At the Asia-Pacific summit in China, Russian President Vladimir Putin did his best to appear relaxed, even playful. As his country faces some of its biggest international challenges in the post-Soviet era, he is showing an incredible levity. There are two ways to interpret that: as a subtle attempt at intimidation, or a sign that he thinks his relationship with the West can still be repaired.
During the summit, Western leaders appeared willing to talk with Putin for only a few minutes. His three encounters with President Barack Obama lasted a total of 20 minutes; his lone meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was equally brief. Still, Putin tried to make small talk with Obama, smiled and even clapped the U.S. leader on the back. From Obama’s stiff reaction, it looked as if it took him some effort not to recoil.
Then there was the slightly comic episode with Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese leader Xi Jinping: Putin threw a shawl over her shoulders, and while the Chinese first lady politely accepted it, she almost immediately handed it off to an aide. After almost 14 years in power, Putin has a good grasp of diplomatic etiquette, so the mischievous gesture must have been calculated.
Russian commentator Alexander Baunov, himself a former diplomat, called Putin’s behavior “a hint at his power,” as if he was saying: “You Western politicians are held back by a thousand rules and barriers because your opposition and journalists will punish you for every false step. You can’t afford this, but I can. I am the independent master of an independent country, so there you are.”
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Putin is far from oblivious of his circumstances: threateningly low oil prices, the currency panic in Moscow, a war about to restart in Ukraine that could potentially lead to new sanctions against Russia. Still, he’s having fun, and perhaps this show of unconcern is designed to look threatening.
There is evidence to support this. A policy brief released Monday by the European Leadership Network, a policy advisory group, listed almost 40 close encounters between Russian and Western militaries that have taken place since Russia annexed Crimea in March. “The Russian armed forces and security agencies seem to have been authorized and encouraged to act in a much more aggressive way towards NATO countries, Sweden and Finland,” the brief says.
The incidents include a near-collision between a SAS passenger jet and a Russian reconnaissance plane that did not transmit its location; a Russian imitation of an air attack on a Danish island; and Russian fighter planes repeatedly flying low over U.S. and Canadian military vessels. “Russian actions may serve propaganda-related and political aims,” the brief’s authors wrote. “They serve as a demonstration of Russia’s capability too effectively use force for intimidation and coercion, particularly against its immediate neighbors.”
It’s tempting to put all this together to draw the picture of a smiling, outwardly confident dictator showing his counterparts that he cares little about their opinion of him, that he is just as happy to be feared as liked. A psychologist, however, could offer a different interpretation.
In a 2009 paper, Duke University’s Laura Richman and Mark Leary explored people’s reactions to rejection. The initial reaction is a perception of injustice. In recent months, Putin has often vented his hurt feelings with what he sees as contemptuous treatment of him and his country by the West. The recent hawkish speech to the Valdai Club of Russia provided plenty of examples of such venting.
Still, if a rejected individual believes the relationship can be repaired, he tends to act friendly toward his those he feels have rejected him. “When the likelihood of regaining relational value is reasonably high, people should not only try to reestablish the relationship but will also not wish to undermine their standing further and, thus, should behave prosocially,” the psychologists wrote.
Amid all the anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric, Putin always leaves the door open to a resumption of dialogue. In remarks after the Valdai speech, he said:
“We are not going to fence ourselves off from anyone. It’s a fact that attempts are made to isolate, to fence off Russia. What’s there to talk about? Everything speaks to that. Your leaders say it publicly: We will punish Russia, it will pay dearly, it will be an outcast and so on. But how will they solve global problems with such an outcome, it’s not clear, and they probably understand themselves that it’s impossible.”
It’s even possible that Putin’s behavior is a mixture of intimidating swagger and a craving for the restoration of normal, pre-Crimea relations with his Western “friends and partners,” as he likes to call them. It’s only prudent to react to Putin’s threats by shoring up defenses, but it might be smart for the West to exploit his apparent desire to be given a place at the table again. He is only a human being, but Russia and its neighbors are disproportionately dependent on his psychological condition.
Perhaps Western leaders ought to consult with psychologists and try to figure out how to handle him rather than continuing to demonstrate their angry rejection, as Obama does.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.