Vladimir Putin & Russia 2017- August 2020

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Carnegie Moscow Center
Windows on Eurasia

11 – 14 August
Russia’s top respiratory doctor quits over ‘gross violations’ of medical ethics that rushed through Putin’s coronavirus ‘vaccine’
(Daily Mail) Professor Alexander Chuchalin quit the Russian health ministry’s ethics council after making a fierce attack on the new Sputnik V drug ahead of the body approving its registration.
Amid deep scepticism among Western experts over the drug, it appears that Chuchalin sought and failed to block its registration on ‘safety’ grounds before quitting the ethics council.
Russia clears coronavirus vaccine, insists it’s safe as scientists sound alarm
Everything you need to know about Russia’s coronavirus vaccine claims
(NewScientist) Russian president Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that the country has approved a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19. Putin said that the vaccine is safe and effective. Russia apparently plans to start mass vaccinations in October.
However, the announcement has caused global concern. Immunologists say there is no way to be sure that the vaccine is safe, let alone effective, and that Russia seems to be cutting corners.
Russia clears coronavirus vaccine, insists it’s safe as scientists sound alarm
(Global) Russia on Tuesday became the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, a move that was met with international skepticism and unease because the shots have only been studied in dozens of people.
President Vladimir Putin announced the Health Ministry’s approval and said one of his two adult daughters already was inoculated. He said the vaccine underwent the necessary tests and was shown to provide lasting immunity to the coronavirus, although Russian authorities have offered no proof to back up claims of safety or effectiveness.

1 August
A KGB Man to the End
The origins of Putin’s worldview—and the rise of Russia’s new ruling class

Anne Applebaum’s review of Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West by Catherine Belton.
(The Atlantic) Step by step, Belton demonstrates how the future president made full use of KGB methods, contacts, and networks at each stage of his career. She describes the famous swindle he ran in St. Petersburg in the ’90s, selling oil abroad on the city’s behalf, supposedly to buy food for its inhabitants; instead the profits went to create a hard-currency slush fund—known in Russian criminal slang as an obschak—much of which financed other operations and eventually enriched Putin’s friends. Later, Putin won the confidence of the Russian oligarchs of President Boris Yeltsin’s era, in part by promising them immunity from prosecution after Yeltsin resigned; once he took power, he eliminated them from the game, arresting some throughout the early 2000s and chasing others out of the country. In the years that he has been president, his cronies have launched a series of major operations—the Deutsche Bank “mirror trading” scheme, the Moldovan “laundromat,” the Danske Bank scandal—all of which used Western banks to help move stolen money out of Russia. Similar schemes continue to the present day.

30 July
The Caudillo of the Kremlin
Andrei Kolesnikov
By laying the constitutional groundwork to remain president for life, Vladimir Putin is engineering a further “Francoization” of his regime. But while Francisco Franco at least had a successor in King Juan Carlos, Putin has no such thing, which could spell chaos for Russia.
(Project Syndicate/Moscow Carnegie Center) Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown his regime’s real intentions. By changing the constitution to allow him to remain in office until 2036 and incorporating conservative new language, it has cast off its teetering mask of democratic legitimacy. But just as Putin has sought to entrench his rule, his regime is looking weaker than ever.
In the city of Khabarovsk, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks, chanting, “Putin resign!” They are not alone. While Putin’s approval rating may seem high, it is low by Russian standards. In fact, his 59-60% approval rating in recent months is his lowest since October 1999, when he was prime minister. And it is unlikely to improve significantly for a simple reason: Putin tried-and-tested methods to win support have lost their firepower.

1-2 July
FSB Gave Putin ‘Real Results’ from Referendum and He Can’t be Pleased, Zyuganov Says
(Windows on Eurasia) The actual results as opposed to the officially reported ones show that “the Kremlin doesn’t have anything to celebrate,” something Vladimir Putin and his regime in fact know because the FSB informed the Kremlin about the real as opposed to the claimed ones, Gennady Zyuganov says.
The KPRF leader points out that even officially, more than one in five Russians who took part in the referendum did not vote for Putin’s changes and nearly one in three did not take part. Many who didn’t participate did so as a way of expressing their opposition by not following Putin’s appeals to show up
The KPRF leader points out that even officially, more than one in five Russians who took part in the referendum did not vote for Putin’s changes and nearly one in three did not take part. Many who didn’t participate did so as a way of expressing their opposition by not following Putin’s appeals to show up.
That means that even officially, half of the Russian electorate did not back the Kremlin’s proposals, despite the fact that the Russian powers that be are claiming an overwhelming victory. But unofficially, Zyuganov continues, the way in which the powers that be organized this vote gave them amazing and almost unrestricted opportunities to falsify the results.
“In Moscow, the capital, a third of voters didn’t take part and a third voted against the amendments. This means that a majority of Muscovites, despite official propaganda, consider that the proposed changes in the Basic law are insufficient and that more principled decisions are needed,” Zyuganov says.
Russians grant Putin right to extend his rule until 2036 in landslide vote, initial results show
(Reuters) – Russians appeared to have paved the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for a package of constitutional changes which will also boost pensions, initial results of a nationwide vote showed on Wednesday.
Partial results, announced five hours before polls closed, indicate the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister will win the right to run for two more terms. That means he could remain president for 16 more years.

13 April
Putin’s Long War Against American Science
A decade of health disinformation promoted by President Vladimir Putin of Russia has sown wide confusion, hurt major institutions and encouraged the spread of deadly illnesses.
(NYT) On Feb. 3, soon after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global health emergency, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog. It said the pathogen was a germ weapon designed to incapacitate and kill. The headline called the evidence “irrefutable” even though top scientists had already debunked that claim and declared the novel virus to be natural.
As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has been accompanied by a dangerous surge of false information — an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within.

7 April
Are Russians Finally Sick of Putin?
Andrei Kolesnikov
Putin’s move to extend his rule beyond its expected end in 2024 has worked against the president. Meanwhile, the new coronavirus and falling ruble have proved more effective than any action by the opposition aimed at damaging Putin’s ratings.
(Carnegie Moscow) Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a triangle has formed in Russian politics around the figures of President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
Putin isn’t just president, he’s also the nation’s psychotherapist. Having declared a week-long public holiday to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he is now trying to soothe entrepreneurs who are going bust, and preparing for two events: a nationwide vote on changing the constitution to allow him to stay on as president through 2036, and a vast Victory Day military parade on May 9, marking the Soviet and Allied victory in World War II—an event that is key to maintaining his approval ratings.
… It’s hard to say how much of the recent fall in his ratings was due to the coronavirus, and how much of it is due to the slump in oil prices and, subsequently, the ruble. In any case, public opinion doesn’t rate Putin’s crisis management skills very highly. There is one other hypothesis: despite the apparent indifference with which the autocratic ruler’s move to reset the clock on his presidential terms was greeted, perhaps this move—along with the other amendments to the constitution, including highly populist social guarantees such as pension indexation—did not play in Putin’s favor, but against him.

Keeping His Options Open: Why Putin Decided to Stay On
Tatiana Stanovaya
Putin, a man torn by conflicting impulses, has opted for stability in moving to stay on as president after 2024. In doing so, he surprised the elite and even some in the presidential administration, deceiving those around him—though not the public—with his talk of changes in leadership and overhauling Russia’s political system. His real intentions are impossible to know, but his priority is clear: keeping his options open.
(Carnegie Moscow) …we can now see that Putin was paying off those around him to accept the trade-off between a fifth presidential term for Putin and a new and improved constitution for everyone else. But neither the elite nor the presidential administration realized. Only the public picked up on what Putin was doing: almost half of those polled said that Putin’s aim in amending the constitution was to stay in power after 2024.
This sophisticated two-step move was one of Putin’s most impressive special ops ever. With his first step he derived as much legitimacy as possible from the constitutional reforms, which were debated in all contexts—among them God, sovereignty, children, pensions, and the State Council. All except one: Putin’s rewriting of the constitution to his own ends.

10 March
Putin Endorses Brazen Remedy to Extend His Rule, Possibly for Life
(NYT) In a carefully scripted appearance, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia agreed he should be allowed to seek two more terms, if the Constitutional Court approves.
The proposal, passed by the lower house of Parliament just hours after it had been introduced, would allow him to serve for an additional two six-year terms when his tenure expires.
The legislation must still be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court and a nationwide referendum in April. But in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, the choreographed flurry of events on Tuesday was the clearest sign yet that after 20 years as president or prime minister, Mr. Putin, the 67-year-old former KGB spy and icon of strongman rule, is intent on staying in the Kremlin possibly for the rest of his life, or at least until 2036.

11 February
Unconsolidated: The Five Russian Elites Shaping Putin’s Transition
Tatiana Stanovaya
President Putin has embarked on a renewal of Russia’s ruling regime to make sure it weathers the political transition of 2024 and to preserve his personal power-base. The elite can be divided into five distinct groups, two of which, the “protectors” and “technocrats” may end up in a fierce ideological fight.
(Carnegie Moscow Center) Vladimir Putin’s January 15 announcement of constitutional changes and a government reshuffle launched the long-awaited period of Russia’s political transition. It is almost certain that Putin will not run for the presidency in 2024, when his current term ends. Not only will he back a chosen successor to be president, but he will reapportion the powers of the presidency and parliament while also carving out a new role for himself.
The way Russia is governed is often misunderstood. One misconception is that Putin deals with everything himself and that nothing gets decided without him. Another is that Putin’s supposedly omnipotent friends simply run the show in his name. A third line of conventional wisdom maintains that the chieftains of the security services, the so-called siloviki, are in total control of things. None of these explanations is close to reality. There are ample reasons for outsiders to get confused. Part of the problem is the wide discrepancy between the official administrative structure and informal political connections. For example, the head of a major Russian state corporation can be more influential than a cabinet minister.
This paper is intended to explain the dynamics of the ongoing transition and provide a way of understanding how it will reshape the Russian establishment and the impact on Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies. It offers a new system of classifying the Russian elite into five tiers, each with its own role in forming official policy. The five elite groups considered here are:
Putin’s Personal Retinue
Putin’s Friends and Associates
The Russian Government’s Technocrats and Policymaking Elite
The Regime’s “Protectors”
The Regime’s Implementers

16-20 January
Putin Outlines Political Overhaul, Including Possible Post for Himself
By proposing to empower a toothless advisory body, President Vladimir V. Putin set off new speculation about his long-term plans.
By Andrew Higgins, NYT Moscow Bureau chief
(NYT) … In another development in Russia’s long somnolent but suddenly fast-moving political scene, Mr. Putin on Monday removed the prosecutor general, Yuri Y. Chaika, a central pillar of the country’s capricious law enforcement system throughout his 20-year rule.
The sudden flurry of changes has spawned a host of often contradictory theories about what Mr. Putin is up to and why he is moving so fast to reshape a political order largely unchanged for more than quarter of a century.
One theory is that, as a former K.G.B. agent, Mr. Putin has embarked on a lightning “special operation” that, swift and unexpected, aims at subduing potential resistance by not giving time for anyone to figure out what is happening. Another unsubstantiated theory is that he could be ill and needs to move quickly before he is forced to bow out.
But, said Ivan Kurilla, a political analyst in St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin’s hometown, “the most plausible explanation is that he wants to become the elder statesman who still holds power like the former Chinese leader or Nazarbayev,” references to the deceased Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and to Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.
Taking over his powerful post as prosecutor general, roughly the equivalent of the attorney general in the United States, is Igor Krasnov, the deputy head of Russia’s version of the F.B.I., the Investigative Committee.
The office of the prosecutor general and the Investigative Committee have frequently feuded over turf, and the appointment of Mr. Krasnov could be an attempt by Mr. Putin to calm potentially destabilizing rivalries in the law enforcement system as he retools Russia’s entire political order.
… The amendments submitted Monday give little comfort to those who had interpreted Mr. Putin’s speech last week as endorsing the creation of a more powerful role for Parliament, which under the current system serves as little more than an echo chamber and rubber stamp for the Kremlin. Those amendments give no major new powers to the Parliament and, if anything in some areas broaden powers of the president, who will appoint much of the security leadership, nominate the prime minister and form the strengthened State Council.
Gwynne Dyer: Putin bids for post-retirement influence but not for immortality
Last week the Russian president announced a wave of constitutional reforms, and the vast majority of foreign observers, especially in the West, jumped to the conclusion that Putin is changing the system so that he can stay in power forever.
The old KGB was a ruthless organization, but also a rational and realistic one. Putin is a man steeped in that tradition, not an adventurer or a fantasist, and we should probably be grateful for that.
So what are the odds that he will still be running things after 2024?
He will be 72 years old in 2024: definitely time to start thinking about what happens after he’s gone.
And I’m going to make a bold assumption here: that he is a Russian patriot. Being Russian means he fears disorder above all else. Russians sometimes call themselves “Italians of the North,” and they don’t mean it in a good way. So he wants a strong state, run with a firm hand, even after he has retired, which means that a clear and orderly succession is very important.
However, living on under somebody else’s firm hand is not an attractive prospect for Putin. He may or may not have fabulous sums of stolen money tucked away — the evidence for that is unclear — but you make a lot of enemies in a quarter-century in power, and they could hurt you badly after you have relinquished it.
So what Putin needs is a position that gives him the final constitutional say when big changes loom, but lets him withdraw from the daily exercise of power. Something like the chairmanship of a strengthened State Council that can overrule both president and prime minister when necessary (but does so very rarely).
Planning for a (Not-So) Post-Putin Russia
Of the constitutional reforms put forward by Putin, what will really change a lot is the proposal to give the Russian constitution—including repressive Russian legislation—priority over international law. This violation of the usual hierarchy is nothing short of a legal revolution.
By Andrei Kolesnikov
(Carnegie Moscow Center) Following the unexpected announcement of constitutional changes in Russia and the resignation of the government, the question of whether or not Putinism will end with President Vladimir Putin has instantly become rhetorical. The president made it clear in his state of the nation address on January 15 that no one is going anywhere, despite the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government, and swift replacement of the former with a low-profile technocrat, Mikhail Mishustin.
Putin’s casual suggestion that the status and role of the insignificant and until recently largely lifeless State Council should be enshrined in the constitution can only mean one thing: that Putin is preparing a new position for himself within that structure. If the State Council’s status gets a boost, the president could assume the status of national leader and head of that structure, which would carry out the role of a parallel presidential administration, or parallel government.
Putin’s announcement that the new prime minister will be the former head of the tax service, Mishustin, was both unexpected and yet unsurprising at the same time. It’s unsurprising in that Mishustin is an ideal Putin-backed candidate: the tax service has cozy ties to the security services, and its help has been enlisted to solve all sorts of issues, including business conflicts. With its adoption of digital technology, it’s also considered to be a well-oiled and smoothly functioning state structure.
… the proposal to give the Russian constitution—including repressive Russian legislation—priority over international law … means that European Court of Human Rights rulings cannot be enforced. Russian opposition activists can appeal to Strasbourg until they are blue in the face, but Russian judicial institutions will be able to view the international court’s verdicts as incompatible with national legislation. These radical changes to Russia’s justice system are nothing short of a legal revolution.


September/October 2019
Putin the Great – Russia’s Imperial Impostor

(Foreign Affairs) No matter how contrived his admiration for Peter the Great, Putin has in fact styled himself a tsar as much as a Soviet general secretary over the course of his two decades in public life. The religion he grew up worshiping was not the Marxist-Leninist ideology he was force-fed in school but the heroic displays of superpower might he saw on television and the imperial grandeur of his faded but still ambitious hometown, Peter’s town. Strength was and is his dogma, whether for countries or men, and the Russian emperors’ motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” is a closer philosophical fit with today’s Putinism than the Soviet paeans to international workers’ solidarity and the heroism of the laborer that Putin had to memorize as a child.
Putin is well into his 20th year as Russia’s leader and in some ways appears to be at his most powerful, the global template for a new era of modern authoritarians. In the early years of this century, when the post-Soviet wave of democratization still seemed inexorable, Putin reversed Russia’s course, restoring centralized authority in the Kremlin and reviving the country’s standing in the world. Today, in Washington and certain capitals of Europe, he is an all-purpose villain, sanctioned and castigated for having invaded two neighbors—Georgia and Ukraine—and for having provoked Western countries, including by interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump and using deadly nerve agents to poison targets on British soil. His military intervention in Syria’s civil war helped save the regime of Bashar al-Assad, making Putin the most significant Russian player in the Middle East since Brezhnev. His increasingly close alliance with China has helped usher in a new era of great-power competition with the United States. Finally, it appears, Putin has brought about the multipolar world that he has dreamed of since he took office determined to revisit the Americans’ Cold War victory. All that, and he is only 66 years old, seemingly vigorous and healthy and capable of governing for many more years to come.
… Sheer survival—of his regime and of himself—is often the aim that best explains many of Putin’s political decisions, at home and abroad. In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a hiatus as prime minister so as to observe constitutional niceties, he was greeted with massive demonstrations. These shook Putin to the core, and his belief that street protests can all too easily turn into regime-threatening revolutions is the key to understanding his present and future behavior. On the international stage, no cause has animated Putin more than the prospect of another country’s leader being forced from office, no matter how evil the leader or how deserved the toppling. Early on in his presidency, he opposed the “color revolutions” sweeping some post-Soviet states: the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. He condemned the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. He went to war after his ally Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, fled the country amid a peaceful street uprising. He is an antirevolutionary through and through, which makes sense when you remember how it all began.

4 February
The Putin I Knew; the Putin I Know
By Franz J. Sedelmayer, CEO of MARC, the Multinational Asset Recovery Company, and the author of “Welcome to Putingrad.”
(NYT) I met Vladimir Putin and trusted him in the early 1990s, when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Now that he’s Russia’s president, he’s different. He’s no friend of democracy.
It was after he became president in 2000 that he worried increasingly about Russia’s political and economic failures and bemoaned a lack of what he considered proper respect from the West — and turned Russia inward with ideology and religion as tools. … I began watching him metamorphose from a minor bureaucrat into the authoritarian four-times-elected president of Russia. I can tell you the Mr. Putin that Americans read about today is nothing like either the Mr. Putin I knew at first or the one I know now.
The Mr. Putin I know is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous. Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home.
Western leaders had trusted Mr. Putin. But they did not understand that to him, politeness and friendship were often signs of weakness, not friendship. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.
And yet, living in America, I couldn’t help noticing that the media there are reticent when it comes to telling its audiences that Mr. Putin’s Russia will never be democracy’s friend. Volodya’s Russia wants to divide and to destroy democracies. To that end, Volodya employs his Kremlin apparatus, notably the shadowy and largely unknown Presidential Property Administration of the Russian Federation, or UdPRF.
Something else I’ve discovered since moving is that many of America’s Kremlin-watchers don’t understand that Mr. Putin is running scared these days. His recent election may have been guaranteed; his future is anything but. Why? Because Volodya has no one watching his back. … It has long been rumored that he has a huge fortune stashed away. But if that is true, it is likely held by friends, associates or even some of the criminals Mr. Putin has made filthy rich. So, my question is: When Volodya finally leaves power, will those filthy-rich friends, associates and co-conspirators give him back any of those billions? Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.


13 January
Putin’s Revenge (Part 1)
Amid claims he hacked the 2016 election, the inside story of Vladimir Putin’s conflict with the U.S. Part one investigates Putin’s historic grievances with the U.S. and his efforts to exact revenge leading up to the presidential election
(The Passionate Eye) Part one of Putin’s Revenge is a portrait of what makes the Russian leader tick, and the events that shaped his belief that the U.S. has sought to undermine Russia dating back to the fall of the Soviet Union. It explores how Putin came to power and then carefully constructed his image, cracking down on independent media outlets and opponents. It also traces key turning points in Putin’s relationship with the U.S. over the years, including how his fear of a U.S. policy of regime change intensified, and how he came to see Hillary Clinton in particular as an enemy trying to oust him – despite State Department insistence it was only promoting democracy, not trying to steer the outcome of Russia’s election.


28 March
This becomes of vital interest in view of the news that Trump adds Russia scholar as a National Security Council director.
(WaPost) Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and frequent critic of President Vladi­mir Putin, will join the White House National Security Council as senior director for Europe and Russia, officials said Tuesday.
Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former member of the National Intelligence Council, was first recruited for the NSC job under Michael Flynn, President Trump’s now-former national security adviser.
Quoted in a November article in the Atlantic, Hill expressed doubts about Trump’s plans to “normalize relations” with Russia. While Trump’s presidency might bring “a stylistic rhetorical change” in the relationship, she said, “I think it will come down to what it’s always been — where the Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time . . . being on the same page.”

What makes Putin tick, and what the West should do
Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy | Friday, January 13, 2017

Editor’s Note: 

This piece is adapted with permission from “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” By Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy (Brookings Institution Press, 2015). In the book, they aimed to answer the question of who is Russian President Vladimir Putin and what motivates him. The authors noted that much of the commentary regarding Russia in the United States was built upon several, potentially very dangerous, misconceptions about Putin.  With Russia and its involvement in U.S. domestic affairs currently at the forefront of national attention, their analysis has never been more relevant, or more vital.  A lightly-adapted excerpt of the book’s coda is below. You can buy the book here.

In this book, we have tried to answer the question of who is Mr. Putin and what motivates him to do what he does. Here, in this coda, we put this understanding and these insights to the test. Based on what we’ve written, we consider what lessons we have learned and what advice we might offer on how to deal with him. The 2014 conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine has convinced us that some observers of the crisis have several, potentially very dangerous, misconceptions about Putin. These fall into the category of underestimating him in a couple of important respects, and then overestimating him—or failing to understand his limitations—in others. First, many in the West underestimated Putin’s willingness to fight, for as long and as hard (and as dirty) as he needs to, to achieve his goals. Vladimir Putin will use all methods available, and he will be ruthless. Second, Western observers misread his skill as a strategist. Putin is not, as some have said, a mere tactician. He thinks strategically, and he has great advantages over Western leaders in his ability to translate that thinking into action. What we often fail to appreciate, however, is how dangerously little Putin understands about us—our motives, our mentality, and, also, our values. Only by trying to appreciate how Putin sees us can we see the logic in his actions—the logic he follows—and therefore get some idea of what he wants, where he might be headed, in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe and Eurasia….

First, Vladimir Putin needs to be taken seriously. He will make good on every promise or threat—if Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it; and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal. From Putin’s biographical materials… [he] and his Kremlin team wanted domestic and international audiences to conceive of him as a scrappy little street fighter (a little thug in Masha Gessen’s depiction in The Man Without a Face). All the stories laid out in these early materials and the subsequent embellishments were framed by the outbreak of the second war in Chechnya; but they were also intended to have a shelf-life for future events. Their purpose was to underscore that if Vladimir Putin gets into a fight, then he is prepared to fight to the end. He will keep on fighting, even if he gets beaten up (as a kid), or risks losing his position (as the official leader of Russia), or has to embark on a potential suicide mission (as his father did during World War II). Vladimir Putin may be an underdog—he’s small in stature, he seems weaker than his opponents, he was always in secondary, never high-profile, positions until the late 1990s—but he uses these and other attributes to his advantage.

Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist.

In short, Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist. He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.  He didn’t give up as a kid in the Leningrad courtyards. He didn’t give up in Chechnya.  He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. Vladimir Putin’s rules for street fighting are essentially the same for his principles in domestic and foreign politics. Establish credibility and don’t back down until the advantage is yours and you’ve made your point. Once your opponent has capitulated and you have established your turf and terms, then you can patch things up and move on—until the next showdown comes along. Whether the stories Putin and his team tell about his childhood fights are all true or not, Putin’s martial arts training lends them some veracity. It also brings in another dimension. Putin began with judo and the somewhat rougher Russian variant called sambo at an early age. Judo gave Putin a more disciplined and ritualized approach to fighting. It helped him overcome his own weaknesses in terms of his size and strength relative to others. Judo moved the street kid from anything goes scraps into formalized matches. It gave him insight and techniques to figure out ways of pushing bigger, stronger opponents to the mat while protecting himself.

In the domestic and foreign policy arenas, Putin constantly sizes up his opponents and probes for physical and psychological weaknesses. Putin’s adaptation of Nixon’s “Madman Theory” approach helps flush these weaknesses out—it helps gauge reactions: They think I’m dangerous, and unpredictable, how do they respond to this?  Have I got them unbalanced and on the back foot as a result? Then Putin tests his opponents to see if they mean what they say—will they also be prepared to fight, and fight to the end? If they are not, then he will exploit their empty threats to show them up, intimidate, deter, and defeat them. If they are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves that get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. In judo you can win on points over the course of a series of matches even if you are far smaller than your opponent and lose some of the individual rounds.

Much of this is borne out by events since Putin became president. As we have laid out in the book, all of Putin’s tactics at home and abroad are geared toward gaining advantage against his opponents—be they oligarchs and opposition figures in Russia, or Western leaders and international organizations. To maximize the tactical advantage, Putin and the Kremlin work very hard at making him as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. Access to Putin is strictly limited. His image is carefully branded and rebranded. Putin’s appearances and public pronouncements are highly orchestrated and well-prepared. They are timed for maximum effect so that his audiences will hang on his every word—looking for any indication of what he might think, or what he might do next. The Kremlin maintains an almost complete unity of silence and message. When messages seem to be transmitted without approval they are accompanied by equal measure of dis/mis-information. All of this deliberately complicates the task of the political opponent (as well as the outside analyst or biographer). Vladimir Putin is, and is supposed to be, unknowable to the outsider. The goal is to keep everyone confused and off balance.

The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread.

These points can be traced through some of the events we refer to in the book. In Georgia in 2008, for example, Putin called the West’s bluff about standing by its friends—which is what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the West would do during a visit to Tbilisi shortly before the August war. From Putin’s perspective, given all the emphasis the Bush Administration put on Georgia in its foreign policy, he thought this meant that the United States was prepared to fight militarily, not just rhetorically, for Georgia. Moscow was steeled for a possible fight with NATO. Many Russian officials in private meetings with the authors related the tension in Moscow security circles in August 2008. They talked of the fear in the Russian military that the U.S. and NATO would strike back, and that they might then have to face a NATO force in some form, not just the Georgian army. When the United States and NATO did not come to Georgia’s aid militarily, and the European Union, with then French President Nicholas Sarkozy out in front, rushed to broker a ceasefire, there was a sigh of relief in Moscow. NATO was still a formidable conventional fighting force, of course, but it did not have the political will to fight for partners outside the alliance, and the frame of Article 5—even if (as in the case of Georgia) those partners were fighting alongside NATO forces in coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq.Putin understood that the United States’ security priorities were focused elsewhere. The West wanted to contain Russia on the cheap in Europe and Eurasia. The United States, NATO, and the EU would do everything they could to head off another major military confrontation, a “World War III,” in Europe.

However, from Putin’s perspective, there might come a point in the future where those priorities would change for the U.S. and NATO. If so, he would have to think in terms of such a worst-case scenario. We are convinced that this is exactly how Putin thinks, because, contrary to the prevailing external assessment, Putin is a strategic planner. The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread. Putin thinks, plans, and acts strategically. But, as we have stressed in the book, for Putin, strategic planning is contingency planning. There is no step-by-step blueprint. There are strategic objectives, and there are many ways to achieve those objectives. Exactly what his next step towards the objective will be depends on the circumstances. It depends on how his adversary reacts.

Putin has the same priorities today that he laid out at the beginning of his presidency in December 1999. His larger strategic goal is ensuring the defense of Russia’s interests—which are tightly fused with, and now largely inseparable from, his own and his system’s interests. As Russia’s president, Putin is… set on restoring, consolidating, and defending Russia’s position. As the “CEO of Russia, Inc.”, Putin’s task is to protect the core assets of the economic system that he controls and which is managed by his inner circle. In both guises, Putin has to figure out how to plan for the present and future under conditions of economic and political uncertainty. Putin knows unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy. The key to dealing with the unexpected is to anticipate that there will always be setbacks. This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them. He needs back-up plans and resources ready whenever they come along. Having back-up plans means learning from past mistakes as well as successes. It means reducing risk and vulnerability for the future. Putin has consistently shown that he can learn from his own policy or tactical mistakes at home and abroad. In his pronouncements and actions, Putin has emphasized the importance of operational flexibility and of maximizing options so he can adapt to changes in Russia’s internal and external environment as he goes along.

Another aspect of Putin’s strategic approach is to simplify and streamline his leadership at home and his interactions abroad. By creating a system in which he only has to deal with a small number of actors, Putin frees himself from having to deal with details and messy dynamics. He identifies and recruits people who can deliver results and holds onto them, both at home and abroad. Inside “Russia Inc.”, Putin creates incentives, rewards and rules to keep his core team together. He does not micromanage; he monitors. He checks-in periodically to make sure everyone in his core team and at lower operational levels knows what they’re doing; and he steps in only if things go wrong and he has to put things back on track. He insists on cohesion and consensus—keeping his challengers as much as possible in his “big tent.” He shows them respect, gives their ideas a regular hearing, and gives them a stake in the system. But anyone who breaks the rules he has laid down in domestic and foreign policy is punished severely—from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Mikheil Saakashvili.

By creating a system in which he only has to deal with a small number of actors, Putin frees himself from having to deal with details and messy dynamics.

Again, this plays out in foreign policy events. As we discuss in the book, Putin had clearly decided sometime before the Munich Security Conference in 2007 that he would eventually have to confront the United States, on what he perceived to be its destabilizing behavior, with something more forceful than heightened rhetoric. In the case of Georgia, Putin knew that Mikheil Saakashvili was going to keep on pushing to reassert Georgia’s control over the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including trying to retake them by force if he felt he had to or could. Saakashvili never hid this intention. He often spoke of it to interlocutors, including to the authors on two occasions several years apart. Saakashvili also made it clear that he would keep pressing for NATO membership in some form. So Putin had contingencies prepared, including the armed forces’ annual summer exercises in the North Caucasus military district. Sure enough, Saakashvili tripped the wire in 2008. After the Georgia war, Putin and his team looked back over the conflict and examined what had gone wrong in detail. They looked at Russia’s large-scale military operations first in Chechnya and then in Georgia and at the West’s responses. They decided that they needed to do something different when the next time came along.

The next time was Ukraine. Putin first took the 2011-2012 protests as a signal that the West had opened another front of attack and he would need to take immediate preparatory action. Putin set [Armed Forces Chief of Staff] Gerasimov and [Defense Minister] Shoigu to work at the end of 2012 to mobilize Russia for fighting the new twenty-first century warfare with the West. Putin’s second signal was the European association agreements in 2013, combined with the EU’s decision to initiate its Third Energy Package and the financial crisis in Cyprus in March 2013. All this revealed how negative attitudes toward Russia had become in Brussels and Berlin. Initially in Ukraine, Putin thought he had the situation under control with the venal and vulnerable Victor Yanukovych in place. But he had bet on the wrong horse. Yanukovych could be blackmailed but he couldn’t keep control of Ukraine. Once it became clear that Yanukovych had “no political future”—which may have been in December 2013 when the protests in Kyiv stepped up, or not until February 2014 when things really got out of hand—then Putin had to make sure his backup plans were in place. Annexing Crimea and setting the rest of Ukraine on fire were contingency operations. They were prepared in advance, ready to be used if needed—but only if needed.

Unexpected future events would also have to be dealt with.  The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 was one of those: it was a particularly tragic example of events blowing plans off course. Until the Malaysian Airlines disaster, the European Union had been lukewarm on imposing sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea. MH17 was a game changer for Europe. Most of the casualties were European, citizens of one of Russia’s closest trading partners, the Netherlands (and as it turned out as a result of all the bad press, the sometime home of one of Putin’s daughters). However, this event was not a game changer for Putin. He would stick to his overall strategy. But he would adapt his tactics to the new circumstances, the new “input.” Putin had already anticipated that there would be sanctions—they were a favored punitive foreign policy tool of the United States, even if the U.S. had been reluctant to apply them in Georgia in 2008. Putin had started to prepare for this inevitability in advance. He had tried to boost Russia’s overall economic leverage with the West and he had pushed to de-offshore and diversify trade once he was back in the presidency. Now Putin would have to find ways of dealing with an intensified level of sanctions—including through non-economic means. In the case of MH17, Putin hit back with Russia’s own (asymmetric) sanctions accompanied by a barrage of propaganda and misinformation to confuse the issue, sow doubt, deflect attention away from who might actually have shot down the plane and why. And he stepped up the military aspects of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He did not back down in any meaningful way….

Putin has only a handful of contacts with U.S. and European insiders and thus a very incomplete grasp of what motivates or drives Western leaders. Finding himself too far outside their political perspectives and interactions, Putin falls back on his (and Russia’s) age-old threat perceptions. He looks for, and finds, plots and conspiracies. The plots he finds are consistent with his logic. They make sense in terms of his frame of reference—as seen through his filters of the Cold War, the KGB, his time in Dresden, and the prevailing political views of conservative and patriotic Russia circles. This does not mean that the plots exist or that his views are correct. Putin’s “too-far-outside,” other-world, perspective is a source of weakness in this respect, not strength. Vladimir Putin has spent a great deal of time in his professional life bending the truth, manipulating facts, and playing with fictions. He is also, we conclude, not always able to distinguish one from the other, his tools for doing so are often inadequate. This is a source of danger in Russia’s relations with the West.

The United States and Europe encourage political and economic change as a matter of course in their foreign policies. The essence of Western political systems extends to promoting democracy and liberal markets abroad. Western leaders and their populations see this as benign. From Vladimir Putin’s perspective, it is not all at benign. Western style-democracy and open markets are a clear threat to a Russian political system that thrives as a closed one-boy network and an economic protection racket. The United States and the EU have not set out, as Putin assumes, to overturn his regime in a color revolution. But, many Western politicians and opinion leaders have made it very clear that they would like to see the political system in Russia changed and another leader with a more “Western outlook” take Putin’s place. Given the frequent references in the Western press to the prospect of a Russia without Putin, and Putin’s own mindset,  it is unlikely that he will be convinced that the U.S. and Europe are not “out to get rid of him.” The escalatory sequence of events in Ukraine in 2014—with successive rounds of Western sanctions, NATO stepping up its defenses, and calls for military assistance to Ukraine have further darkened Putin’s views about the West and deepened his convictions about malign intent.

As many scholars of international affairs and psychologists have pointed out, perceptions and misperceptions are as potent as actual facts. Once an erroneous set of views takes hold, it is hard to refute and change them. In the case of Putin, his mindset is deeply rooted. The West will find it hard to change his views. Putin has no reliable interlocutors in the West from his perspective, only a handful of intermediaries. And he simply does not trust anyone. Any effort to persuade him that he has misread the situation in some definitive, black-and-white, way will likely be seen as a ploy. Restoring a degree of trust is not impossible, but it will be extremely difficult. In the meantime, the West will have to deal with the reality of Putin’s views: the fact that he does think differently from his U.S. and European counterparts. He does see the West as a threat to him and his system.

[H]is mindset is deeply rooted. The West will find it hard to change his views.

So what about the conflict in Ukraine that Putin sparked in 2014? What does he want; and what might he do next? As he laid out in his August 2014 speech in Crimea, Putin seeks a “New Yalta” with the West in political and security terms. As he defines Moscow’s sphere of influence in this new arrangement, that sphere extends to all the space in Europe and Eurasia that once fell within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR Within these vast contours, Putin and Russia have interests that need to be taken into account, interests that override those of all others. For Putin, Russia is the only sovereign state in this neighborhood. None of the other states, in his view, have truly independent standing—they all have contingent sovereignty. The only question for Putin is which of the real sovereign powers (Russia or the United States) prevails in deciding where the borders of the New Yalta finally end up after 2014.

Unlike the old Yalta of the post-World War II Soviet period, Putin’s New Yalta does not extend to economics. Putin wants preferential, even protectionist, provisions for the Russian economy, but he does not espouse the creation of rigid opposing economic blocs or autarky. That simply will not work in today’s global economy. Putin does not want to put Russia on a path to international isolation. He wants there to be, as he says, economic and geopolitical “demand” for Russia. He does not want Russia to end up being a pariah state like North Korea. Putin has made sure Russia has foreign policy and trade options to avoid this fate. He has diversified foreign policy and forged new multilateral and bilateral relations outside the Euro-Atlantic system. At the same time, Putin does not want to completely jettison Russia’s ties with the United States and Europe. This is neither practical nor possible, nor even desirable, given the past two decades of interaction and integration, and Putin still holds out hope for making good on his Germany wager—by persuading Germans that all is not lost and Berlin can return to the close economic and political relations with Moscow that prevailed until the crisis in Ukraine.

In short, in spite of his decision to go to war in Georgia in 2008 and again in Ukraine in 2014, Putin still wants to do business with the West. In political terms, this means collaboration when security interests actually do overlap. He and Russia can work with the United States and the EU on dealing with issues like Iran and curbing its nuclear weapons systems, or dismantling Syrian chemical weapons, or containing the activities of militant Islamist extremists across the Middle East and in Afghanistan. In his view there is no need to cut off cooperation on issues where there is a mutual strategic interest. Indeed, it is only by having a place at the international diplomatic table on these and other issues that Putin can protect Russia’s position. Putin will not cut off diplomatic ties if this will hurt Russia. But most of all Putin is concerned about the economy. He literally wants to do business—trade and investment—with the West. In this case, he is an exaggerated version of his former self as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in charge of external relations…. He is still presiding over Russian economic relations, wheeling and dealing. Putin eventually wants to put the war in Ukraine aside, separate it off—war is war, but business is business. Western politicians want to fight with me, but their businessmen want to keep working with Russia.

In the meantime, until a “new Yalta” is thrashed out, Russia and the West will remain at war. They will be fighting a new war that is fought everywhere with non-military as well as military means. Ultimately, in pursuing his goals…, Putin remains a pragmatist. In figuring out how to prevail in this war, Putin knows that Russia does not have the economic or military resources for the old Soviet (and Russian) mass-army, total mobilization approach to defending its interests. Given the contemporary balance of forces, Russia will always lose in such a conflict. The United States, NATO members, and other de facto U.S. allies have a collective GDP more than ten times that of Russia’s as well as more conventional arms. Putin needs to avoid a good old-fashioned twentieth century war (even a small one) and accomplish his goals without resorting to total mobilization. Twenty-first century wars involve targeted non-military efforts. They are the least disruptive to the normal functioning of the Russian economy even though they can also be very damaging.

In Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood, Putin wants the West to sue for peace without jumping into the military war phase.  The 2014 war is essentially a big (war) game of “chicken.” Based on the West’s past performance in Georgia, Putin anticipated that the West would blink first in Ukraine, baulking at the high costs of the confrontation, which he laid out very clearly with his offensive defense. Ukraine would burn in the east and the flames would fan out further and further. On the very occasion of their anniversaries, the conflagrations of the twentieth century would be reignited in the same territories in the twenty first. The Cold War decades would end with another hot war, not a cold peace.

This game of chicken will be a long one…there is no definitive endgame.

This game of chicken will be a long one. Putin’s goal is security for Russia and his system. The means to achieve that goal is deterrence. As has often been pointed out, the Russian word for security, bezopasnost’, means literally “absence of danger or threat.” As a result, there is no definitive endgame. He will keep on playing as long as he perceives the threat to last. Even if he does secure a “new Yalta” deal in some form, he has no intention of abandoning his new warfare, because it is his way of deterring threats.  In Vladimir Putin and his team’s conception of the new twenty-first century warfare, there are no real declarations of war, and thus no real peace settlements—only partial ceasefires.  Putin will keep all options open. He will continue to enhance Russia’s capabilities. He will calibrate and recalibrate his actions based on the responses and reactions of his opponents. Putin’s will make sure his threats of Russian military action remain credible. Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin, and Putin’s Russia has not resembled Yeltsin’s Russia or been run like Yeltsin’s Russia for a very long time.

In the 1990s when Yeltsin did not take strong action on issues inimical to Russia’s interests, U.S. and European leaders routinely assumed that this was because Yeltsin had made a strategic decision not to do so. When Yeltsin objected to NATO expansion or NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, his verbal complaints were considered perfunctory. Yeltsin, Western leaders concluded, had put his priority on good relations with the West no matter what. But Yeltsin and Russia were heavily indebted to the West. The economy was in ruins, the political system was a shambles, the security structures were gutted. In many respects, Yeltsin could not act in the 1990s because Russia was constrained. If Yeltsin made a threat it was empty. He did not have the resources, the capacity to back it up.

Vladimir Putin has no such constraints. Sanctions hurt, but they do not deter him as they deterred Yeltsin.  Putin has the capacity to act, and he is willing to escalate to deter the West instead. Putin has even put the nuclear option on the table to “scare the hell out of” the West.… Putin knows he has to make the West think he will use nuclear weapons if the war moves to the military phase, not just that he might use them. This is the ultimate deterrent. Putin is not hell-bent on destroying Russia or his presidency and his system. He will have a contingency for deploying nuclear weapons if he feels he needs to, but… Putin wants the Russian state to survive with him at its head, even as he wants to push the United States and Europe away from Russia and out of its neighborhood.

As far as what Vladimir Putin might do next, it seems rather clear: he will keep Ukraine boiling, and he will prepare for contingency operations elsewhere in the neighborhood. Putin will rely on asymmetry and the element of tactical surprise, whenever and wherever he strikes next, for maximum effect. Beyond Ukraine, all of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, has vulnerabilities…. Baltic states like Estonia have shaky border agreements with Russia; they also have Russian speakers without citizenship. Both can be used to good effect. Old Cold War methods can be deployed across the region that fall short of the threshold of triggering an armed response from NATO. Ships can be interdicted near Russian waters, air defenses can be penetrated, weapons systems and army maneuvers can move closer and closer to vulnerable land and sea borders. If there were illegals still operating in Germany, the chances are there are plenty of other Russian operatives across the old Soviet bloc, collecting compromising and operational information, and waiting to subvert governments, discredit individual leaders who challenge Russia, and block any actions that run counter to Russian interests.  Across the rest of Europe, foreign businessmen, journalists, regular citizens, activists and operatives can all be detained on various charges of violating Russian borders or laws. These methods, and countless more, are all tools that Putin can apply if NATO or the EU contemplate another round of expansion and keep on pressing forward in Ukraine.

Putin’s operational aim will continue to be to find the weaknesses, to goad, and intimidate, and to make sure everyone knows he will make good on his threats. The onus will now be on the West to shore up its own home defenses, reduce the economic and political vulnerabilities, and create its own contingency plans if it wants to counter Putin’s new twenty-first century warfare.

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