You are Vladimir Putin. In response to the escalating crisis in Ukraine, the international community has questioned its assumptions about you, but your domestic approval rating is at an all-time high. What’s more, both your relationship with China and the fact that European nations are largely dependent on energy exports from Russia have thwarted serious consequences for your actions – so far. But the downing of flight MH17 could lead to a new chapter in the Eastern Europe conflict. If reports that pro-Russian separatists downed the commercial airliner are true, it could lead to more economic sanctions from the United States, and a more unified international response.
We asked six of the best Kremlinologists we know “What is Putin thinking, and what are his next moves?”
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and author of What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89
Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal is to undo the results of the defeat of the Soviet Union that the CIA’s secret support for the Afghan mujahedin accomplished in 1989. Putin was then a junior officer in the KGB stationed in East Germany. He saw that just months after the humiliating retreat of the Soviet 40th Red Army from Kabul the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Warsaw Pact imploded. For Putin it was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Putin’s reaction to the shooting down of MH17 is vintage KGB. He has denied responsibility, sought to obfuscate the facts and uses his media to produce misinformation and disinformation. The crash site was tampered with in order to prevent a serious forensic examination of the evidence.
Russia will continue to support separatists in the Ukraine with arms, training and expertise. This too is vintage Soviet behavior and reminiscent of Putin’s predecessors in the USSR. He wants either a puppet in Kiev or a weak Ukraine that can be kept off balance by manipulating its internal divisions.
Crucial to this strategy is dividing the NATO alliance. With his experience in Germany, Putin understands Berlin is critical. He will try to keep Germany from aligning closely with the United States. He has a perfect instrument in Edward Snowden to keep disrupting Washington’s relationship with Berlin.
Of course, Russia today is not the Soviet Union; its capabilities are a shadow of what once was the other superpower. Measured responses, not a new Cold War, are appropriate.
Kimberly Marten, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States.
Putin is running scared, and rapidly recalculating what he should do next.
He made a major mistake by choosing to cooperate with unreliable warlords—individuals more concerned about their own local power than with Russia’s strategic interests—in eastern Ukraine. Before this terrible tragedy, Putin had seen only the benefits of warlordism, a tactic he had used previously in Georgia and Chechnya. He was able to outsource the job of destabilizing the government in Kiev by creating a security crisis in the east, hoping to ensure that Russia would retain influence in Ukraine and that Kiev would never join NATO. Putin could avoid the high price and risks associated with direct military intervention, while enjoying plausible deniability about the Russian role in provoking, funding, and encouraging the armed conflict. But now the costs of dealing with warlords are clear. Outsourcing always makes it difficult to monitor and control what happens on the ground, especially when dealing with informal militia members who are riven by internal competition (and in this case, often drunk).
Putin’s biggest concern is that the reaction of the outside world makes him look weak domestically. Leading economic figures in Russia are publicly turning against him because of western sanctions, but what matters most is what’s happening privately, within his own coalition. His strongest potential internal network competitors are ethnic nationalist hardliners, not liberal internationalists. As a result, Putin may be pushed toward more militarism and even fascism, in an attempt to salvage his own reputation and position.
Steven Pifer, Director, Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and former United States Ambassador to Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter here.
Mr. Putin can hardly have welcomed the MH17 shootdown, particularly when it so quickly became apparent that separatists were responsible and used a surface-to-air missile almost certainly provided by Russia. The initial Russian response has been to deny any culpability and throw out all kinds of other explanations, including the bizarre theory that the Ukrainian military shot down MH 17, believing it was Mr. Putin’s plane.
Mr. Putin now is trying to calculate how bad the damage is and how much blowback will be directed at Russia. He may well expect further sanctions from the United States but is waiting to see whether the European Union will adopt tougher measures as well. If Mr. Putin concludes that there will be minimal blowback, he will probably continue business as usual, and Russian weapons will continue to stream into eastern Ukraine, making the fighting there harder. If he instead believes that truly tough sanctions are coming, that could lead him to consider an alternative course, in which Moscow cuts the arms supply and presses the separatists to stand down.
Russia ultimately must be part of the solution. The Ukrainian government has talked about decentralization of power, status for the Russian language and no pursuit of NATO— which would allow Mr. Putin to claim some success in a compromise. But does he judge the potential pain such that he should alter his current position? The West should try to affect that calculation.
Shane Harris, Future Tense Fellow at New America, and a senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine. Follow him on Twitter here.
After the downing of MH17, Putin seems to be thinking, “How can I pin this on the Ukrainians?” Based on the stories we’re seeing in the Russian press and Putin’s own statements, the Russian president isn’t close to accepting any portion of the blame for the shoot-down. I think his next move will be to determine what level of economic pain he’s willing to tolerate, should the U.S. and European countries impose more sanctions. But I expect he will continue supplying arms and training to separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the days since the shoot-down, U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked more Russian military equipment going into Ukraine than leaving the country. Those aren’t the actions of a leader who’s “de-escalating,” as the Obama administration has said Putin should.
Putin’s entire venture in Ukraine has been designed for a domestic political audience. He’s never seemed to care that much what the West thinks. I doubt that any punishments the West has proposed–so far–will make him change his mind.
Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Research Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
When Moscow’s proxies and irregulars armed, led and insufficiently trained by Russia shot flight MH17 out of the sky using anti-aircraft weapons from Russia, killing all 298 people aboard, Russia President Vladimir Putin found himself in a very difficult situation. Until then, concern for what was perceived as a local conflict in Ukraine was limited outside of Eastern Europe, but the same cannot be said for the mass murder of almost 300 people. That event almost instantly transformed Russia from simply wreaking havoc in neighboring Ukraine to being a state sponsor of terrorism. While Russia may not have killed those people, their actions certainly facilitated it.
Putin immediately made things much worse for himself by not doing the easy and obvious thing. Had he made a statement simply calling the events tragic, saying he would prosecute those involved and offered condolences, even if he did nothing after that, many in the west would have more easily gone back to doing very little to oppose Russia. Instead, the Kremlin made up a story about how Ukraine’s military brought down flight MH17 and showed themselves to be both insensitive and strategically tone deaf. By doing this, Putin empowered the strongest anti-Russian forces in the west. This leaves the Russia leader with two choices either dramatically change course and immediately alter Russia’s policy in Ukraine, or redouble his support for Russia’s proxies, continue to test western resolve and ultimately bring about a western response that will be disastrous for Russia. We may hope for the former, but given what we know about Putin, we should expect the latter.
Putin is thinking that Europe, because of its business interests, ultimately will be incapable of uniting to realistically challenge Russia. He plans to make a show of being reasonable by playing along verbally with an investigation. But he does not intend to let Donetsk and Lugansk go. If they look likely to fall, he is prepared to invade. He does not want a full confrontation with the west. He has no long game apart from reinforcing national glory and a legacy as one of Russia’s historic, nation – building, great leaders.