Putin is No Mystery, He’s Predictable

Photo: Vladimir Putin visits a Civil War Memorial in Sevastopol. Credit: Kremlin.ru
Photo: Vladimir Putin visits a Civil War Memorial in Sevastopol. Credit: Kremlin.ru

Building Russia’s president into a figure of mystery simply helps his image and ignores what we know. He is a repeat offender, with a tiresomely familiar modus operandi.

What is Putin planning, what is he up to, will he/won’t he attack Ukraine with as many as 175,000 troops on the southwestern Russian border and in Crimea? The plans for a possible Ukraine invasion are published almost daily by European newspapers, the timeframe has been outlined as January-February. Military experts have for weeks been busily analyzing whether a Russian invasion follows or not.

The intelligence services are busy, the unseen scanning of the ground and the airwaves by the most sophisticated military surveillance technology will be underway and the threat has meanwhile brought together NATO foreign ministers in Riga. The workings of Putin’s mind is a subject of huge interest to the world’s brightest minds. It goes even further, with some trying to delve into his subconscious; what would most keep him up at night, Putin was asked at the Russia Calling Investment Forum in Moscow on November 30? And yet after two decades of power, the West has only a limited ability to predict which way he will jump. Are we any better informed than we were when he came to office in 2000?

Almost 22 years later, everyone wants to get inside Putin’s head and understand what he is feeling and thinking. And, in fact, they can. Our existing understanding is simply being overlooked.

The ideal Russian-American relationship has been defined by the Biden administration as “stable and predictable.” Here’s what is actually predictable.

Predictable is Putin using the narratives of the past because he has nothing to offer in the present, especially to his own country. Predictable is the constant search for new sources of instability in Europe. Predictable is demanding that the American president pay attention to him and then condescending to meet. The main reason for this predictability lies within Russia, within the kleptocratic system he built, in the inefficiency of the economy, in a Putinized Russia which has no future but only the myths of the past, and in Russia’s dwindling international reputation and Putin’s personal popularity decline.

The best bet is that Putin will continue to indulge in his past, predictable habits. His modus operandi toward the West is coercion, bluff, and blackmail. This behavior demands carefully weighed answers, a military strategy, too, coordinated transatlantic action (and also significant expenditure.) But it requires firstly a thorough differentiation between bluff and genuine threat. That can minimize future costs (for example, new military deployments) although is, of course, extremely hard to pull off.

Yet that is what is needed now in assessing events near the Ukrainian border. A differentiation between a real threat or provocation, as well as between short- and long-term countermeasures, is required.

  • Is this really about an invasion of Ukraine and possibly even its occupation? No, Ukraine is not the purpose in itself. The primary goal is the creation of instability within Ukraine and within NATO. Plus a surge of popularity for Putin inside Russia as a reaction to NATO’s or Biden’s concessions.
  • Should NATO and Europe engage in a serious, possibly military, confrontation with Russia? Of course not. But the question does not really arise since nothing has changed in the NATO-Russia-constellation despite Putin’s assertions. The Russian president is once again saddling the old horse, without investing much new intellectual effort, using the chimera of NATO eastward enlargement and demanding the rewards to which Russia is allegedly entitled. This works excellently within Russia. Simply put, Russia needs Putin to defend it from aggression.
  • The latest troop deployment will cost the Kremlin as much as 10bn rubles ($134m), as estimated by Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition economist, Alexey Navalny’s advisor (in an interview given to this author.) Russia can afford this with relative ease; and yet the monetary cost is not the issue. We should consider why Putin needs to use the military is this clodhopping manner; and the answer is that threatening the neighbors is the sole remaining policy Putin possesses. And that comes at a price — yes, he can force a “dialogue“ with Europe and the US, but even those sympathetic to his behavior and aims struggle to make his case given the oceans of mistrust he has generated with his imperial and quasi-imperial aspirations, his aggressive policy to outsiders, and the hybrid warfare he consistently uses against Europe.
  • For the West, it would be a mistake even to engage in a discussion about NATO enlargement, as it would also be an error to ask what could persuade Putin to de-escalate and avert a military intervention into Ukraine. Walking that path would simply encourage Putin to escalate and extend his demands. Apart from the fact that it would call the postwar order in Europe into question, it is not viable. This simply cannot be countenanced — better by far for the West to remind Russia that 27 years ago, in December 1994, Russia, together with Ukraine, the US, and the UK signed the Budapest Memorandum which included solemn promises that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine would be respected. It has, since 2014, been egregiously trampled on by Russia. Pointing out Russia’s utter disregard for international agreement and demanding that it adhere to what it signed is the best Western policy.
  • It would be an error to intensify efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO in response to this Kremlin-engineered crisis. The question of membership is a long-term issue and implies first a Membership Action Plan — which Ukraine does not yet have — as a pathway. It makes no sense to believe that fast-track Ukrainian membership would solve this crisis.
  • The West needs also to relearn some old lessons. Since it will have to speak to Putin, who uses the language of coercive diplomacy including “the vulgar rhetoric of the Cold War” (as his former security advisor Gleb Pavlovsky puts it) a more coercive Western diplomacy might be a proper response. It has to be learned anew, however. Stating a “connection between domestic repression and cross-border aggression” (as Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested) at the highest US-diplomatic level is a (first) right step to diplomacy that could be effective towards Putin.
  • Given the continuing debate on European (military) sovereignty and the EU’s newly introduced Strategic Compass, Putin’s military build-up provides a welcome opportunity to detail a concrete agreement between the EU and NATO. The goal should be to craft a mid-term strategy offering solutions on the deployment of sufficient material and personnel with the necessary skills within the shortest time possible. It could also imply possible military action coordinated at the EU-NATO level as a rapid response solution in the event of a non-NATO and non-EU European country border violation.

The “pop-up crises” created or instigated by Putin, like the one we are experiencing now, will most likely be repeated. The short-, mid-and long-term strategies to counter them must be elaborated by NATO and the EU, in close coordination, are therefore an urgently needed investment in the future of European security.

Oxana Schmies is a postdoctoral researcher and analyst based in Berlin. She held post-doctoral positions at the University of Erfurt, Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Center of Liberal Modernity (LibMod) in Berlin. 

December 9, 2021