But the cold war view is a problematic one for Russia, because it is a struggle it lost. “It’s not policy,” says Pavlovsky. “It’s trauma. America is the trauma of history, and traumas are very serious things.” As a result, Pavlovsky explains, “our relationship to America takes up far too much mental space in the Kremlin.” This is true in Russian culture as well, manifested as an obsession with the United States, both with what it thinks of Russia and with preventing its perceived corrosive influence. (In Moscow, I was a guest on a prime-time radio show dedicated solely to deciphering what the foreign press wrote about Russia. The host was surprised to learn that no such show exists in the United States.)
Putin sees himself as the necessary balance to America’s global power. He likes being the one America has to come to in order to strike deals, and without whom nothing can go forward, in part because it reinforces his view of the world. But by looking to be a counterweight to the United States, Putin’s foreign policy, ironically, becomes prisoner to America’s.
Another problem with this worldview is that it isn’t much of a worldview. It’s what comes together when you sum up the remainders of Putin’s actions, a strange and livid pattern. “It’s not that Putin sits there and thinks about the world,” Pavlovsky explains. “Russia’s actions are often reactive without really thinking it through, without thinking what our goals are, what our place in the world is. We are hell bent on preserving the status quo without even understanding what it is. And when the status quo changes, we get angry and look for the enemy who’s destroying it.” Another problem with this kind of foreign policy is that it lacks staying power. “The status quo always falls apart,” says Pavlovsky. “That’s its defining characteristic.”