Vladimir Pastukhov
Visiting fellow at St Anthony's College, Oxford

For the first time in his life

Mr. Putin may soon feel himself a European when he begins dealing with Mr. Trump

Lying.  Some use it as a weapon, for others it is simply a way of life.

Global political issues aside, the election of Donald Trump as US President creates a different, but no less pressing, psychological conundrum for the Kremlin elite:  How to deal with someone who can lie more shiftily and vigorously than the Kremlin itself.

This odd and, indeed, anecdotal situation, may create even more uncertainty and instability in the relationship between Russia and the United States than under Mr. Obama or his predecessors.

The lie as a weapon

Lying, in general, and most certainly in politics in the 21st century, is worthy of a separate body of analysis.

Unfortunately, lying has shown itself to be an ineradicable and now widespread phenomenon in politics.

At the same time, attitudes towards the lie, and its scale of usage, can differ greatly from one political culture to the next.

On the whole, Western political culture formally recognizes honesty as a virtue, and has delegated lying to the dark side.

That said, lying in the West has found a place for itself – many lie in private.  It is when a lie becomes public it can exact a heavy price.  For this reason, Western politicians try to be careful with their choice of words.

In Russia the situation is quite different.  Russian political leaders consider the lie an acceptable weapon, especially when used against a stronger opponent.

Here we see a sort of traditional Scythian struggle of the hinterland steppes against greater civilizations.  In Russia, lying as a means to attain economic or political goals is not viewed as shameful, but simply part and parcel of a practical military strategy.  And since Russians today feel as though they are at war with whole world, lying is considered quite natural.

In fact, the entire phenomenon of Russia’s current hybrid wars in the Ukraine and Syria are built around the instrument of the lie.

Mr. Putin feels no discomfort at all when he initially declares there was never a single Russian officer in the Crimea and then, a year later, appearing alone in a Russian television special, reports on the successful operation carried out there by the Russian army.

One day we learn Russia is waging war in the Ukrainian Donbass region, only the next day to hear it is not; one day Russia is sending troops to the Middle East, and then subsequently removing them.

The Kremlin politicians’ stunning ability to look someone straight in the eye and lie often puts their western counterparts, especially the Europeans, at a complete loss, and attains the desired effect – to make them pause, stutter and back away.

Soon, however, things may take a turn for the worse for Russia.

The lie as a way of life

In contrast to Mr. Putin’s talented performances in the public arena, in private he is known as a relatively honest partner, who can keep his word and honor informal agreements.

To use a Russian term, one could describe Mr. Putin as a “conceptual moralist”. For him, the law and other formal limitations are of little importance.  At the same time, he believes there exist rules of conduct or customs that should be strictly observed by those inside a narrow or chosen circle.

Such an approach is in fact characteristic of peasant cultures, which prescribes the application of moral behavior to those inside the chosen circle, but allows for deviations against those outside it.  In this regard, Putin is an unmistakable  representative of the Russian people.

This moral flexibility has given Putin a great tactical advantage over his European colleagues, who find themselves constrained by a variety of complexes and other limitations of well-mannered persons.

By all appearances, from the moment Mr. Putin came to the realization he was dealing with people he could not depend on (probably between 2008-2012), those leaders promptly earned a place outside the circle.  At that point Mr. Putin switched gears and began winning round after round from the Europeans.

The refined Europeans stood no chance of success against Mr. Putin at the Minsk, Normandy and Geneva negotiations.  Putin manipulated public opinion with ease and abandon both in Russia and the West, changing rules as he went, calling white black, or sometimes vice-versa, denying the obvious and maintaining the unbelievable.

With Mr. Trump’s rise to power, however, Mr. Putin’s advantage may have evaporated.  We now see at the helm of the world’s mightiest nation a specimen from a very specific business culture, who does not recognize standard limitations usually practiced by professional, public politicians.

Judging from what we see, lying seems to have accompanied Mr. Trump throughout his whole career.

For Mr. Putin lying is a weapon, for Mr. Trump, it is a passion and a way of life.

The Conceptual Moralist versus The Amoralist

Unlike Putin, Trump is unfettered not only by formal limitations, but, and more significantly, informal ones as well.  Regarding words said, it appears Mr. Trump is capable of any ruse – depending on the situation, he can forget them, take them back, or sell them anew, at a dearer price.

It would seem Mr. Trump is capable of bowing to Mr. Putin ten times over, and then deceiving him ten times back, without the slightest twinge of conscience.  Mr. Trump can easily look someone straight in the eye and, without a blink, carefully pronounce any necessary nonsense or blather.

Unlike Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump does not distinguish between those inside and outside the circle; Mr. Trump is capable of conning anybody.

Unlike his European counterparts, Mr. Putin has little interest in the rule of law and does not suffer from a legal conscience.  We may soon see that Mr. Trump is indifferent not only to the formal rule of law, but also to informal rules or codes of behavior, which have important meaning for Mr. Putin.

In his relationship with Trump, Putin may soon find himself in the role of an old-school, Russian criminal authority, butting heads with a new breed of leadership who denies not only law and order, but any order at all.  This will be a war of The Conceptual Moralist versus The Amoralist.

It is quite possible the discomfort Mr. Hollande, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Cameron have experienced in their dealings with Mr. Putin, may be the same experience Mr. Putin will soon enjoy in his dealings with Mr. Trump.

The superiority a common hooligan feels over the bespectacled student in a dark alley may have just evaporated for Mr. Putin.  For the first time, Mr. Putin, albeit Russian, may soon feel himself a European.


This article originally appeared on the Russian BBC


English translation by Edward Opp

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