Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

What Does Putin Want?

The Russian leader has been stirring the pot from Crimea to Syria — but to what end?

By , a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program.
GettyImages-501721268_960
GettyImages-501721268_960

After Russian President Vladimir Putin took over Crimea, and then sent his little green men not-so-stealthily into Eastern Ukraine in early 2014, I thought I understood his objectives. It seemed a clear strategy of post-1990 revenge: Moscow would expand its control of the “near abroad,” as in Georgia, and dominate, if not reconstitute, as much of the former Soviet Union as reasonably possible.

Now, one more frozen conflict and an unprecedented military intervention of Syria later, I am scratching my head and wondering: what is Putin thinking; what does he want? While no one has ever accused Putin of being an economist, the combination of $40-per-barrel oil and Western sanctions have crippled the already beleaguered Russian economy, expected to shrink nearly 4 percent this year with 15 percent inflation and a shriveled ruble — all with no end in sight.

In Syria, apparently airbrushing away the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, he has conducted mainly an air war. Three months and hundreds of airstrikes later, all Putin appears to have achieved is creating more murder, mayhem, and refugees in Syria. Moscow has made, by most accounts, very little progress in Syria’s seemingly interminable civil war, which with multi-sided foreign interventions, increasingly seems a 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War. That may help explain Putin making nice with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria diplomacy. They don’t call it the graveyard of empires for nothing.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin took over Crimea, and then sent his little green men not-so-stealthily into Eastern Ukraine in early 2014, I thought I understood his objectives. It seemed a clear strategy of post-1990 revenge: Moscow would expand its control of the “near abroad,” as in Georgia, and dominate, if not reconstitute, as much of the former Soviet Union as reasonably possible.

Now, one more frozen conflict and an unprecedented military intervention of Syria later, I am scratching my head and wondering: what is Putin thinking; what does he want? While no one has ever accused Putin of being an economist, the combination of $40-per-barrel oil and Western sanctions have crippled the already beleaguered Russian economy, expected to shrink nearly 4 percent this year with 15 percent inflation and a shriveled ruble — all with no end in sight.

In Syria, apparently airbrushing away the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, he has conducted mainly an air war. Three months and hundreds of airstrikes later, all Putin appears to have achieved is creating more murder, mayhem, and refugees in Syria. Moscow has made, by most accounts, very little progress in Syria’s seemingly interminable civil war, which with multi-sided foreign interventions, increasingly seems a 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War. That may help explain Putin making nice with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria diplomacy. They don’t call it the graveyard of empires for nothing.

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had ignored repeated warnings and overflew Turkish airspace to bomb not the Islamic State but ethnic Turkmen anti-Assad rebels, Putin responded. Applying sanctions against Turkey, cancelling a nuclear plant and Turkstream, and an important gas pipeline under construction, Putin has sacrificed multibillion-dollar economic projects desperately needed by the Russian economy. Putin also dealt a blow to an already struggling Gazprom, which was building the pipeline to maintain its tenuous hold over the European gas market.

Beyond the self-inflicted economic damage, Putin has reopened the issue of European security, which at least the United States and EU thought was closed in 1991. All to Russia’s detriment: Putin’s air and sea provocations have Swedes pondering NATO membership, the Baltics clamoring for permanently deployed NATO forces, NATO rejuvenated with a renewed sense of purpose, and European defense spending, waning for a decade is now moving in an upward direction.

In the Middle East, he is now competing now with the United States for Great Satan status, and for every Sunni jihadist, Putin has a big bullseye on his back (not least for Muslims in Russian Chechnya or Dagestan who are joining the Islamic State).

How is any of this in Russia’s interests? The irony is that Putin could alter the trajectory of this Russian train wreck waiting to happen and consolidate a victory with one phone call. How? If he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and said something along the lines of, Let’s solve the Ukraine issue. You accept the fait accompli in Crimea, guarantee a neutral Ukraine not in NATO, allow Ukraine and Russia a trade deal with EU, but allow Ukraine into Eurasian Union. Allow maximum autonomy for Donbas, and rebuild Eastern Ukraine with a joint ECB/Russian fund. Lift all sanctions and return to pre-Ukraine relations, and I will withdraw all military forces, stop aiding rebels, and commit to no further use of force to change borders.

While the United States might choke on such a deal, the Europeans would be glad to put the sordid Ukraine episode behind them. After all, Ukraine, and especially Eastern Ukraine was integrated into the Russian economy. A failing Ukraine and a demolished Eastern Ukraine would not seem to be in Russian interests.

Or is it? Here, it may help to understand Putin’s behavior by distinguishing between Putin’s political interests and Russia’s national interests. While the above scenario is arguably in Russia’s interests, Putin believes a successful democratic Ukraine, along the lines of Poland would be an example that threatens Putin’s authoritarian pluralist model’s legitimacy as well as the power of the Siloviki and oligarch elite as he gears up for 2018 elections. Seeing outside events as U.S. orchestrated conspiracies to undermine Russia provides an enemy that helps legitimize Putin as the savior of Mother Russia. Thus, portraying pro-Western change in Ukraine as a U.S. conspiracy to undermine Russia with “color” revolutions is part of that pattern.

In the Middle East, Putin could form a real united front coalition against the Islamic State, and use his leverage to protect Assad’s position — at least in the short run. Instead he is allying with Iran, which has a similar, though not identical agenda in Syria. And he is more likely to get sucked into the chaos of the Middle East Vortex than to peacefully resolve the Syrian mess.

So what exactly is Putin trying to achieve? I’m not entirely sure even he knows. I think the realities I have described suggest he is tactician, not a strategist. One way to think about it is a Putin driven by a bloody-minded sense of payback for the Soviet Collapse and NATO expansion. Respecting strength and seizing upon openings has been his modus operandi. He knew the United States would not risk nuclear war over Georgia or Ukraine, areas Moscow sees as vital but the United States doesn’t.

In the Middle East, he saw a retreating U.S. administration more concerned with the costs of continued involvement than with the costs of inaction. Aside from a 50 year relationship with the Assad family and naval bases in Tartus, my guess is that Putin couldn’t resist the opportunity to at once: show the world a Russia as world power, make a statement against U.S. regime change, and show that Russia, unlike the United States, stands behind its friends. In addition, Moscow would like to bolster its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, where recent discoveries suggest natural gas bonanza.

Yet at the end of the day, where does this leave Russia? When I ask Russian friends where Putin thinks Russia will be in five or 10 years, they laugh and say, “He doesn’t think ahead five days.”

This Russian behavior is particularly troubling because it is difficult to discern motives. We can’t make rational actor assumptions about Putin. That makes formulating policy all the more difficult. The only thing we know for sure is that Putin is intent on showing the world Russia is a great power and that he respects strength and takes advantage of perceived weakness. He pushes forward until there is pushback. This of course, is the story of the past 400 years of Russian history.

Rather than thinking about resets, dealing with Russia means cooperation only in areas where Putin clearly sees it as in his interest — say on counter-terrorism, climate change, or nuclear proliferation. Given the tolerance of self-inflicted economic pain that Putin appears willing to endure to pursue his political agenda, only moves that push back — e.g., stationing well-armed NATO troops in the Baltics — are likely to have an impact.

The challenge is to avoid a cycle of tit-for-tat, and to make clear that the door is open if he reaches a point of realizing his 18th century agenda can only lead Russia to ruin in the 21st century and wants instead to move toward the West and the Pacific Rim, and modernize Russia. The flip side of that is that the United States would need to rethink how to integrate Russia into security structures. But don’t hold your breath waiting for either possibility. For now, the puzzling, and dangerous question is where does Putin draw the line on Russian revisionism in Europe?

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program. Twitter: @Rmanning4

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.