Why Vladimir Putin Thinks We’re Out to Get Him

The regime Putin fears we'll change isn't Assads. It's his own.

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Iliya Pitalev / handout / Getty Images

President Putin at the G20 Summit on Sep. 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg.

Why is Vladimir Putin so hostile towards the United States? His Thursday New York Times op-ed struck a superficially friendly tone, but it had the overall effect of undermining Barack Obama and chastising America’s sense of itself. But that was no shock, coming from the man who enraged Washington by granting asylum to Edward Snowden and who recently barred American adoptions of Russian children, among other affronts.

So is Putin just a jerk? Maybe, although there are numerous reasons that might explain his antagonism: the lingering Cold War mentality of a former KGB agent; insecurity about Russia’s post-Soviet global status; his sometimes comical machismo.

There’s likely another, potentially more important factor driving Putin’s animus, however. He thinks we’re out to get him. And in a sense, he’s right.

(MORE: Taking Lead in Syria Talks, Russia Works to Preserve Assad Regime)

To understand why, start with the Russian president’s belief that America has a general habit of meddling in the affairs of other countries and trying to change their governments. Iraq is just the most obvious example, but Putin sees many others. He was furious that a United Nations military mission in Libya sold by Washington as a limited humanitarian mission became an extended bombing campaign to topple Moammar Gaddafi. Putin fumed that Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, had supported the resolution: “It allows anyone to do anything they want—to take any actions against a sovereign state,” Putin said in March 2011.

Putin has also argued that America’s confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is the pretext for a grander plan. “Under the guise of trying to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction,” Putin said early last year, “they are attempting something else entirely and setting different goals—regime change.”

Sound familiar? Putin sees much the same in Syria, which is why he has adamantly refused to support a U.N. authorization of force against Assad. It’s not a totally unreasonable suspicion. Barack Obama has called for Bashar Assad to leave power, prominent members of Congress like John McCain are urging regime change, and although the White House denies it officially, there have been hints that any U.S. military strikes could indirectly serve that purpose.

Less widely understood than Putin’s concerns about Iraq, Syria and Libya is his anger over U.S. actions closer to his borders. Putin believes America helped defeat a Moscow-backed candidate in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, partly by sending millions of dollars to pro-democracy activists there. He hated George W. Bush’s courting of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where a U.S.-backed president was defying Moscow’s longtime influence. (After a 2008 military clash between Russia and Georgia, McCain declared that “today, we are all Georgians.”) And he surely remembers well the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s—which Russia also bitterly opposed—that led to the ouster of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

“If you look at events over the past 20 years from the Kremlin’s perspective, you see a consistent pattern of U.S. and western behavior amounting to a policy of regime change across Eurasia,” says Matthew Rojanksy, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Putin asks, if Washington can use force to topple regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, and can sponsor regime change by other means in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, why wouldn’t Belarus or Kazakhstan or even Russia itself be next? Putin has to draw his own red line, and Syria is a good place to start doing so.”

(MORE: Obama and Syria: Stumbling Toward Damascus)

“It’s not the whole story,” says Rojansky. “But it’s a big part.”

Most galling for Putin is evidence that America’s regime change agenda has crept into his own country. When mass anti-Putin demonstrations erupted in Moscow in late 2011, Putin quickly accused the U.S. of encouraging the protests. He lashed out specifically at Hillary Clinton for encouraging pro-democracy activists. “She set the tone, gave the signal,” Putin said in December 2011, charging that the U.S. was spending tens of millions of dollars “to influence our internal political process.”

Soon after, Russian state media accused the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, of being a subversive revolutionary agent. Pro-Putin commentators noted that McFaul is a longtime democracy advocate who has written of “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution,” and argued in a 2007 article that “even while working closely with Putin on matters of mutual interest, Western leaders must recommit to the objective of creating the conditions for a democratic leader to emerge in the long term.”

And then there was Putin’s gleeful nemesis McCain, who responded to the protests by taunting Putin via Twitter: “Dear Vlad, the #ArabSpring has arrived at a neighborhood near you,” the Arizona Republican Senator tweeted in February 2012, linking to a Times article about a mass demonstration.

Last year Putin responded by kicking the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) out of Russia; a foreign ministry spokesman charged that USAID had been trying to influence the political process, including elections at various levels and civil society.” That move was part of a wider crackdown on “foreign agents” with alleged political agendas for Russia.

Putin is undoubtedly posturing some—playing the old autocrat’s trick of blaming foreigners for internal problems. But he also clearly feels that Obama has, at a minimum, tried to undermine him within Russia. His Times op-ed may have been a small way of returning the favor.

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