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Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

By Newt Gingrich
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
  • Newt Gingrich: Symbolic gestures and even sanctions may not deter Putin
  • He says it's vital to understand Putin's point of view as lifelong national security professional
  • Putin values strength, military might and feels deep-seated grievance over recent history
  • He says Putin is citing international law, precedents to justify his actions in Crimea

Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 p.m. ET weekdays, and author of a new book, "Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America's Fate." A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

(CNN) -- "If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." -- Sun Tzu, "The Art of War" (circa 500 BC)

It is time to take Russian President Vladimir Putin seriously. We must develop serious strategies for dealing with a serious man.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

Putin has been in charge of Russia since 1999. He is arguably the most effective leader in the world today.

The Obama administration's foreign policy, meanwhile, has variously offered Putin a "reset" photo op, likened him to a "slouch ... like that bored kid sitting in the back of the classroom," and most recently, uttered meaningless protests while he annexed the territory of a sovereign state. Monday's cancellation of the G8 summit in Sochi, Russia, was really the minimum that could be done. Of course the United States and its allies could not go forward with the meeting as if nothing had happened.

The symbolic, tactical approach which is the hallmark of the Obama foreign policy is dangerous, delusional and utterly incapable of understanding or coping with a serious leader like Putin.

Indeed, there is a growing danger that the combination of strong words and weak actions (the essence of symbolic liberalism) will lead Putin to believe he can continue to incrementally rebuild the Russian Empire by gradually absorbing various pieces around the periphery.

Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families. Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
Crisis in Ukraine
Photos: Crisis in Ukraine Photos: Crisis in Ukraine
Fareed's Take: Putin's Crimea invasion
How far will Putin push into Ukraine?

In the year in which we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, danger will grow dramatically if Putin decides to put pressure on Estonia, which is a member of NATO.

Cut off from Disney World

But there is a second and more likely danger.

Symbolic liberalism has its own logic and lives in its own fantasy land. It loves sanctions because they are nonmilitary, nonviolent, and they sound tough.

President Obama and his allies are now talking about putting pressure on Putin through a variety of sanctions.

With visa bans, they have even cut off trips to Disney World for some key Russian officials.

There are, however, three things that make sanctions against Russia a very dangerous and probably unprofitable game.

First, Russia is a big country with a lot of resources. Putin can compensate every official sanctioned by West. If we aren't careful, Russians will be begging to get sanctioned so they rise in prestige inside Putin's world and get rewarded by Putin.

Second, there are a lot of countries that care more about either working with Russia or undermining the United States than they do about the Obama administration's posturing. The Chinese have shown no interest in joining an anti-Putin coalition. (In fact, they may be studying Putin's maneuvers in Crimea as a useful precedent for retaking territories they claim.)

The Chinese, like the leaders of many countries, are very happy to see the United States once again embroiled in a fight which undermines American credibility, absorbs the attention of American leaders, and accomplishes nothing. It is very hard to see how a sanctions regime is going to seriously impact Putin.

Third, there are a lot of ways the Russians can make life more difficult for the United States and our allies. Putin has already indicated he will meet our travel visa bans with Russian travel visa bans on American officials. Russia has been very supportive over Iran and very supportive of a northern route for supplies to American forces in Afghanistan. All of that can end. There are a number of large American companies with big investments in Russia. There is a lot the Russian government can do in buying and selling our bonds and in manipulating the oil and gas markets. There are a lot of Russian weapons that can end up in a lot of anti-American hands. Non-cooperation will pretty rapidly turn out to be a two-way street.

Take a deep breath

This is not to suggest we should do nothing.

It is a suggestion that we take a deep breath and understand that we are on the edge of a much bigger problem than symbolic rhetoric and public tantrums can solve.

We do not want a major war with Russia.

We also do not want to drift into a badly thought-out impromptu new Cold War that we have given no serious thought to winning.

Posturing from press conference to press conference and from one expedient to the next expedient is extraordinarily dangerous on national security issues.

Gingrich: A strategy for dealing with Russia

Crimean Tatar
Germany: Putin orders partial pullback
John Kerry talks Ukraine with Russia

We need strategic thinking, strategic planning and a set of strategic goals and patterns to achieve them. None of that exists in the current administration's floundering.

The first step in strategic planning is to know your opponent, as Sun Tzu said more than 2,500 years ago.

A speech worth studying

Fortunately for us, Putin gave a major speech March 18. Anyone thinking about strategy for dealing with Russia should study that speech carefully.

That speech makes clear that Vladimir Putin is a very serious man who has put a lot of thought into what he believes and what he is doing. It is a speech filled with historic references both to the Russian past and to the recent activities of the United States.

First, Putin put the Crimean situation in a deeply Russian context:

"Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol -- a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolizing Russian military glory and outstanding valor."

Note that Putin regards military glory and valor as positive traits to be emulated. Compare that with the tendencies of symbolic liberals toward merely symbolic actions and you can sense a mismatch of force and risk-taking on the horizon.

Second, Putin puts the blame on the Soviets for having pushed Russians into eastern Ukraine, and specifically on Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the time, for having taken Crimea away from Russia and given it to Ukraine in 1954. He is both setting the stage for a potential conflict over eastern Ukraine and reminding Westerners that a lot of this was done under the Soviet dictatorship and was illegitimate.

Note also his reference to God judging the Bolsheviks:

"After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons -- may God judge them -- added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic makeup of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine."

'Robbed and plundered'

Third, Americans must understand how deeply Putin, a former KGB colonel, rejects the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the empire. Note the sense of having been "robbed" and "plundered":

"It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized it was robbed, it was plundered."

Putin is also setting the stage for a series of ethnic crises around the periphery. Note his claim that the "Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."

You can produce a map of the ethnic borderlands and have a pretty good sense of where there may be future efforts to reunite Russians with Russia and to "protect" Russians from repression. Trans-Dniester, eastern Ukraine, part of Kazakhstan, Byelorussia and Estonia become the most obvious opportunities for conflict.

Indeed, Putin warns about anti-Russian repression in a way that could be applied to all those other countries:

"Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language, and to subject them to forced assimilation. Moreover, Russians, just as other citizens of Ukraine, are suffering from the constant political and state crisis that has been rocking the country for over 20 years."

'Terror, murder and riots'

Putin goes on to warn that a lot of the problems are not natural tensions within countries but are in fact caused by deliberate and dangerous interventions from overseas. While he doesn't cite it, the Victoria Nuland telephone call, in which the U.S. diplomat belittled the EU -- which was probably taped and released by the Russians -- was a clear example of Americans being very deeply engaged in Ukrainian internal politics. Here is how Putin described the general pattern:

"Those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: They were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day."

Note that Putin is setting up a model of Russia defending against American and other foreign interference as a nationalist pattern of defensive behavior in which he is being forced to intervene by bad outsiders.

This need for defensive reaction by Russia is applied directly to Crimea but also with a warning that it could extend to eastern Ukraine:

"Those who opposed the coup were immediately threatened with repression. Naturally, the first in line here was Crimea, the Russian-speaking Crimea. In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities.

"Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded; we could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress. This would have been betrayal on our part."

Putin is setting the stage for future crises, in which Russia will be forced not to "betray" other ethnic Russians.

Comparison to Kosovo

In a serious example of just how smart Putin is, he promptly wraps himself in the United Nations charter and international law:

"As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word. Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?

"Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent -- a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country's central authorities. Pursuant to Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations charter, the U.N. International Court agreed with this approach and made the following comment in its ruling of July 22, 2010, and I quote: 'No general prohibition may be inferred from the practice of the Security Council with regard to declarations of independence,' and 'General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.' Crystal clear, as they say."

Here Putin is challenging the American government to look at its own record. The United States took Kosovo away from Serbia. (Remember that Serbia has historically been a Russian ally for over a century and there are deep ethnic and linguistic ties.) The Russians hated the United States bombing of Serbia and noted that there was no referendum for Serbs to participate in. In the Russian view, Crimea is more legitimate than Kosovo.

Furthermore Putin is warning that the United States' aggressiveness in coalitions of the willing and its habit of jumping into conflicts when it chooses set a precedent other powerful countries can follow (and here the Chinese potential may be even more dangerous than the Russian).

Symbolic liberals, with their passion for the rule of international law, may suddenly find themselves debating someone who can plausibly claim they're the lawbreakers and he is merely obeying international law.

'Trying to sweep us into a corner'

Putin goes on to suggest that cultural imperialism by the United States and its Western allies explains the turmoil in much of the Middle East:

"There was a whole series of controlled 'color' revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions or these people's cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter."

Putin places the current effort to isolate and pressure Russia in a centuries-old pattern of Western hostility. In the Russian historic view, from the Napoleonic invasion to the Imperial Germans to the Nazis to the Americans, it has been a continuum of Western aggression. In Russian eyes, NATO is an offensive -- not a defensive -- organization. Look at Putin's language, referring to the "infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, (that) continues today." He continued, "They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner."

He is also warning that he will not be "swept into a corner." As we impose various sanctions we should remember the depth of historic memory and determination Putin will bring to designing counterstrategies.

Putin suggests that he has been very patient, but that "with Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally."

Dramatic poll results

Now, having been forced to respond by Western provocations and aggressive actions, "Russia will also have to make a difficult decision now, taking into account the various domestic and external considerations. What do people here in Russia think? Here, like in any democratic country, people have different points of view, but I want to make the point that the absolute majority of our people clearly do support what is happening.

"The most recent public opinion surveys conducted here in Russia show that 95% of people think that Russia should protect the interests of Russians and members of other ethnic groups living in Crimea -- 95% of our citizens. More than 83% think that Russia should do this even if it will complicate our relations with some other countries. A total of 86% of our people see Crimea as still being Russian territory and part of our country's lands. And one particularly important figure, which corresponds exactly with the result in Crimea's referendum: almost 92% of our people support Crimea's reunification with Russia."

This outline of Russian public opinion has a single clear purpose. The Americans should not think he is under any pressure. Indeed, his defense (and remember, in his mind he is always on defense and never attacking) of fellow Russians is very popular.

Putin is almost certainly not as popular as those polls suggest, however.

Russians approve of Putin's job as president for now, but increasingly want new leadership in the future. Those are the findings of a new poll from Moscow's Levada Center. The survey, conducted from March 7 to 10 from a sampling of 1603 respondents in 45 regions, found that Putin's popularity rating remained high (72%), but that only 32% approved of Putin remaining in power after the 2018 elections. Nearly a quarter (22%) were amenable to a different candidate who would "continue the politics of Vladimir Putin," while almost a third (31%) expressed their desire for someone who could offer "different solutions to Russia's problems."

Opportunistic, clever and patient

Thus there is an opportunity for strategic efforts to make Putin much less survivable over time.

Nonetheless this is a very serious speech by a very determined national security professional who has spent his entire adult life trying to defend Great Russian nationalism. He is clearly determined to unify and rebuild the Russian Empire as quickly as he can.

Putin is not declaring any immediate moves. He will be opportunistic, clever, and patient. He fully expects to be in power long after Obama has left office.

Putin is not a problem. He is a fact.

What we do about him is a problem.

Any successful American response to Putin will have to be based on a realistic understanding of his thinking and his goals. It will also have to be based on a realistic sense of what America can accomplish in a multipolar world in which there are many powers who fear the United States a lot more than they fear Putin.

We have not even begun a serious discussion of the depth of this challenge.

It is time to drop the symbolic liberal fantasies and the tactics driven by press conferences, and to have a bipartisan national dialogue about the new national security situation we find ourselves in.

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READ: What do we know about Russia's troop buildup on Ukraine's border?

READ: Opinion: Russia's euphoria over Crimea won't last

READ: CNN Money: Russia fallout pushes Europe to develop shale gas

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.

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