Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a roll. The catalog of his alarming moves is well-known: Aggression in Ukraine, interference in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, stepped-up intelligence efforts that may include a hybrid operation to discredit Hillary Clinton, a slick, prolific propaganda machine, support for nationalist and populist movements in Europe. But why is Putin doing all this?
The common explanation is that Putin and his circle see Russia’s relationship with the West as a zero-sum game. Molly McKew, a former adviser to anti-Russian leaders of Georgia and Moldova, recently wrote a much-shared article expounding the view that this is a war and urging the West to act to defeat the aggressive Russian leader.
A sideline of this school of thought focuses on Putin’s sheer bloody-mindedness and self-interest. Gary Kasparov, the chess champion and long-time Putin opponent, argues that Putin has “no consideration of what is or is not good for Russia, or for Russians, only what is best for him and his close circle of oligarch elites.”
Both perspectives have merit: Putin’s view of the West, or at least of its centrist elite, is unflinchingly adversarial and revanchist. The perpetuation of his own power is clearly a goal, evidenced by his efforts to flatten domestic opposition by whatever means, from election rigging to stifling the media. But these cliches also oversimplify things. In the rush to frame the terms of what is in all-but-name a renewed Cold War, Western policy-makers risk missing the forest for the trees. To better assess what actions are worth countering, they should first try to understand Putin’s strategic objectives.
Rather than a crude us-versus-them mindset, a cocktail of mysticism and capitalist instincts seems to animate Putin and his close friends and aides. Anton Vaino, appointed Putin’s chief of staff last year, co-wrote a book, called “The Image of Victory,” about the global politics as a game. It’s an esoteric treatise known for its discussion of the nooscope — a strange device to “detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity.” It does, however, offer plenty of clues to current Kremlin thinking. For example, it makes this distinction between a war and a game:
In war, there is us and them, friends and enemies, front and rear. A was has and end and a beginning. Victory and Defeat. In a game, everything is different. A game is a system of chess, card or checkers moves made in a different space than that of war, with a different degree of foresight of the convergent processes of interaction between adversaries. In a game, time flows differently and interaction, too is different. One of us can be theirs, and one of them can be ours.
Putin has been declared a thug; he, however, still sees himself as a chess grandmaster playing a complicated game with elements of violence and subterfuge. In “The Image of Victory,” the goal is economic: A massive increase in the value of Russian assets, which would make Russia an equal in determining “the rules of the Global Game.” Since 2012, when the book was published, Putin has made policy choices that prioritized geopolitics over economics. That doesn’t mean, however, that the long-term goal has changed.
There are indications that it hasn’t. Frauke Petry, co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the nationalist, pro-Putin party that has made much headway in recent German regional elections — this week published an essay in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche, arguing for an enormous free-trade area that would include the U.S., Europe and Russia, turning the European Union into a far looser, primarily economic, bloc than it is today. Petry wrote:
With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, new options will also open up here: free trade from Vladivostok to Anchorage, but not on terms which give big industry exclusive competitive advantages over medium-sized companies.
Putin himself has repeatedly mentioned a trade zone from Lissabon to Vladivostok, though not extending it as far as the U.S. The Kremlin is looking for channels to communicate its ideas in the West and European nationalists like Petry are probably one of the best sources on Putin’s agenda today. Putin’s United Russia party is even forging formal alliances with European nationalist parties, and the AfD is no exception.
It’s also worth recalling that the Ukraine crisis started when Russia tied to pull the neighboring country into a post-Soviet free trade area Putin has been trying to patch together. Ukraine opted to move toward EU membership; the Kremlin wanted trilateral talks on economic cooperation, but the EU refused to invite Russia to the table. Moscow then put pressure on then-president Viktor Yanukovych to hold off signing a trade deal with Europe, and soon afterwards, pro-European Ukrainians deposed him. Three years later, it’s hard to imagine amicable talks between Russia, Ukraine and the EU — but the opportunity was once there.
Elsewhere, as with Ukraine, Russia may only want relatively modest economic advantages and a seat at the table. In pushing for better trade terms and more security, Putin is more predictable than the mercurial Donald Trump. It needn’t be zero sum.
In the Middle East, for example, Russia wants to sell its weapons and do energy-related deals with Turkey and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. and Europe lose nothing by allowing that and working with Russia against common terrorist threats. The United Nations Security Council appears to have recognized that by backing a Syrian ceasefire sponsored by Russia and Turkey; it’s largely holding so far.
To many in the West, Putin destroyed the possibility of such plain dealing with his militant misbehavior. The default was to think in terms of retribution. The reality is that Russia is a major nuclear power that no country, including the U.S., wants to take on militarily. Comprehensive, Iran-style sanctions are also impossible because a cornered Putin might make even more aggressive moves, perhaps even testing North Atlantic Treaty Organization cohesion.
This may be unpleasant, both to Western leaders and to Russians hoping for a more democratic government in their country. But there’s no point in denying it. Since 2014, Putin’s tactical goal has been to demonstrate the uselessness of half-hearted containment policies, the impossibility of an open war and the unifying effect a perceived external threat can have on Russians.
The demonstration has been persuasive. It has also hurt U.S. prestige in the world and created new threats to the EU. But because many Western politicians still act unconvinced, Putin feels forced to continue his saber-rattling and his disruptive KGB-style forays into Western domestic politics. Neither Putin nor the elite around him wants to keep playing the bad guy. Many of them celebrated Trump’s victory because to them, it meant a potential respite.
A genuine attempt by Western leaders to find common ground would, of course, be labeled appeasement. Rather, it would be a powerful move to undermine Putin’s long-term ascendancy. Even the botched “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations during Barack Obama’s first term nearly had a disastrous effect on his rule: Russia’s increasing inclusion in the Western world’s economy under that policy enriched and emboldened Moscow’s middle class, and by 2011, it was ready to protest electoral fraud and search for new leaders.
The current hostilities, by contrast, are only strengthening Putin’s hold on power and weakening his pro-Western opponents, who barely register on most Russians’ radars anymore. Paradoxically, the achievement of Putin’s ultimate strategic goals could lead to change that would eventually destroy what is seen as the Russian threat today.