"The problem you Americans have in dealing with us is that you think you understand us, but you don't. You look at the Chinese and you think: 'They're not like us.' You look at us Russians, and you think, 'They’re like us.' But you're wrong. We are not like you."
Over the past few years, top-ranking Russians have repeatedly delivered versions of the admonition above to American interlocutors. We’ve been told that it comes originally from Vladimir Putin. That makes sense. Putin is a former intelligence officer. And what the warning expresses, with typically Putin-esque bluntness and political incorrectness, is a maxim shared by U.S. intelligence officers: Beware of seeing false mirror images. Do not assume your adversary will think and act the same way you would in similar circumstances. You will likely misread him if you do.
Despite a new ceasefire, Russia and the West remain at risk of uncontrolled escalation over Ukraine, and in such situations little can be more dangerous than misreading your adversary. So Putin is right: Washington shouldn’t “mirror-image” him, and U.S. leaders shouldn’t assume that he will interpret events and words as they might. But one neglected question is that of how Putin interprets the United States. Has he followed his own advice—or does he assume Americans, including President Obama, will act and react as he would? Does he even care about how Americans think, what their motives and values are, how their system works? What does Vladimir Putin actually know about the U.S. and about Americans?