What’s up with Vladimir Putin? Millions of words have been written. Many chill the blood but offer limited enlightenment. Yet our future depends on the answer.
None of us has perfect insight. And we need to guard against cataclysmic risks, however low their probability may be.
But, does Putin actually believe – as a motivating principle – in the mystic Russian rubbish he has propagated in supposed justification for attempting to take over Ukraine? Or believe it, to the extent that he would be willing to destroy himself, those closest to him, Russia and the world, in a nuclear holocaust?
No. Knowing what we do about the Russian president, more of which below, that is beyond far-fetched.
It is just as fantastical to assume that, even if he would be willing, he could necessarily act on it: he has no known way of personally, physically launching nuclear missiles. He can’t be sure any nuclear order given by him would be carried out.
What Putin wants
Vladimir Putin is overwhelmingly motivated by power, wealth and personal survival.
No need to guess. We have, by now, seen decades of it. Since at least 2008, after the invasion of Georgia, western leaders, including the British government, have been comprehensively, directly informed about who they are dealing with.
The dynamic driving Putin requires him to appropriate ever vaster wealth, to protect himself and his small clique against progressively expanding threats to their shaky grip on power – and to their lives and liberty, should they fall.
Resource-rich, neighbouring Ukraine is the most obvious place to pillage after Russia itself. In addition to which, Ukraine turning westwards would tend to destabilise Putin in Russia, as Russians see an alternative political and economic future being forged in a closely related country next-door. It would also remove Ukraine from the kleptocratic (“economic”) structures Putin has built up, to his personal benefit, in Russia’s so-called “near abroad”.
If Putin didn’t believe a word of the Russian mythology he spouts, would he still invade, or otherwise take over, Ukraine? He would. When he felt he could. For the (personally existential) reasons of power, wealth and survival already set out.
Now suppose to the contrary he strongly believed all that folkloric Russian “history”. He would never invade Ukraine to create “Greater Russia” unless he was as sure as he could be that, at least, it wouldn’t endanger his power, wealth and survival. In fact, he wouldn’t risk it unless he felt confident it would strengthen him in all those aspects.
One might object that this assumes Putin to be a rational actor. To a degree it does. But not in the sense of his pursuing any reasonable interpretation of Russian national interest within geopolitical realities. Rather, he is a (partially) rational actor in the service of his personal requirements, and those of the narrow clique at the head of which he has precariously sat these last twenty or more years.
Of course, even within that highly limited definition of rationality he might miscalculate. And he might, at the margin, do so because in a 50:50 decision he was swayed by romantic notions of a Russian imperium, with him as a great new Tsar.
But far more likely, any miscalculations will derive (or have done) from the fact he is a deeply flawed individual with a primitive understanding of the world, his position in it and, importantly, how military operations work.
Vladimir Putin is a brutalised and brutal, emotionally scarred and insecure, creepy intelligence officer and corrupt spiv – on a grand scale and with the resources of an entire, heavily armed state at his disposal, to be sure – no Marshal Zhukov.
So, what is going through his mind? In short, that he is in a likely irrecoverable position of his own making.
Survival demands that he hangs on and hopes for the best (which, to be fair, is partially in line with what some of those oceans of words published about him say). It doesn’t demand that he commits nuclear suicide.
However, threatening global annihilation – from time to time, and not too emphatically, so as not to lose all credibility when he doesn’t act on it – is a neat way of frightening western public opinion sufficiently. The aim would be to (maybe) get the USA and allies to hold back a bit more than they might otherwise.
That would leave him a bit more freedom of manoeuvre directly to achieve his objectives, Consider, for example, his blood-curdling, apparent nuclear threats at the very beginning of the invasion, before it went obviously wrong.
Or just to buy a little time, to help him avoid rapid, unambiguous defeat. That is pretty much a description of his current situation, in early 2023. He has all but placed himself at Joe Biden’s mercy, and is again making nuclear threats, such as withdrawal from nuclear treaties, alongside claiming that Russian nuclear forces (the so-called “nuclear triad”) will be strengthened. He is also seeking help from China which, under President Xi’s perplexingly geopolitically risky leadership, appears increasingly willing to give it.
For Putin, fantasies of Russian greatness sell well at home. A way of keeping the annoyingly necessary – and even more annoyingly, potentially very dangerous – masses quiet.
The invented threat to Russia of Nato invasion sells well in some quarters in the west. A way, he hopes, of blunting the actions of the USA, whose leadership will be concerned to be seen by the American and wider western public as on the side of right (as well as US and western interests), not as guilty parties who could be accused of having caused the crisis in the first place or having unnecessarily exacerbated it.
Secret policemen having a ball
There is a widespread tendency in much recent commentary to focus a great deal on Putin as an individual, and on the Ukraine crisis as a phenomenon.
But, as touched on above, Putin exists in a context, and that, even more than his predilections – important though they are – drives Russian decision making.
A decisive aspect is his position as capo di tutti i capi of a vicious, kleptocratic power structure in Russia whose ultimate rationale is itself and its survival. A structure which traces its origins back to Stalin’s Soviet Union. In essential aspects it took its current form in the dying Soviet days, as tight-knit groups of secret police and foreign intelligence operatives sought to protect their own futures against the coming storm and to put themselves in a position, when opportunities might later arise, to re-establish, or even enhance, their power. They (correctly) saw the USA, and the system it leads, as a direct, powerful threat to their aspirations.
That is the bald, unromantic, grim reality of Russia’s “leadership elite”, whatever stories its members tell themselves in private – and they do, ad nauseam, ad infinitum – about Russian greatness. Much like Home Counties pub bores getting misty-eyed, recalling half-imagined tales of British imperial conquest and world dominance, while conjuring fever dreams of “the opportunities of Brexit”.
Ukraine is one piece in a geopolitical fight to the death, which the USA and its allies must win. It is not so much with a competitor to American pre-eminence (the only potential competitor is China, of course, not Russia), as with an emerging international power vacuum, and resultant, apocalyptic, worldwide chaos.
In consequence, the global alliance which the USA has led since World War II is now undertaking a broad spectrum of major, carefully calibrated, military, economic and political actions in respect of Ukraine itself, and around the world.
As they don’t quite say in New Hampshire: live free or watch the world you rely on for your security, prosperity and well-being die.
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