Dish podcast, Asia experts Richard McGregor and Sheila Smith talk with host Brian Hanson about the intricate choices facing the Trump administration in Asia.



| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – A Big Idea for Foreign Policy, Revisited

With the appeal of unconventional candidates and an onslaught of domestic and international crises, now may be as good a time as ever for new and daring policy ideas. What we need, writes Council President Ivo Daalder, is a robust debate about the importance of America's global leadership. This Week’s Reads examine some of the internal and external challenges to that American-led order, as well as some of the big ideas for reforming it. 



| By Ivo H. Daalder

Deep Dish: Trump's National Security Council

Will the appointment of H.R. McMaster as President Trump’s National Security Advisor calm the tumult over Michael Flynn’s resignation? On the latest Deep Dish episode, two former NSC members, Ivo Daalder and Kori Schake, illuminate the genuine challenges for McMaster and Trump’s national security machine from the inside out. 


| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – The Value of NATO

"The bottom line is that NATO today remains an essential tool in advancing both American and transatlantic interests” writes Council President Ivo Daalder. “The challenge moving forward is to ensure that the trust that underpins the alliance is not unraveled by mixed messages and uncertainty coming out of Washington." This Weeks’ Reads explores the current state of the transatlantic Alliance and some of the internal and external challenges it confronts. 


| By Brian Hanson, Salomón Chertorivski

City Diplomacy from Mexico City to Chicago

Mayors have to take care of their populations, and sometimes that means going to other countries. A delegation of Mexican mayors from Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Juarez came to Chicago to conduct city-to-city diplomacy during an "emergency time" in US-Mexico relations. Salomón Chertorivski, secretary of economic development of Mexico City, sat down with the Council's Brian Hanson to discuss what they hoped to achieve.



| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – Why Process Matters

The resignation of Michael Flynn as national security advisor "reveals an important truth, which all Presidents learn sooner or later, namely that when it comes to policy, process matters," says Council President Ivo Daalder. This Weeks Reads take a look at the major security issues facing the United States and provide some insights into the Trump administration’s approach to managing them.


| By Brian Hanson, Cécile Shea

Deep Dish: US Intervention And Our Divided National Soul

Syria, Libya, and Iraq are the latest in a series of contentious US interventions. Forced to choose between leaving other countries alone or trying to run the world—Americans choose both, says author and journalist Stephen Kinzer. On this week's Deep Dish, Kinzer and career diplomat Cécile Shea discuss intervention done well, done poorly, and how the intervention debate has endured since the Spanish-American war. Subscribe now. 


| By Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Don't Go to Russia on Your Knees

A flare-up of violence in eastern Ukraine following a call between presidents Putin and Trump has many wondering what’s next in the highly combustible situation. On this week's Deep Dish podcast, former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst joins Russia expert Samuel Charap to analyze Putin’s goals and the likely outcome of a shift in Eurasian geopolitics.


| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – Culture and Conflict

In the early 1990's, famous political scientist Samuel Huntington posited a thesis that the major source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would not occur over ideological or economic fault lines, but cultural ones. Indeed, today we are beset with crises in the West and around the world—but to what degree is culture the cause? This Weeks Reads from Council President Ivo Daalder explores the ways in which culture is influencing our new era of global politics.


| By Kristin Ljungkvist

The Global City as Global Security Leader

The walled city once symbolized security. In these globalized times, leaders may build airports rather than walls, yet cities – not nations – once again increasingly stand on the front line of security.