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.