What does Vladimir Putin want? Answering this question is difficult as there appears to be little logic to his restless actions. The Russian president once tried to diversify the country’s economy to make it less dependent on its energy sector, only to later abandon the project as utopian. Under his leadership, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and intervened in Syria in 2015, leaving Russian troops in both countries without exit strategies. His long reign of power, which began in 1999 and included a stint as prime minister between 2008 and 2012, was supposed to bring order and continuity to Russian politics, but now his succession looms like a deadly game of roulette.
Putin repeatedly talks about chaos, and appears to regard himself as a creature of the chaos that enveloped Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. Today, both Russia and Putin have no illusions about the world. At the Valdai summit in the Caucasus mountains this year – a private gathering of Russian and international intellectuals and officials, at which I was present – Putin said that Russian society had developed “herd immunity to extremism”, which makes it well-suited to the “upheavals and socio-economic cataclysms” that are to come.
For Putin, stability is an illusion. As he said at the Valdai summit, quoting the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, those who felt like the winners after the end of the Cold War “and thought they climbed Mount Olympus, soon discovered that the ground was falling away… this time it was their turn, and nobody could stop the moment, no matter how fair it seemed”. The once-dominant West must now brace for deep changes in the world system.
As I listened to Putin’s speech, it seemed that this line got to the heart of who he is, and why he has come to play the role of evil demiurge, the great tyrant Yaltabaoth, the Son of Chaos. The post-Cold War prospect of a global community united in peace and democracy has vanished, and for many in the West it is Putin who is to blame for the return to global strife, confusion and disorder.
“After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody to talk to,” the Russian leader sarcastically joked in 2007. There have been many interpretations of this reference. For some, it was no more than a grim witticism. Others think it was an oblique reflection on the dominance of realpolitik and the futility of international dialogue. As a long-time observer of Russian politics in Washington recently told me, it could be a veiled reference to the two men Putin regards as his soulmates: Stalin and Hitler, both of whom died around the same time as Gandhi did. In other words, it was a private joke. “Even Putin knows better than blurting that out,” said the source.
As odd or shocking as it may sound, Putin probably does consider himself to be in the same category as Gandhi. Both he and Gandhi are slayers of empires. Both are disrupters of the status quo. Just as Gandhi played the decisive role in ending the British empire, Putin may one day look back and take satisfaction in his role precipitating the fall of the postwar US empire and reopening the gates of history.
In practical terms, China might be the main beneficiary. As the Russian president put it in Valdai: “We are observing that certain countries are on the rise even though they have a lot of unsolved problems. They resemble erupting volcanoes, like the one on the Spanish island, which is disgorging its lava. But there are also extinguished volcanoes, where fires are long dead and one can only hear birds singing.” The first line was a reference to China, the latter to western Europe. As for Russia, it might be seen as a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
In this passage, Putin was referring to the theory of “passionarity”, which was developed by the Soviet historian Lev Gumilyov. The central tenet of Gumilyov’s philosophy is that the life of each nation passes through different stages of growth and decay, as its vital energy expands or contracts. Gumilyov’s ideas have had a significant bearing on Putin’s world-view. But when asked in Valdai what his main intellectual influences were, the first name Putin mentioned was the 20th-century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin. “I have his book lying on my shelf, and I pick it up and read it from time to time,” he said.
Some have argued that Putin models himself on Ilyin’s description of the archetypical Russian leader – a strong personality able to contain the excesses of the Russian spirit, too vital and expansive to be restrained by mere rules.
Putin, the Son of Chaos, came of age in the Soviet Union’s dying moments in 1989 and 1990 when the geopolitical might of the USSR collapsed like a house of cards. “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared,” Putin recounted in an interview in 2000.
Writing in 1990, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky could already see how the next decade would be one of chaos and contradictions, but he also understood the close connection – at least in Russia – between chaos and political power. “This chaos and these contradictions”, he wrote, “are, in fact, a guarantee of the stability of a power that is attempting to create order out of chaos.”
Brodsky added that the last days of the Soviet Union would become an object of universal fascination because they were evidence of an existential truth. In a world bereft of revealed religion, we must accept that no one knows the meaning of life. Some will settle on daily routines and never ask how they should spend their years on Earth. The political regime under which they live, including democracy, will push or tilt people in certain directions and provide comfort that whatever life they lead is as close as possible to the ideal. Brodsky thought that it was to the credit of the dying Soviet government that it did not even try to evade or disguise the question of meaning. There was no answer, there was no meaning to life – people had simply to live with that fact.
What Brodsky identified was the connection between power and chaos. Since power needs the presence of chaos as a source of legitimacy, then chaos itself is legitimised and may even be celebrated. When Russia actively pursues the destabilisation of countries such as Ukraine, whose territory it invaded in 2014 and continues to threaten with regular troop movements, this is partially in order to appeal to a rather crude hierarchy of power, between those states that can create order and those that fail this basic political task.
Brodsky recognised that power and chaos feed each other and grow together. Power is born from the act of bringing order to chaos. If there is no chaos then power itself must be used to create it. This is central to Putin’s thinking. Addressing a crowd in Vasilyevsky Spusk Square in Moscow in 2015, he said: “We ourselves will continue moving forward. We will strengthen our statehood and our country. We will overcome the difficulties that we have so easily created for ourselves over these recent times.”
Chaos is never completely pacified. It continues to exist beneath the veneer of civilisation and the role of the sovereign consists in its management, so that it does not erupt to the surface. That is the secret of what Putin wants. You may look all you want for a grand design, a vision of the world. Putin has a preference for something much more fluid and volatile. His conception of political order is one finely balanced between power and chaos. I suspect he would call it natural. He regards the Western attempt to banish the very thought of chaos from political life as a pretence, a naive belief that the contradictions of politics can be comprehensively resolved.
In 2019, at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona, I asked the influential Russian strategist Sergey Karaganov what Russia’s intentions are in Syria. Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in 2015 to fight Islamic State and stop the Assad regime from being overthrown. The first phase of the military intervention had been successful – Bashar al-Assad had been saved through the timely intercession of his Russian protector. But what now? There must be a plan. Karaganov, the head of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, a man of significant influence in the Kremlin, shook his head in mild censure. “This is not about creating heaven on Earth. We are not Americans. Things are already as we want them. Syria offers endless business opportunities for our economic agents and it gives us leverage over countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.” Russia is in no hurry to create a permanent political order – an expensive project and one where its qualities are less in demand and to which it can contribute little.
It is in Belarus that Putin has elevated the politics of chaos into an art form. For as long as Belarus remained stable, Alexander Lukashenko, the president since 1994, felt no need to please Moscow and even dared to displease it, such as when he continued to equivocate on the legal status of Crimea. This suited the European Union, which upgraded its political and economic relations with the dictatorship. Then crisis struck. In 2019, Moscow began to reduce its economic support to Belarus. Covid then severely damaged the economy and public discontent festered, with crowds protesting the results of the last presidential election in 2020.
Fearing he would be ousted from power, Lukashenko turned to Russia for protection. The Kremlin understands that Europeans have such a deep aversion to dealing with instability and conflict that a sure way to repel Europe’s encroachment on the Russian near-abroad is to engineer unresolved conflicts, political disorder, and border disputes. Of the six countries forming the Eastern Partnership – the EU initiative governing relations with its eastern neighbours Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – only one, Belarus, is not beset by an unresolved military conflict featuring Russian military and political involvement. Even that exception may no longer apply, as Russian troops have been deployed to guard the Polish border. In despair, Lukashenko is destined one day to offer the Belarus state to Putin.
The more the EU aspires to be an island of stability in a world of chaos, the more dangerous and fatal its position becomes. The crisis on the Polish border is a good example. Lukashenko ferried large numbers of Iraqis and Syrians from their countries of origin directly to the Polish border, manufacturing a migrant crisis that he sees as revenge for previous EU sanctions, as well as a source of revenue in the form of smuggling fees. The chaos grows and, since only Putin seems capable of stopping it, European leaders are now asking him to intervene in Belarus.
The two approaches – one that wants to build a placid civilisation, the other to remind us how fragile everything is – could not be more evident than in the way Europe and Russia think about energy security. For officials in Brussels and the main national capitals, close energy links with Russia are seen as a form of mutual dependence. They think that any concerns about being dependent on Russian energy are misplaced because Russia is interested in being a reliable supplier of natural gas – a large source of its state revenue. This is a risky bet because Putin has already shown that he believes energy crises are useful reminders of Russia’s geostrategic power.
These lessons apply to domestic politics no less than foreign policy. The Kremlin is far from shy when using state power for its international goals or when punishing its enemies. Yet state power was restrained when Russia dealt with the pandemic, with the most difficult decisions, such as vaccine mandates, left to regional governors. For Putin, why promise what cannot be delivered? In Sochi he noted how “the coronavirus pandemic has become another reminder of how fragile our community is, how vulnerable it is, and our most important task is to ensure humanity a safe existence and resilience”. Remind people of their fundamental human weakness and individual powerlessness and it will reinforce their ties to the state. After all, bourgeois comfort breeds revolutionary thoughts.
There are risks to Putin’s strategy, and the question is whether he can control the forces of chaos or whether he risks being devoured by the demons of his own making. With respect to the politics of natural gas, can Putin be sure the forces he unleashed will not come back to haunt him, or perhaps his successor? European anxiety might well precipitate a faster transition to green energy sources, with a major impact on Russia, a country heavily dependent on exports of fossil fuels to the EU.
A final risk is the fraught question of succession. Putin’s hold on power has been strengthened by the fear of a deadly contest to take his place, but the more Putin, aged 69, closes every path to a stable succession plan, the more dangerous and chaotic that moment will become. No one in Russia seems to have any idea of what would happen were Putin suddenly to leave the political scene.
[See also: How I was expelled from Russia]
There is a view of Russian politics where the hierarchy of power is direct and unambiguous. None of the conversations I had over many years with Kremlin insiders supports this view. They are naturally reluctant to share too many details, let alone to be quoted by name, but a discernible picture emerges when speaking to them: Putin prefers to send ambiguous messages to his deputies. He will have everyone guessing at the meaning of his words. In the case of things going wrong, it was simply because this meaning was not accurately interpreted. Under these conditions, chaos is bound to grow, but it is seen as productive and capable of reinforcing state power.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, Putin came to Valdai accompanied by four illustrious guests: Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan; Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines; and King Abdullah II of Jordan. It was the symbol of an integrated Eurasia, the most popular geopolitical theory in contemporary Russia. This year he brought not four world leaders but four spectres: the pandemic, the climate crisis, the threat of war, and uncontrolled migration. The new four horsemen figured prominently throughout his speech. As we enter a new age of chaos, Putin may feel vindicated. Is he an agent of chaos or merely its prophet?
Some leaders side with order, others choose chaos. Putin believes that nature has a preference for chaos, so the latter are destined to win. Russia may be a sick man but a sick man with a gun is still a dangerous man, and in a world in turmoil we may all end up sick anyway. That is the Russia Putin plans to leave behind.
Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe minister from 2013-2015. He is the author of “Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis” (Hurst)
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos