What Does Putin Really Want?
“It is very difficult to predict with certainty what is going to happen. I am convinced, given not just the events of yesterday but the cumulative set of events that have taken place, that this change is real… The rapidity of change is mind-boggling. The quest for freedom is stronger than steel, more permanent than concrete.” – Pres. George H.W. Bush, Nov 12, 1989, three days after the Berlin Wall was opened, beginning the end of the Cold War
Few people in 1989 would have argued with Pres. Bush that the end of the Soviet Union and collapse of communism in Europe was ushering in a new era of peace, cooperation and harmony unlike anything seen on the continent in centuries. But now, 30 years later, the reality isn’t what Mr. Bush and millions of Europeans hoped for. Instead of “… a justifiable hope of overcoming the conflict between East and West,” as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it in August, 1990, Russian President Vladimir Putin is stoking the fires of conflict once again. Why?
New Era of Great Power Competition
According to Sen. Marco Rubio (R – FL), Mr. Putin’s goal is to re-emerge “as a rival to American military might in this century,” adding, “We are barreling towards a second Cold War.” While Kremlin watchers may not agree that we are headed for a full-fledged Cold War like the one that followed World War II, entangling the superpowers in a conflict that lasted four decades, they do agree that Russia has embarked on a new strategy of aggressive confrontation with that could lead to a wider and more dangerous conflict that even pessimists in 1989 didn’t foresee.
In February, 2016, Obama Administration Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, speaking at the Pentagon, warned the nation we were entering into a new era of great power competition, one where the United States would compete with Russia for influence in Europe and elsewhere.
“In Europe,” he said, “we are taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression, and we haven’t had to worry about this in 25 years; while I wish it were otherwise, now we do.” The administration’s new attention on Russia’s machination’s in Europe was a departure, at least partially, from previous White House focus on the activities of terrorist groups and rogue states. It wasn’t that the secretary and the Obama Administration no longer viewed the threat from failed states like Syria, Iraq and Libya, or the terrorist groups that thrive in such chaotic places, as major challenges to American security and to global peace, but that they drew upon the experience of intelligence, military and diplomatic officials from the 1980’s and 1990’s to anticipate Mr. Putin’s political objectives in the region and to plan a deterrent strategy to blunt his ambitions.
How Putin Sees the World
To understand what those ambitions are, we first have to understand how Mr. Putin sees the world. There are, essentially, two major ideas that color his view of Russia’s place in the world. The first is that achieving and maintaining great power status is key to Russia’s (and, by extension, Putin’s) survival. And, the second is the United States is an intractable enemy of Russia’s if, for no other reason, out of political necessity.
Great Power Status
Counter to the observations of many of his critics, Mr. Putin believes that his aggressive actions, like the illegal annexation of Crimea or his provocative military intercession in Syria, are defensive in nature. His main focus since the time he became the undisputed leader in Russia has been to rebuild the power of the state. In this sense, he is a statist, a political leader who believes the state should control, to some degree, the political, economic and social policy of the nation to maximize its power.
But Mr. Putin’s brand of statism is “great power statism,” an idea that has a different meaning in Russia than does the definition of “statism” elsewhere. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, Russia can only survive the aggression and influence of other nations, specifically ones like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, if it is a great power, in the classic sense; a power that has the political, economic and, if necessary, military clout to influence other nations across the globe.
In Mr. Putin’s world view, the lack of power invites others to strike at Russia. In 2004, for example, following the Chechen terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia that left 334 dead, most of them children, Mr. Putin said, “We have to admit we showed no understanding of the danger of processes occurring in our own country and the world at large. We failed to react appropriately to them and, instead, displayed weakness. And the weak are always beaten.”
He used the attack to go on the offensive politically against threats, as he saw them, against Russian power by the West, by those nations intent upon making Moscow subordinate to Washington, Berlin and London. “Some want to tear off a big chunk of our country. Others help them to do it,” he said, implying the West was, at least partially behind the Chechen attack. “They help because they think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated. And terrorism is only an instrument to achieve these goals.”
Not only does Mr. Putin believe being a great power will protect Russia from attack, he believes the only way the nation can stave off disintegration is by maintaining its status as one of the most powerful nations of the world. In 2003, he said, “Such a country as Russia can only survive and develop within the existing borders if it stays as a great power. During all of its times of weakness … Russia was invariably confronted with the threat of disintegration.”
The fear of collapse, of the fall of the new Russian order, is at the forefront of Mr. Putin’s thinking. Having seen it personally in 1991 and knowing the history of the Czarist collapse of 1917, Mr. Putin has focused much of the state’s power on preventing a third collapse, one that much of the country believes is inevitable, despite his efforts.
“Putin governs with the twin collapses of 1917 and 1991 at the forefront of his thinking,” wrote Julia Ioffe in The Atlantic. “He fears for himself when another collapse comes—because collapse always comes, because it has already come twice in 100 years. He is constantly trying to avoid it.”
One approach to preventing collapse is to make the people believe that those who want to bring about his fall and the end of the current Russian system are not just his enemy, but the enemy of the state, as well. And that is where the United States comes in.
America is an Enemy…Out of Necessity
While Mr. Putin may not be as flamboyantly hostile towards the United States as previous Russian leaders like, say, Nikita Khrushchev throwing a temper tantrum at the United Nations in 1960, he is decidedly anti-American, nonetheless.
In a speech to journalists at the G8 summit in 2007, Mr. Putin, referring to the United States, said, “The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.” In May of that year, Mr. Putin, commemorating the end of World War II, compared America’s foreign policy to that of the Nazi Third Reich. “Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing,” he said, alluding to the U.S. “They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”
Four months earlier, he condemned the United States for attempting to exert hegemonic influence over the world. “One single center of power: One single center of force. One single center of decision making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign.”
In more recent times, he’s gone as far as threatening nuclear war against “aggressors,” code, of course, for the United States. “The aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable, and he will be destroyed,” Mr. Putin claimed in a speech in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea. “We would be victims of an aggression and would get to go to heaven as martyrs. They will simply drop dead. They won’t even have time to repent.” He went on to claim that Russia had successfully developed hypersonic missiles that were impossible to intercept, giving Moscow a strategic advantage over adversaries. “No one has precision hypersonic weapons. Others are planning to start testing them within the next 1½ to 2 years, and we already have them on duty,” he bragged. “We have run ahead of the competition.”
Whether Russia truly has these game-changing weapons is speculation, but what is known is Mr. Putin needs America as an enemy to remain in power back home. “The Putin regime requires confrontation with the US for its very survival,” said Paul Roderick Gregory, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He cited polling data showing the Russian people believe the United States and her EU “lackies” are behind civil and political unrest in the country and that state power is necessary to defeat future attacks.
Opinion polls show that non-stop state propaganda has convinced the Russian people that Russia is indeed a besieged fortress, the armed forces are to be trusted, more resources must be devoted to defense (at the expense of living standards), and that young Russians should not avoid military service. The percentage of respondents with “bad/very bad” opinions of the US rose from 34 percent to 60 percent between 2012 to present. The EU fared even worse with negative opinion rising from 21 to 60 percent.
Non-stop propaganda from Russian state news claims the goal of the United States is to establish itself as the world’s only superpower, exerting hegemonic control. The Russian military, say the propagandists, is the only thing preventing that from becoming a reality. Wrote Mr. Gregory:
The Russian narrative claims its struggle is for the future of civilization itself. Russia must therefore be prepared to deploy its nuclear weapons ‘as a primary tool for foreign policy coercion.’ Russia has explicitly singled out former Soviet bloc countries that have entered or are entering the Western orbit as a clear and present danger. If this threat escalates, Russia must be prepared to intervene. If Russian forces are outgunned, there is always the nuclear option.
The biggest challenge of propping up a regime like Mr. Putin’s by creating a bogeyman that only he and his government can resist is it becomes almost impossible to reverse direction and welcome in warmer relations with that adversary. While the election of Russia-friendly Donald Trump gives Mr. Putin the opportunity to reshape his propaganda in a way that poses the American president as uniquely pro-Moscow among U.S. leaders, there are significant political obstacles in the way in the States for such a campaign to be successful in both countries.
Obviously, Mr. Trump’s relationship with Russians, both before and after the 2016 election, currently under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, are political poison. Should Mr. Putin attempt to depict Mr. Trump as an ally to Russia, rather than as an opponent, as he has depicted past American presidents, the political cost in Washington could be significant.
In addition, Mr. Trump, to maintain his self-proclaimed skill as a great negotiator, can’t allow himself to be seen as too accommodating to Mr. Putin without causing great harm to his image among his core supporters. On significant issues between the nations, such as Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of the Crimea, the continued military aggression against Ukraine, and Russian military support in Syria, neither president has much room to maneuver. Mr. Putin can’t withdraw from Crimea or back down in Ukraine without appearing weak at home in the face of American strength, a certain death blow to his regime, and Mr. Trump can’t further cave on Russian aggression, like he did with his rash decision to retreat in Syria, without provoking an outright rebellion among members of Congress, including even fellow Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and reliably sycophantic Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Another problem with propaganda is that even those who spread it sometimes begin to believe it is true. This is the case with Russia’s view of the conflict in Ukraine. They saw the popular uprising in 2014, Euromaidan Revolution that ousted the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, as being prompted by outside forces seeking to harm Russia, herself. Nikolai Patrushev, Director of the FSB, the Russian security service that replaced the infamous KGB, directly accused the United States in 2015 of using the Ukrainian situation to attack Russia and threaten the Putin regime’s existence.
The Americans are trying to drag Russia into an inter-state military conflict, using the Ukrainian events to bring about a change in power (in Russia) and, in the final analysis, dismember our country.
From the Russian perspective, the question to ask about the Euromaidan Revolution wasn’t what social or political crisis led to the revolt but, rather, who was behind it. Moscow wasn’t as interested in the things that propelled the people of Ukraine to rise up and overthrow their government, they wanted to know which foreign power was behind the uprising and what were their geopolitical aims in fomenting the revolt?
While there were American agents operating in Ukraine, particularly after the fall of Mr. Yanukovych, it would be a stretch to say they were there operating to bring about the fall of the Putin regime. But, that is how the Russian government saw the revolution and it is indicative of how they see similar events in the world. This mentality, this vision of Russia as a “besieged fortress,” isn’t a creation of Russian propagandists for the consumption of their countrymen, it is really how the people and their leaders see the world. They truly believe they are surrounded by hostile states intent upon inflicting harm upon them.
Dmitry Babich, a writer who has worked for such Russian international media outlets as Sputnik International and RT.com, publications that are little more than propaganda publications for the Kremlin, put it this way:
Living without enemies and having a besieged fortress mentality is indeed stupid. But living in a besieged fortress and not having a besieged fortress’s mentality is downright idiotic.”
In other words, Russia is a fortress besieged by enemies and the sooner the Russian people understand that, the better.
What Putin Wants
So, what Mr. Putin wants is really very simple. His ambitions aren’t as adventurous as many in the West believe. In fact, they are rather parochial. What motivates Mr. Putin is the desire to survive, both himself and his country.
In the early part of his presidency, Mr. Putin tried to survive within the new world order, one that no longer included the Soviet Union, that was no longer bipolar, that was centered on Western democratic liberalism. Like nations in the West, Russia, too, was embroiled in a conflict with Islamic radicals. Hoping to show solidarity with the Americans, it was Vladimir Putin who placed the first call to President George W. Bush on 9/11. It was he who said, “I bow my head to the victims of terrorism. I am highly impressed of the courage of New York residents. The great city and the great American nation are to win!” in November, 2001.
But it was also Mr. Putin who, in 2003, watched as the United States, ignoring his objections to the invasion of Iraq, went around Russia’s veto power in the U.N. Security Council, and used military power to invade a foreign adversary and replaced its leader. It was a humiliation, in Mr. Putin’s eyes, that Russia didn’t really matter any more, that the West would ignore his country whenever they felt the need to do so, to impose their will as Russia impotently stood. And, it was also a lesson Mr. Putin took personally.
Since then, he has repositioned Russia so that the West cannot ignore Moscow without paying some cost. He’s increased military spending to 5.6% of gross national product, even at a time when the country’s standard of living has fallen 15%. He’s asserted himself on the battlefield in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. He’s boasted about new, advanced weapons and touted Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons to defend herself. And, without making an effort to hide Russia’s involvement, Mr. Putin launched a cyber-hacking campaign directed at the 2016 American presidential election, as well as the U.K.’s Brexit referendum, France’s presidential campaign and Ukraine’s elections, among others.
Mr. Putin is striking out in these ways to remind the West that, even though Russia is no longer a true super power, it can still bite and leave a mark. And, he hopes, this warning will protect him against efforts by the West to depose him from power, a fear that he’s had since the early days of his presidency, a fear buttressed by the examples of Libya, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria, where America and her allies showed they were willing to use their power to replace a hostile leader with one more to their liking.
The desire to survive will guide Mr. Putin’s remaining days in office. His term is set to run out in 2024 when he will be 71. The Russian constitution prohibits him from running for three consecutive terms, so speculation is rampant in Moscow about what Mr. Putin will do between now and then. Parliament could, of course, change the rules and allow Mr. Putin to remain in power indefinitely. Russia, unlike the United States, doesn’t have a tradition of leaders serving a term of office and leaving voluntarily in accordance with the law. Most Russian leaders left office in coffins or at the business end of a boot. And that could be how Mr. Putin leaves.
One thing seems to be certain though and that is when he does depart the Kremlin for the last time, Mr. Putin will leave his successor with the same challenges he, himself, faced. Because that’s the way Mr. Putin wants it. As Ash Carter put it, “Putin defines Russia’s interests in opposition to—and with the objective of thwarting—Western policy. It’s very hard to build a bridge to that motivation. It makes it ipso facto impossible to work cooperatively with Russia.”
2 thoughts on “What Does Putin Really Want?”
Great analysis on Putin’s ambitions. I have read a few books about his career and even listened to a series of interviews he did with Oliver Stone.
He is the preeminent “Nationalist.” He considers Russia’s survival synonymous with his own.
Thanks for the comment, Eric. You are right. Many people consider Putin to be an adventurer intent upon expanding Russia’s territorial reach. But his real motivations are much more parochial than that. Survival for both him and Russia.
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