Brian Taylor discusses Putin psychology, relationship with United States in McSwain-Walker lecture

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Syracuse professor of political science visited the Reves Center Oct. 4 for the McSwain-Walker lecture.

Thursday, Oct. 4, Syracuse professor of political science Brian Taylor came to the College of William and Mary to discuss the psychology of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a part of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies’ annual McSwain-Walker Lecture.

The McSwain-Walker lecture, which hosts speakers who discuss the cultural implications of United States’ relations with other nations, invited Taylor, who said that the United States was not in a new Cold War with Russia.

“No, we’re not in a new Cold War, there are many aspects of the situation today that are quite different from that,” Taylor said. “But we are definitely in a period of bad relations, and I want to talk about where that comes from and my understanding of it.”

“No, we’re not in a new Cold War, there are many aspects of the situation today that are quite different from that,” Taylor said. “But we are definitely in a period of bad relations, and I want to talk about where that comes from and my understanding of it.”

The lecture then went into detail on Taylor’s belief of the source of the conflict, and the idea of Putinism. He took the idea of Putinism further, discussing the Code of Putinism, which engages in a “punching above its weight” strategy for interactions with other nations. While Russia acts as an international superpower, its steady decline in GDP and population say otherwise.

“He wants to go back to an international political system in which the dominant states define the nature of the order for all remaining states,” Taylor said.

Taylor said that Russia envisions itself in that hierarchy as one of the upcoming dominants, and he believes Putin wants a new international order as well as a new “Big Three” modeled after the one Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin found themselves a part of. According to Taylor, Putin thinks he has not achieved these hierarchical goals yet — in spite of his success in Turkey —  or is on the way to achievement as he handles conflicts in the West with President Donald Trump.

“If you just listen to what [Putin] says, I don’t think he’s necessarily convinced that he’s winning,” Taylor said. “They keep thinking that one of their moves in Western Europe is going to lead to a collapse of EU unity on sanctions but the sanctions keep getting extended. The so-called ‘deep state’ in the United States, together with Congress, is actually tightening sanctions on Russia — not lifting them.”

However, he believes that Putin achieved his goal to keep leaders sympathetic to the Russian regime in power in the Middle East.

“Yes. [Putin] more or less has achieved his objectives,” Taylor said. “So what were his objectives? His objectives were to make sure that the most sympathetic to Russian regime in the Middle East stayed in power.”

A member of the audience asked Taylor about a hypothetical scenario where Putin is no longer the president of Russia and what the implications of that scenario would be if it occurred now. Taylor said that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would take over.

“[Medvedev] would, I think try and stake a claim to that, but what we know about Russian politics suggests that all of the … informal groupings between different actors [in Russia] would be maneuvering to try and either undermine Medvedev or become his best friend,” Taylor said. “And all that maneuvering would probably lead to elite destabilization, because I think most higher members of the Russian elite aren’t convinced that Medvedev has the chops for the job.”

Taylor then discussed the possibility of Putin’s retirement in the following decades, suggesting that his retirement would be unlikely, as he would feel the need to stay in his presidential role to maintain order, which elites under him would support.

“So they could change the constitution, but he didn’t really want to do that in 2008 when he had the chance, so I doubt if that would happen now unless it’s like a ceremonial kind of change, so he would become something like the chair of the state council, and he would have this formal position with informal powers and try to manage the system from that position,” Taylor said. “Over time, I also think that would grow unstable.”

In Taylor’s psychological analysis of Putin, he suggested that Putin feels vulnerable about Russia and its political system under the shadow of the United States and feels his country needs to be aggressive in order to protect its sovereignty.

“… There’s a strong degree of suspicion of the U.S. and its foreign policies and especially there’s this notion that a lot of what the rest of the Western world does is because it’s a vassal of the United States,” Taylor said.

Taylor believes U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions have disrupted and threatened this image of Western unity, from trade wars with allies to attacking NATO.

“… As far as the Russians are concerned, or at least the Russian leadership, democracy promotion [by the United States] is just a label for externally sponsored regime change,” Taylor said.

When asked about Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons, Taylor explained that, while he believes Russia has been successful in nuclear rearmament, there is a very low prospect for U.S.-Russia nuclear confrontation. However, Taylor is concerned about maintaining arms reduction standards with Russia as treaties near expiration.

“It’s clear, and it’s not new in Russian military doctrine since the end of the Cold War that they reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of a threat to Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Taylor said. “… I do worry about where we’re going in terms of nuclear arms control because we’re in a situation now that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that was signed under Obama and Medvedev is set to expire in a couple of years.”

Athena Zacharakos ’20 said she was impressed with the setup of the presentation and Taylor’s use of historical events to provide a progression of history and support his argument.

“The psychology of Putinism and how Putin thinks as a leader, and his own personal perspective of how he views the West was very interesting and eye-opening,” Zacharakos said.

“The psychology of Putinism and how Putin thinks as a leader, and his own personal perspective of how he views the West was very interesting and eye-opening,” Zacharakos said.

This sentiment was shared by another student, Sarah Bomfim ’20.

“I had never thought of it as Russia acting defensively,” Bomfim ’20. “I feel like it’s usually portrayed as them being offensive [in the media].”