What Does Putin Want?

The United States should pursue confrontation where necessary and mutual interests without illusions where possible.

However therapeutic and tempting, especially during election season and after Russia’s direct complicity in the Syria horror, the understandable impulse to confront and isolate President Vladamir Putin’s Russia is not wise policy. Notwithstanding the many areas of altercation as well as the doomed attempt by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations after the George W. Bush administration, the next president should pursue a dual strategy designed both to challenge Putin where U.S. national interests demand it but find areas of collaboration where interests coincide. The United States should pursue confrontation where necessary and mutual interests without illusions where possible.

Wisdom begins by recognizing Putin’s assumptions, interests, and personal style since he is now the sole author of Russia’s policy. At best, deeply suspicious of and at worst resentful of and adversarial toward the United States, Putin will lose few opportunities for provocation, even belligerence. He blames the West in general but particularly the United States for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and for belittling its heir, Russia. The subsequent expansion of NATO and the EU into Central Europe and the Baltics to the borders of Russia’s immediate neighbors presents to him both a security and a psychological assault, a demeaning of and affront to Russia during its weakness. He holds U.S. support, especially by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, responsible for domestic dissidents and the demonstrations against the legitimacy of the 2011 Duma elections and his own election in 2012, prompting his crackdown on domestic NGOs, media, and critics. Until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the East German regime, he spent five years in Dresden as a KGB agent trained to probe and then exploit weaknesses in Western political elites. He begrudges the United States and (to a lesser extent) Europe even as he once apparently contemplated an affinity with both.

He now has two overriding personal objectives: first to reassert Russian international power, to see Russia great again, to resume its rightful place as a respected or at least feared world power; and second to secure his domestic power, initially through a network of cronies from St. Petersburg but now apparently via utterly dependent and therefore obedient aparatchiks from the siloviki, the security services.

All of that is where U.S. policy must begin. The incursion of Russian troops into Abkhazia and Ossetia to shrink independent and now up-start NATO-aspirant Georgia and then the amputation of Ukraine through the annexation of Crimea by Russian troops based in Sevastopol and the hybrid warfare supported, if not actually directed, by Russian troops in the Donbass region were only the most obvious reassertions of Russian sovereignty over the seemingly lost “near-abroad.” His periodic musings about Moscow’s “responsibility” for ethnic Russians in those countries are clearly aimed at Latvia, Estonia, and the Central Asian Republics, especially Kazakhstan (nearly a quarter of whose population and over three-quarters in its northern border regions are ethnic Russians). The converse threat to repatriate Central Asian and other “guest workers” jeopardizes their economies and their social stability.

Beyond the former Soviet Union, Putin’s intrusive behavior is more sporadic and opportunistic. His support for Bashir al-Assad, for example, had some roots in his desire to retain the Russian naval facility in Tartus but more important to demonstrate that U.S. meddling in regime change for democracy was costly and misplaced. Look at the result, he has noted, in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and especially Libya. Conditions are far worse than they were and there is no democracy either. Both Russia and China are likely to employ their Security Council vetoes in future requests for Libyan-like humanitarian military interventions which, they both believe, were always designed by the United States and its European allies not, as ostensibly rationalized, to protect innocent civilians from an immediate onslaught by Muammar Ghaddafi’s troops but rather to replace him with a democratic regime. Some part of the difficulty in negotiating and implementing a humanitarian relief corridor for Aleppo is the result of the Libyan “betrayal” although the removal of Assad is an overt allied objective, not the result of a failure in foresight. Putin has no love for Assad but Assad represents order and, in Putin’s view, a more successful instrument for the defeat of the Islamist rebellion than the fractured and effete “moderate forces” championed by the West, let alone by insisting on democratic change in an essentially beastly tribal society. Moreover, support for Assad has re-inserted Russia as an indispensable power player in the Middle East since the road to relief runs primarily through Moscow not Damascus and since it also buys Putin points with Iran in its divine struggle against the Great Satan. Finally, we have the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, repayment in Putin’s eyes for the U.S. democracy efforts in Russia before he expelled USAID and its democracy-promoting grantees and decapitated serious opposition parties, independent media, civil society organizations, bloggers, and free competitive elections. All of this is more than irritating for any attempt at U.S.-Russian détente. It is part of Putin’s larger but not really premeditated opposition to U.S. global standing and interests. He will seize openings where and when he can.