No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.

Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Putin Is No James Bond Villain

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on foreign-language propaganda, all that President Vladimir Putin has achieved outside Russia is the status of a Bond movie villain. He may enjoy it, especially since there's no 007 in sight to tackle him, but his variety of pop stardom is growing into a problem for his country: He is seen as a bigger threat to the West than his actions warrant.

A fresh survey of European and U.S. politicians and policy wonks by the website Politico revealed that Putin is seen as by far the biggest threat facing Europe and its relationship with the U.S.:

Source: Politico

Brexit? Grexit? Economic problems? A million migrants waiting in Libya to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, or the extremist parties that would have these migrants drown rather than resettled? Are these threats really less deadly than one rather short Russian man? 

"Putin has achieved a pop-culture-fueled notoriety rarely bestowed upon world leaders," McKay Coppins wrote in a BuzzFeed article on Jeb Bush's upcoming European tour. The yet-undeclared Republican presidential candidate is expected to attack Putin at each stop, including Poland, where the newly elected President Andrzej Duda campaigned on taking a tougher stand against Putin's aggression. Bush will also speak in Estonia, where President Toomas Hendrik Ilves accuses Putin of destroying the post-World War II order in Europe.

Duda's anti-Putin rhetoric needed to be tougher than the incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski's to win. In the same way, Bush's rhetoric must be a few degrees hotter than that of President Barack Obama. That isn't easy. On Monday, Obama used his public appearance at the end of the Group of 7 summit in Germany to hammer the Russian president. "Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire?" he asked.

A preoccupation with Putin at this level is far more serious than the Bond villain listicles that have been made about Putin for years. If policy makers and pundits see Putin as a major, even dominant threat, countering that threat will become a policy priority. 

So far, rearmament in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been largely limited to Russia's neighbors in Eastern Europe. Still, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials are playing up the Russian threat, which has breathed new life into a declining organization. Doing business with Russia is politically unpopular, so the damage to Western trade with Putin's country is likely to go beyond the Ukraine-related sanctions that will probably get extended later this month. 

The perception of the threat Putin poses, and the rhetoric of response to it have outgrown the the threat itself. Taken much further, that response could even feed Putin's paranoia about the threat the West poses to his regime and Russia more broadly, that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since the Minsk cease-fire in eastern Ukraine came into effect in February, Russia has not used its regular troops to gain more territory, although the feisty Ukrainian government has provided potential excuses for action. The government in Kiev has imposed a de-facto economic blockade on the rebel-held regions, making it difficult for goods and people to move across the contact line. It has been in no hurry to make the legislative changes required by the Minsk deal to give more autonomy to the eastern regions.

Instead of steamrolling the still-weak, underequipped and undertrained Ukrainian military, Putin has been giving it time to recover from previous defeats. Last month, the pro-Kremlin site Gazeta.ru announced that "Project Novorossiya" -- the idea that the two rebel "people's republics" in eastern Ukraine would unite to form a pro-Russian unrecognized state -- had been shelved, and that the Russia-based unofficial support structures for the project had been disbanded.

In recent days, the rebels tried to grab the village of Maryinka from the Ukrainian forces, but were pushed back and apparently denied the kind of Russian support that allowed them to claw back a lot of lost territory a year ago and then win the crucial railroad junction of Debaltsevo in February.

None of this looks as though Putin is "re-creating the glories of the Soviet empire." There is no question he pines for those glory days, but, were he a bona fide Bond villain, he'd try a lot harder to obliterate Ukraine's pro-Western government. As it is, he seems intent on a negotiated solution, even though he is trying to drive a hard bargain. This behavior is not consistent with plans to invade Estonia or Poland and not compatible with presenting the biggest threat to European order. 

Putin is a rogue dictator and respects nobody's rights but his own. That doesn't, however, mean that he is intent on destroying the world with nuclear weapons unless it bends to his will, or on launching a Hitleresque blitzkrieg in Europe. He will make trouble for the EU, NATO and the U.S., but he is careful not to unduly endanger the grip that he and his billionaire friends have on Russia. Adventures in the style of Auric Goldfinger, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, would be too risky for the real life Putin.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net