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Vladimir Putin Often Backs Down

The idea that Russia’s leader always fights to the finish is a myth.

By , a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech, and , a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with government members via a video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 8. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a well-known story about Russian President Vladimir Putin and a rat. As Putin tells it in his autobiography, as a child, he chased a rat around his family’s apartment building, eventually trapping it in a corner. The rat then lashed out, attacked the young Putin, and attempted to bite him.

This experience, in Putin’s words, taught him that if cornered, “you have to fight to the finish line in every fight” and “you need to assume that there is no retreat.”

Western officials have often cited this story for how Putin allegedly never backs down and is particularly dangerous when cornered.

There’s a well-known story about Russian President Vladimir Putin and a rat. As Putin tells it in his autobiography, as a child, he chased a rat around his family’s apartment building, eventually trapping it in a corner. The rat then lashed out, attacked the young Putin, and attempted to bite him.

This experience, in Putin’s words, taught him that if cornered, “you have to fight to the finish line in every fight” and “you need to assume that there is no retreat.”

Western officials have often cited this story for how Putin allegedly never backs down and is particularly dangerous when cornered.

This belief has led many in the West to fear that Putin may undertake more brutal and destructive steps, even resorting to chemical or nuclear weapons, if he’s trapped into a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. That assumption appears to be behind Western pressure on Ukraine to give up territory and make concessions to end the war with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have repeatedly suggested that Europe wants “some credible negotiations” and “diplomatic solutions.” Likewise, Macron has said, “We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops, we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.”

There is just one problem with the assumption that Putin never backs down. It’s incorrect—part of the myth-making that the Russian president has successfully constructed around himself and has been all-too-easily swallowed by many Western politicians. Contrary to the commonly held belief, when faced with strength and resolve, Putin often backs down instead of responding with more escalatory steps.

One stark example of this came in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkey-Syria border. At the time, there were widespread fears that this could escalate into a direct conflict between Russia and a NATO member. Instead, Putin’s response was mild. Moscow imposed insignificant trade sanctions on Turkish imports and suspended Russian package tours to Turkey. And even those small measures were lifted several months later after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an apology to the Kremlin. Several recent clashes between Russia and Turkey also took place in Libya, where Erdogan and Putin backed opposing sides in a protracted civil war. For example, Turkish forces attacked the strategic military base of al-Watiya in 2020, where mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group were based, forcing them to flee and leave their equipment and weapons behind. One Russian mercenary was allegedly captured. Losing al-Watiya was a key step in the Libyan National Army (LNA)/Wagner retreat. It meant that taking Tripoli by force was no longer feasible, at least as long as the Turks were present. As result of that defeat, the Wagner Group retreated to the positions it held before the Tripoli campaign. The LNA has not made another attempt to advance on Tripoli since.

Several direct clashes also took place between the U.S. military and Russia-backed Wagner forces that did not provoke a serious escalation from Putin. For example, a 2018 U.S. airstrike in northern Syria killed several Russian Wagner mercenaries. Around the same time, a direct clash between Russian mercenaries and U.S. troops took place in the Battle of Khasham in February 2018, which had a number of Russian military contractors (also linked to the Wagner Group) killed. Not only did Putin not retaliate, but there wasn’t even a rhetorical response from the Kremlin. Despite his bluster about confronting the United States, when it actually came to deadly conflict between Russian and U.S. forces, there was barely a hint of a rhetorical response from Putin.

The most recent evidence on the ground in Ukraine also goes against the persistence of a perpetually resolute Putin. When realizing the catastrophic failure of the initial ambitious goal of regime change in Ukraine, the Kremlin revised its plans and adopted much less ambitious goals. Instead of escalating and doubling down, the Kremlin announced a much humbler objective of “concentrating” its “main efforts” on “liberating” the Donbas. It’s an easy way to declare victory; just change what you claim winning is.

When faced with strong enough resistance, Putin has even backed down in Russian domestic politics, where his dominance is nearly absolute. The most famous example came in 2005 when Putin attempted to replace benefits like free public transportation and subsidies for housing and prescription drugs for senior citizens with monthly cash payments. When faced with mass protests over the move, Putin quickly backed down. A more recent example is one of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was accused of drug offenses but was subsequently released following an outbreak of public protests in Moscow in 2019. The release of the journalist allegedly took place when, in the aftermath of the protests, Putin was briefed on the case and gave his permission to “resolve” it.

The widespread assumption that Putin never backs down is, therefore, simply wrong. The misguided belief often pushed by Putin’s stooges has led to Western leadership self-deterring and backing down when faced with Russian aggression. The most glaring example of this came in 2014 when the United States, fearing Russian escalation, advised Ukraine not to resist the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s persistent implicit threats of nuclear escalation are expressly designed to leverage Western fears of the war in Ukraine from metastasizing. Such fears have done damage, delaying the delivery of offensive weapons to Ukraine.

And Putin is not really facing a threat of being cornered in Ukraine. The domestic constraints Putin faces in this war tend to be vastly overrepresented in Western policy debates. Thanks to state control over Russian TV, Putin holds a firm grip over the way Russians view the situation on the ground in Ukraine and is usually able to turn polling on the war within a span of several weeks. For example, 69 percent of Russians said they opposed direct military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015. Just a few weeks later, by early October 2015, 72 percent of Russians said they supported their country’s bombing campaign in Syria. Similarly, 45 percent of polled Russians had positive views of Ukraine in November 2021, and 43 percent had negative views. By February, this ratio had reversed, with 35 percent holding positive and 52 percent negative views. The way this is set up in Russia, Putin can hardly lose this war in the eyes of his own population.

There are some encouraging signs that Western leaders are beginning to understand that Putin’s threats of escalation are hollow and the myth that he never backs down is false. When Putin threatened to “strike at those targets that we have not yet been hitting” in Ukraine if the West provides Kyiv with longer-range weapons on June 5, the United States and Great Britain went ahead and delivered the weapons anyway.

This should be the norm, not the exception. But unfortunately, calls for Ukraine to make concessions to Russia and give Putin a face-saving off-ramp persist—especially among European leaders who want to prop up the same Putinist myths they’ve used to justify appeasement with for years.

Ukraine should be given all the support it needs, including offensive weapons, intelligence-sharing, and diplomatic support, to win this war—Putin’s threats of escalation notwithstanding.

Sometimes, a cornered rat is just a cornered rat. And when faced with a superior and committed adversary, it will simply scurry away.

Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech and a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University.

Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. He is also the host and founder of the Power Vertical podcast, which focuses on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

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