George W Bush famously said of Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin:
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."
According to the Atlantic:
“Damon Wilson, who in 2008 was the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and the lead manager at the George W. Bush White House for the Georgia crisis, was blunt in his assessment of the warnings before Russia’s invasion that summer. “Our analysts missed it on Georgia,” he said.
Wilson, who is now the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, also said an important reason was that the U.S. government has failed to understand that Putin does not see America as a friend or a partner.”
“But the biggest problem, according to Wilson, was a failure to absorb that Putin does not assess his own interests in the way Americans believe that he should.
A veteran intelligence analyst with the United States military, noted that younger colleagues had been confident that "Putin wouldn't do anything" in the current crisis. Then came the stealth invasion of Crimea. … "Why anyone should be surprised is what is surprising. We are believing our own spin that the world has changed. Not in the Russian government, it hasn't.”
The problem here, as I see it, is that Americans find it difficult to think like Russians. Americans are naturally optimistic and believe in progress. Russians are naturally pessimistic and believe that life is a veil of tears. Americans understand the difference between a zero-sum game and a positive-sum game. The Russians think concepts like that are just American fairy dust designed to bamboozle them.
Until American analysts come to terms with the fact that the Russians hold a much different world view than they do, they will continue to be surprised by the behaviour of their government, and their leaders, who only recognize concepts like winning and losing. No rising-tide-raises-all-boats for them.
Vladimir Putin has been in power for 14 years now so we should have a good idea of who he is. He is aggressive and belligerent and opportunistic, but he is not reckless. In other words, he lies midway between Otto von Bismarck and Joseph Stalin. He lacks the apocalyptic recklessness of Adolph Hitler (which is a good thing as he is sitting on a colossal pile of nukes); and he only strikes when the cards are in his favour.
While I am not the biggest fan of John McCain, I think he was right on the money when he said this:
“I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.”