3 Things the World Should Know About Putin

The nature of Putin’s Russia has changed drastically in the last few years.

By , a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a United Russia ruling party members meeting in Moscow on Aug. 22, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a United Russia ruling party members meeting in Moscow on Aug. 22, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a United Russia ruling party members meeting in Moscow on Aug. 22, 2021. MIKHAIL VOSKRESENSKIY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with the grave prospect of a war between Russia and Ukraine, Western media is divided over the question of what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine. Some argue that no one can ever understand Putin’s reasoning and insist on focusing on Russia’s objective interests and the cost and benefits of its foreign policy. Others continue to speculate over Putin’s real intentions and priorities with regard to Ukraine and the West. Despite the complexity and unpredictability of the Kremlin’s reasoning, there are at least three factors currently missing from Western discourse.

The first is that regardless of Russia’s demands for legally binding guarantees from the West on issues such as an end to NATO expansion, there is no guarantee these would stop Russia. No matter what so-called ironclad guarantees the West hypothetically can provide, it will never be enough for the Putin regime. On Dec. 21, 2021, Putin told an extended meeting of Russia’s Defence Ministry Board that even written Western commitments don’t guarantee anything since the West easily withdraws from treaties. This reflects internal discussion within the Russian leadership over whether written commitments might be considered virtually binding.

In the last few years, the nature of Putin’s Russia has changed drastically—along with its self-image. In previous years, Putin acted as the leader of a geopolitically vulnerable state surrounded by more powerful and hostile players. Russia played the part of an aggrieved and oppressed nation seeking geopolitical justice, a hostage of circumstances created and influenced by others. It might occasionally dare to seize the advantage when the West stays out of its affairs, as with the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but it relies on an overtly defensive logic in its moves.

Faced with the grave prospect of a war between Russia and Ukraine, Western media is divided over the question of what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine. Some argue that no one can ever understand Putin’s reasoning and insist on focusing on Russia’s objective interests and the cost and benefits of its foreign policy. Others continue to speculate over Putin’s real intentions and priorities with regard to Ukraine and the West. Despite the complexity and unpredictability of the Kremlin’s reasoning, there are at least three factors currently missing from Western discourse.

The first is that regardless of Russia’s demands for legally binding guarantees from the West on issues such as an end to NATO expansion, there is no guarantee these would stop Russia. No matter what so-called ironclad guarantees the West hypothetically can provide, it will never be enough for the Putin regime. On Dec. 21, 2021, Putin told an extended meeting of Russia’s Defence Ministry Board that even written Western commitments don’t guarantee anything since the West easily withdraws from treaties. This reflects internal discussion within the Russian leadership over whether written commitments might be considered virtually binding.

In the last few years, the nature of Putin’s Russia has changed drastically—along with its self-image. In previous years, Putin acted as the leader of a geopolitically vulnerable state surrounded by more powerful and hostile players. Russia played the part of an aggrieved and oppressed nation seeking geopolitical justice, a hostage of circumstances created and influenced by others. It might occasionally dare to seize the advantage when the West stays out of its affairs, as with the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but it relies on an overtly defensive logic in its moves.

In 2018, that all changed. Intoxicated by Russia’s military success in Syria, its unique role in Central Asia, increased presence in Africa, and, above all, its newly developed “wonder weapons,” Putin switched from feeling like an oppressed player to someone who could go on the offensive far beyond Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The current demand for, in Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s words, “ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees” no longer stems from geopolitical vulnerability but, on the contrary, from the belief in Russia’s historically justified full-fledged right to rewrite the rules—with or without the West.

There are constant official and unofficial messages from Moscow that the world has changed, the status quo is no longer legitimate, international institutions and rules have been ruined, diplomacy in its traditional meaning does not exist anymore, everyone adapts as they can, and the value of public statements and positions has collapsed.

Russia, itself, has started crossing the red lines of others—via cyberattacks, aggressive media policies, geopolitical raids, and military interventions—regardless of warnings about the resulting damage. Russian foreign policy today has become not only about the West but also about its own geopolitical interests, which often have no direct relation to the West at all. And no security guarantees can change that. In other words, even in the event of a hypothetical deal, Russia cannot and will not guarantee to the West that it will abstain from its own raiding strategy.

Russia has moved, therefore, from a defensive to an offensive foreign policy: a new approach that has proved effective, according to Putin, and will be used more widely. In November 2021, he said, “Our recent warnings have had a certain effect,” and asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to keep Western countries in a state of tension “as long as possible, so that it does not occur to them to stage some kind of conflict on our Western borders, which we do not need.” Having acquired a taste for this offensive strategy, Moscow will be reluctant to abandon efforts that have impacted international affairs more noticeably than any defensive moves.

All of this has coincided with the siloviki, or security agencies, gradually starting to play a far more significant role in decision-making since 2014, both in domestic and foreign affairs. There are important ideological differences in how diplomats and the siloviki approach possible Russian-U.S. cooperation. While diplomats see the United States and Russia as great powers with historic responsibilities, the siloviki consider both countries to be gamblers that regularly violate international law and act outside the rules. For them, might is right. That is why the spiraling confrontation and sanctions do not scare the siloviki but, on the contrary, open up more opportunities for them.

The siloviki remain the main source of Putin’s distrust of the United States and the West in general, but they also convince the president that the worst-case scenario may be to coerce the West to deal with Russia more pragmatically, developing closer ties among the security agencies and making relations more sober and less ideological (meaning no more lectures about democracy). Plus, considering the importance of cybersecurity to Biden’s administration, Moscow believes it now has the argument that will coerce Washington to cooperation. Draconian sanctions combined with sporadic but fruitful interactions in areas of bilateral interest appear to be the most comfortable state of affairs for this part of the Russian elite that is today the most dominant.

The second issue currently being overlooked is that in the event of a military operation against Ukraine and spiraling confrontation with the West, the Russian regime will become more consolidated while society becomes even more repressed than ever before. War will not provoke protests, create more opposition, or weaken the regime—at least in the medium term.

There are, roughly speaking, two main groups within the Russian elite. The first consists of conservative decision-makers, including the siloviki, who are prepared to bear any costs of the new confrontation—and would even benefit from it. They dominate the agenda, fuel Putin’s anxieties, and provoke and escalate tension. The second group is made up of the technocrats who dominate the government but have no remit to interfere in security matters or raise concerns over geopolitics. They are tasked with adapting the economy and financial system to any geopolitical shocks.

There is also the business elite (excluding Putin’s close friends, who are ideologically often even more hawkish than the siloviki), who were ousted from political decision-making many years ago and are now deprived of the right to talk geopolitics with authorities. Their best strategy, in the event of escalation, is total invisibility and silence to avoid any clashes with the authorities that could provoke doubts about their loyalty or patriotism.

As for society, Russians are mostly focused on social problems and have shown themselves to be weary of geopolitics. They will not protest if war breaks out: In a recent poll, 50 percent of Russians blamed the United States and NATO for the escalation at the Russia-Ukraine border, whereas just 4 percent said responsibility lay with their own country. Russian society is politically depressed, and the potential for protest remains relatively low. Any opposition that could have headed possible discontent has been completely destroyed, and the fear of war has been routinized.

In addition, the regime itself has become more repressive and intolerant, and geopolitical escalation can only aggravate it further. Make no mistake: In a worst-case scenario, the Kremlin will tighten the screws even further, increase political control, and suppress the opposition, even the mostly tame “in-system” opposition. It has all the resources and instruments to do so and faces no internal resistance. Sanctions, which will drastically increase the cost of a military operation, may only have a distant impact on the political arena, even if they indirectly exacerbate socioeconomic conditions.

The third and final factor is that without a radical reshaping of global security architecture (which is not on the horizon), Russia sees Ukraine as a territory that must be returned to Moscow’s geopolitical supervision at any price. Right now, the Kremlin aims to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, but that demand does not address the core problem of Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine: shaping its political future and sidelining all but those Ukrainian players who are acceptable to the Kremlin.

The Russian ruling elite’s deeply engrained idea of bankrupted Ukrainian elites, a failed state, and geopolitical impotence create an expectation among them of inevitable upheaval associated with the threat of territorial collapse and internal skirmishes. Long before the current escalation, Moscow had been preparing for Ukraine failing as a state, with some Russian conservatives eager to assist that process. Whether or not a military offensive takes place, the Kremlin envisages domestic chaos within a few years that would open the door for Russia to directly intervene in Ukraine’s territory. This is simply a matter of time, and no security guarantees can stop that.

None of this means that dialogue is doomed to fail at preventing Russia from carrying out its raiding strategy. It may win time (which would play against Putin’s regime), slow down its hawkish intentions, and thus give society more time to wake up. It would also make hard-line policy more questionable and divisive—and less pragmatic. Even if it is only a question of time, when the world is staring down the barrel of a worst-ever Russia, continuing dialogue means there is at least a chance that when it comes to new escalation, Russia will be more incoherent and self-confident than today.

Tatiana Stanovaya is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and CEO of political analysis firm R.Politik.

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