What Kind of Putin Will the Next U.S. President Face?

Putin walks to applause in the Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks as he attends the inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow. His last term has represented a deterioration in Russia's relationship with the West. Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters

"We are what we pretend to be," Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. "So we must be careful what we pretend to be." There's little chance that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ever come across this line - American literature does not appear to be among his interests. But you have to wonder if the words would evoke a rueful smile of recognition. Or perhaps he wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Perhaps, after 17 years in power, he is too far gone.

Putin's ability to stay on top – to gain more masterful control of his country than even some of his Soviet predecessors ever did – owes much to his capacity to play pretend. Through his near-total control of the media, his carefully managed public image, and his skillful deployment of the most emotionally resonant symbols of Russian history, Putin has created an alternate reality – a "Russian world" of the mind – in which the country is proudly united at home and virtuously reasonable on the world stage. And in which he is its savior. Having obliged the Russian people to play pretend along with him, Putin has earned an immense, enduring popularity that even the present economic crisis has not yet dented. (Just because the enthusiasm is artificial doesn't mean it isn't real.)

Putin's alternate reality isn't the same world the rest of us inhabit. It is one in which the brutal subjugation of Chechnya was no different than Western anti-terrorism efforts; in which MH-117 was shot down by Ukrainians, not by Russian separatists; and in which the "Crimean Spring" was a spontaneous grassroots movement.

The problem is that the harder Putin leans on his role as mythmaker - as he must do in the face of crashing oil prices and biting Western sanctions - the farther from reality he and Russia will recede. This has already had dangerous consequences. According to Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, one of the reasons Putin is so intransigent in his support of Bashar Assad's cruel regime is that he's convinced that the U.S. is jockeying for influence with him in Syria. "They don't believe," she marvels, "that we don't want it."

Putin's interpretation of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Euromaidan - that both were Western, and specifically, American plots - is no less divorced from reality. And this delusion, too, has had dire consequences, particularly at home. Part of the reason Putin has been so ruthless in suppressing independent civil society and stamping out protest is that he genuinely believes that the Russian opposition is a Western-funded fifth column. There is no room in his world for any legitimate disagreement with Russia's actions. It is all "Russophobia."

(It is worth pointing out that our own system is perfectly capable of deluding itself - consider the disastrous groupthink that led the Bush administration into Iraq. Our society remains open enough, for now, to allow for very un-Russian self-reflection. But imagine if most American still agreed that Bush was right.)

For the next U.S. president, Putin's inhabitation of Russia's narrowing and darkening world will make him harder than ever to reach. Engaging him with even partial success will mean learning to understand this world he has created. Because that, from now on, is where he lives.

Like any good mythology, Putin's works because it is not wholly divorced from the truth. Naively, the West assumed that, after Communism fell in 1989, it would soon be replaced by a healthy embrace of liberal capitalism. But for the Russian people, the 1990s yielded no credible alternative worldviews – only poverty, misery, and humiliation. Even as the least scrupulous of their countrymen gained impossible riches, they watched their state collapse around them to the utter indifference of the outside world.

And then along comes Putin, promising to restore state authority, defang the oligarchs, and – forgive me - make Russia great again. This, at least in his (and his TV networks') interpretation, he then goes on to achieve - all accompanied by an oil-fueled consumption boom and, until recently, sharply rising living standards. No wonder the country got onboard. First he gave the people exactly what they wanted. And, then, through an inexorable tightening of the public sphere, he has made sure they have kept wanting what he was offering - self-respect, stability, and honor.

The West would do well to remember that, at least for now, these - and not tolerance, liberalism, or capitalism - are the Russian people's priorities. This doesn't mean, as some commentators have hinted, that the West must tolerate Putin's acting out on the world stage. Ukraine's independence is too high a price to pay to satisfy him. But when dealing with a wily adversary, it is important to understand his motivations. And we must have no illusions: for now, he has his people behind him.

Though depressing, this does point the way to a more fruitful long-term engagement. While parrying Putin's geopolitical power plays, the West would do well to try to undo his greatest strength – the epistemic bubble of mythology in which he has enveloped the Russian people. Growing business ties, facilitating travel (perhaps loosening the visa regime?), emphasizing cultural exchange, and promoting independent Russian-language media can all help. Isolation will always – always – work in Putin's favor.

Because Putin's world is not, strictly speaking, real, it faces troublesome contradictions when it comes into contact with the truth. (It is telling that the only serious domestic opposition to Putin is among the small segment of the population that gets its information independently from state channels.) If we truly believe our open system is better than his closed one, helping the Russian people see those contradictions is the best way to pry it open.

Ilya Lozovsky is assistant editor for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab. Follow him on Twitter at @ichbinilya.