Argument

From Chess Player to Barroom Brawler

From Chess Player to Barroom Brawler

It is too easy to forget that beneath Vladimir Putin’s glossy and faintly plastic exterior of chilly abstraction beats the heart of a truly red-blooded homo sovieticus.

While Russian airborne forces gather at airfields near the Ukrainian border and artillery shipments roll into Crimea, it seems — to the naked eye — that the real battle is on the ground. In truth, it’s being fought inside Vladimir Putin: namely, the Russian president’s head and heart.

The head says that Crimea is just a bargaining chip — something to make a deal that protects Moscow’s interests in Ukraine without precipitating sanctions, which could cripple the Russian economy and alienate the elite. But the heart says that Ukraine is not a real country — just a lost portion of a Greater Russia — and that the West and its Ukrainian cohorts are cowards who will never make good on their brave words.

This is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to predict Putin’s next move — his ultimate game plan. He himself does not seem to know, or at least appears torn.

Certainly in the early days of intervention, the head seemed to be calling the shots. In both Moscow and Simferopol, the language was of autonomy, federalism, and "respect for Russian interests." While the Russians still described Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine, they also acknowledged that he was politically dead. Symbolically, he was not accorded the pomp due to a head of state, and Putin did not meet him: The Russian president seems to feel that failure is contagious.

However, after Crimea was swallowed up so easily — it’s typically easier for a leader like Putin to send the boys in than to bring them home — Putin’s emotional side appears to have come to the fore. The inability or failure of the new government in Kiev to make overtures and start haggling appears to have affronted him. Likewise, Western criticisms only seem to have toughened his resolve.

Today, "military exercises" mean that forces are being mustered along the eastern Ukrainian border. Especially alarming are indications that — as well as the paratroopers who spearhead an invasion — the Russians are mobilizing the regular ground troops who would follow up the initial blitzkrieg, seizing and holding territory.

If I felt confident that Putin’s head were in charge, I’d see this as a characteristically muscular political gesture, a heavy-handed nudge to Kiev to make him an offer to stand down. However, Putin’s heart now seems committed to following through and not appearing cowed by Western challenges.

Of course, all leaders make decisions based on both rational calculation and emotional response. But in this case, Putin’s unexpected bifurcation matters more for a number of reasons.

The first of which is because of the very lack of checks and balances. Putin’s regime was never as unreservedly autocratic as it often seemed. Putin was first among equals, deriving much of his power precisely from his ability to manage, balance, and build coalitions within a varied and fragmented elite. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has become increasingly isolated, apparently by his own design. Bit by bit, this is eroding his position. But given that the controls on him were political rather than institutional, it leaves him virtually unconstrained at the moment.

Figures such as Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, and political technologist Vyacheslav Surkov — who once could tell him tough truths — fell from grace. The nationalists, bigots, and ex-spooks (often one and the same) who were always a part of his court, now seem to dominate it. People who understand the wider world end up relegated to simply executing the orders from the Kremlin.

Here in Moscow, for example, sources in the foreign ministry and the military make little secret that they were neither involved in the deliberations about Crimea nor have any real sense of where the Kremlin is taking them. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as wily and experienced an operator as you’ll find, apparently was not part of the inner circle that decided to invade Crimea. Instead, he had to mouth unbelievable lies, saying no troops were there — even as video footage showed units in their Russian battledress and Russian weapons spilling out of Russian armored vehicles with Russian license plates.

Likewise, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the most efficient and honest technocrats of the administration, has been notably detached from the most significant military deployment since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. The word from the general staff, after all, is that no one in the Kremlin is asking their opinion; they are just there to make sure that whenever the vlasti, the powers-that-be, tell them what needs to be done, they get it done. One just-retired officer — a high-flying young lieutenant in 1979, when Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan over the misgivings of the general staff — glumly told me how similar things seemed today.

But while all of this unfolds, the West is unprepared to deal with this new Putin. It becomes harder to know which of the usual instruments of diplomacy and statecraft will be most useful or appropriate. Measures intended to appeal to a rational actor in the Kremlin, such as targeted sanctions and threats to support Kiev, may actually only inflame the emotional Putin.

Not only has Russia become accustomed to Putin’s heart taking second place to his head, so have we.

What is playing out in Crimea and, potentially, in eastern Ukraine, is thus not just proof of Russian hegemonic ambition in post-Soviet Eurasia. It is also an expression of a genuine and serious change that is taking place at the core of Russian politics.

Until now, Putin was a bare-knuckled and often confrontational geopolitical player, but — even invading Georgia — he retained a clear sense of just how far he could go. Indeed, this was his genius, to know when to play the game and when to break the rules.

But Putin today is increasingly a caricature of Putin in his first two terms. He is listening to fewer dissenting voices, allowing less informed discussion of policy options, deliberately narrowing his circle of counselors. Perhaps feeling the chill touch of political, if not physical mortality, he appears not just unwilling but unable to seem to be backing down from a fight, more concerned with short-term bravado than long-term implications.

Is this a passing phase? Probably not. Put aside the old clichés about Putin the chessplayer: We may have to get used to dealing with Putin the barroom brawler.