With respect to Russia’s decision making, Putin is recognized both inside and outside the country as the unilateral decider. All available evidence suggests that he relies on a very narrow circle of advisers, none of whom is prepared to challenge his assumptions. This process is unlikely to help Putin make informed decisions that fully take account of the real costs and benefits.
Moreover, Russia’s political environment, at both the elite and public levels, encourages Putin to escalate demands rather than make concessions. At the elite level, Russia’s establishment falls into two camps: a pragmatic camp, which is currently dominant thanks principally to Putin’s support, and a hard-line camp. The Russian public largely supports the hard-line camp, whom one Putin adviser called the “hotheads.” Given Russian politics today, Putin is personally responsible for the fact that Russia’s revanchist policies are not more aggressive. Put bluntly, Putin is not the hardest of the hard-liners in Russia.
While none of the “hotheads” criticize Putin, even in private conversations, a growing number of military and national-security officials favor a considerably tougher approach to the United States and Europe in the Ukraine crisis. This is apparent in their attacks on such relatively moderate cabinet officers as Vice Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. From their perspective, the moderates fail to comprehend the gravity of the U.S.-European challenge to Russia and hold futile hopes that things can change for the better without Russia surrendering to an unacceptable and degrading foreign diktat. They recommend shifting the game to areas of Russian strength—by using military force to advance Russian interests as Putin did in Crimea and to pressure the West into accepting Moscow on its own terms.
An increasingly nationalistic Russian public also supports this “challenge the main enemy” approach, which draws its language and inspiration from former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Putin has clearly contributed to growing nationalist sentiments through his patriotic rhetoric and his harsh indictment of Western behavior. But he was pushing on an open door due to widespread disillusionment with Western treatment of Russia as a Cold War loser rather than an ally in building a new world order. What’s more, ordinary Russians may have gone further in their truculent views than Putin himself. Not long ago, Russia’s media widely reported a warning from the recently dismissed rebel commander Igor Strelkov, who said that by being too indecisive, Putin would satisfy no one and would suffer the same fate as Slobodan Milosevic—rejection by liberals and nationalists alike. More recently, Strelkov has reportedly placed Putin’s portrait prominently in his office, explaining that in his view the Russian president “understood that all compromise with the West is fruitless” and that he is “reestablishing Russian sovereignty.” Strelkov often exaggerates, but his views reflect the frustrations of Russia’s influential nationalist coalition.
Added support for a more muscular assertiveness comes from an expanding group of military officers and civilians who believe that Russia can brandish its nuclear weapons to good effect. According to this group, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is not just its ultimate security blanket but also a sword it can wield to coerce others who have no nuclear weapons, as well as those who are unwilling to think the unthinkable of actually exploding a nuclear bomb. Putin appeared to endorse this view in his controversial Sochi speech last September when he said:
Nikita Khrushchev hammered the desk with his shoe at the UN. And the whole world, primarily the United States and NATO, thought, “This Nikita is best left alone, he might just go and fire a missile. We better show some respect for them.” Now the Soviet Union is gone and there is no need to take into account Russia’s views. It has gone through transformation during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we can do whatever we like, disregarding all rules and regulations.
The director of the television network Rossiya Segodnya, Dmitry Kiselyov, has been more explicit, repeatedly warning, “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine emphasizes that Russia will use nuclear weapons not only in response to nuclear attacks but also “in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons.” And, as a recent report of the European Leadership Network notes, there have been almost forty incidents in the past year in which Russian forces engaged in a pattern of provocations that, if continued, “could prove catastrophic.”
Counterintuitive though it may seem, Russia’s weakening economy is also unlikely to create public pressure for concessions. On the contrary, the damage to an already-stagnant Russian economy suffering from low energy prices is actually reducing Putin’s foreign-policy flexibility. Russia’s president needs to show that his country’s suffering has been worth it. Retreat could severely damage Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong man—a style Russians have historically appreciated—and alienate his hypernationalist political base. They resent sanctions, which they see as hurting ordinary people much more than Putin’s entourage, and they want their leaders to resist, not capitulate. For many, Russia’s dignity is at stake.
This came through clearly in a recent conversation with a top Russian official. When asked why his government would not try to negotiate a deal based on principles it has already articulated, such as exchanging Russian guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity minus Crimea and Ukraine’s right to move toward the European Union for Western guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO and that the United States and the European Union would relax sanctions, the official responded by saying, “We have our pride and cannot appear to be pressuring the insurgents to have sanctions reduced.”
THE KEY question is this: Will Putin continue to support the relatively moderate pragmatists, or will he turn toward the “hotheads”? So far, he has split the difference: Russia has provided effective but limited support to the separatists, while at the same time hoping against hope to restore many of its ties with the West (or at least with Europe). Putin has also tried to conceal the scale of Russia’s intervention in order to temporize and to exploit U.S.-European and intra-European differences.
Currently, the pragmatists retain the upper hand, in no small part because Putin has kept his government team almost intact both in the cabinet and in the presidential administration. While loyal to Putin and prepared to execute his agenda, that team consists primarily of officials whose formative experiences have been in establishing economic interdependence with the West and in attempting to make Russia a major voice in a world order predominantly shaped by the United States and its allies.
Foreign Minister Lavrov and others supporting his more pragmatic approach argue that Moscow can still do business with the United States and especially with the Europeans if Russia doesn’t close the door. The “hotheads” take the opposite view, insisting that the West would view any moderation in Russian policy as a sign of weakness. Portraying themselves as realists, they argue that NATO is determined to overthrow Putin, force Russia to its knees and perhaps even dismember the country.
Putin’s reluctance to change course dramatically so far explains his hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, which helps the separatists without Russia formally entering the conflict. It also underlies Russia’s unpersuasive denials that it is giving military support to the separatists, which simultaneously make Moscow subject to justified criticism and create unfounded hope in Washington and in Europe that Russia will be unable to absorb higher casualties in a war in which it claims not to participate.
Yet Putin’s attempt to pursue the pragmatists’ broad objectives while accommodating the “hotheads” on the ground in Ukraine may not be indefinitely sustainable. An increasingly prevalent view among Putin’s advisers sees hopes of a restoration of Western-Russian cooperation as a lost cause because U.S. and Western leaders will not accept any resolution that meets Russia’s minimal requirements. If the United States and the European Union would largely remove sanctions and restore business as usual, they would urge that Russia swallow its pride and reconcile. But if Russia is going to continue to be sanctioned, excluded from financial markets and denied Western technology, they say, then Russia should pursue its own independent path. Putin has yet to face a decisive moment that would require him to make a fateful choice between accommodating Western demands and more directly entering the conflict and perhaps even using force against Western interests outside Ukraine. And if that moment arrives, we may well not welcome his choice.
SANCTIONS ASIDE, two other developments could force Putin’s hand. One would be the prospect of military defeat of the separatists; the second would be NATO membership for Ukraine.
Putin drew a bright red line precluding the first in an interview with Germany’s ARD television channel on November 17, 2014. Speaking rhetorically, he asked whether NATO wanted “the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone among their political foes and opponents” in eastern Ukraine. If so, Putin declared categorically: “We won’t let it happen.” In every instance when the Ukrainian military seemed close to gaining the upper hand in the fighting, and despite U.S. and European warnings and sanctions, Putin has raised the ante to assure the separatists’ success on the battlefield.