What does Putin really want?

In contrast to Western condescension, he explained, when Russia works with other countries it’s about finding common ground and pragmatic interests. “It’s ridiculous to presume that some countries are lobbying Russian interests,” he said. “They are lobbying their own interests in the first place.” He said the Russians were tired of the United States and the European Union “mentoring” them. “We kept trying to find this very high road in relations between Russia and the Western world in general. We treat everyone equally and want to be treated the same way. But it came to nothing at all. The West said: ‘All right, guys, you have certain limits you can come to, but those are your limits and you may not exceed them.’ This is arrogant, to say the least. We know exactly what’s good and bad for us. We totally comply with the international law. That is solid and indisputable. The rest of it is subject for negotiations.” Our interview was polite, friendly even, like two people genuinely attempting to communicate. The issue of whether Russia had broken international law in Crimea was one of the few topics where we were completely stuck, as if we were discussing two different realities.

Over all, the diplomat seemed earnestly baffled when I told him Americans believed Putin had a master plan he was slyly executing. And on this point, I didn’t disagree. It didn’t seem to me that Russia was pushing a grand strategy so much as responding to opportunities in order to do exactly what Baykov said the country would: “to be an autonomous player, to uphold its identity of a great power which is strategically independent.” If we look at the world through Russian eyes, the plan is working, but it isn’t the plan we thought it was. Russia did not break the back of the international world order, as much as it recognized the opportunities created by American withdrawal and the new era of global bardak.