We are always taught not to engage in mirror imaging when it comes to assessing the motivations of foreign leaders. What may seem like insanity to us is logical when you look at the situation from the perspective of a foreign leader. Calling the leader crazy or irrational puts up an immediate roadblock to assessing next moves. When you assume a lack of reason, you paint yourself into a corner. How can you project what a crazy person will do next?
Not applying that label to Russian President Putin last year was difficult.
Russia was integrated into the world economy.
Russia was a major supplier of energy.
Russians traveled the world, produced good television shows and movies, and were major consumers of global goods and technologies.
Why would Putin destroy all that Russia had built by invading Ukraine?
Russia is now irrevocably isolated. Its leaders are sanctioned. It is unable to procure critical technologies and components for automobiles and planes, let alone its military equipment. It has been recognized as a murderous, criminal regime by multiple countries and organizations. The UN last week overwhelmingly called for Russia to unconditionally pull out of Ukraine.
Although that sounds crazy, the signs indicating all was not well in Russia were there for decades. Putin did not destroy a free, prosperous country. Russia never became a free, democratic country after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was slightly less authoritarian when Putin came into power than it was during the bad ole days of the USSR.
Putin has harassed and murdered opposition figures, reporters, and anyone else who has stood in his way, censored media, arrested and harassed whistleblowers and human rights activists, and put journalists under surveillance.
All of this is not new. We have been watching these events unfold during the past several decades. So why was it such a surprise to some?
Europe had been warned about Russia’s energy games and about the EU’s dependence on Russian energy since at least 2008. A Marshall Center article that year noted that “The EU and greater Europe will soon find themselves in an extremely dangerous position due to the ever-increasing dependence on Russian natural gas. These countries must work together now to produce a coherent diversification strategy.”
Why didn’t Europe listen?
That “reset” button showed Russia that not only was the United States willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses that had been happening since the USSR fell, but that we were inept about it, misunderstanding the culture as well as the language.
In a conversation with a contact from Ukraine the other day, I asked why, even as Russia was amassing more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, did Ukraine shrug and ignore the warning signs of an imminent attack? Why did President Zelensky at the time accuse the West of fomenting panic about Russia’s plans?
My interlocutor said plainly that Ukraine was used to the crazy neighbor acting up every once in a while, after which the neighbor would go back inside his house and order was restored.
Russia turned off gas supplies to Ukraine, and ultimately to Europe, several times during the 2000s, but deliveries had always been restored.
Russia launched a mini trade war against Ukraine in 2013, including all Ukrainian importers on the "list of risk" that resulted in the embargo of imports from Ukraine to Russia in an effort to stop Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the EU. In 2014, Russia banned imports of Ukrainian sweets, chocolate and cheese, and blocked the transit of Ukrainian sugar to Central Asia.
The crazy neighbor reared his ugly head, and would crawl back inside his hole, according to my contact. Ukrainians got accustomed to these “spats,” that softened them up and got them accustomed to these periodic aggressions. Even Russia’s invasion of Crimea failed to result in a stronger defense posture. And when Russians started amassing troops on the border, according to my contact, Ukraine simply thought it was another periodic squabble and didn’t think much of it.
I view the gradualism is a soft power play by the Russians.
Your neighbor’s dog pees on your lawn, and you and your neighbor argue about it. Ultimately, you sigh and resign yourself to the fact that the dog will sometimes pee on your property. You engage with the neighbor when it happens, but ultimately, you just put up with it.
And then, the dog poops in your yard. You and your neighbor get into an argument again. The poop happens periodically, but you eventually get used to that too.
Until the dog attacks your child. Your other neighbors get together and demand that the problem guy control his dog. They issue a few stern warnings, but the damage is done and your child is scarred for life.
You aren’t happy, but you’re forced to live with it because the neighbor with the dog has a lot of sway with the other people on the block.
And then, the neighbor buys a pack of dogs. He says he needs them to protect his property. He says you are threatening him, and he needs the dogs to protect him. He has not allowed the dogs to harm you or yours, so you try not to panic and hope the pack is just for show - another “crazy neighbor” power play.
You employ a combination of wishful thinking and a twisted logic, believing that since historically, the periodic flare-ups between you and your neighbor settled down again, the neighbor would never ratchet up the violence.
And by the time you realize that you are about to get attacked by a pack of vicious animals, it’s too late.
Russia has essentially trained its neighbor to view its sporadic aggression as a bad, but temporary habit. Moscow has also trained its European customers to rely on it for energy, despite repeated threats and cutoffs during the past decades.
Putin is not crazy. He saw that his soft power games have been effective and figured that the United States and western allies would once again sigh and shrug their shoulders, viewing Russia’s attack as yet another aggressive incident that would blow over in time.
But not this time.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine progressed, and the West gradually tightened sanctions, financial restrictions, asset freezes, travel bans, and export controls, Putin is surely beginning to realize that his ploy is no longer effective.
Russians are forced to buy used cars, instead of new ones, since economic restrictions have hit the car industry, which relies on foreign components it can no longer get to manufacture modern new automobiles.
The Russian aviation sector can no longer procure the components and parts it needs to keep its aircraft flying safely. Last year saw more than 130 “incidents,” including 28 plane crashes, as manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus halted deliveries of new aircraft and spare parts, forcing Russian airlines to “cannibalize” working aircraft for parts.
Regular Russians are limited in how much they can withdraw from their accounts, and those with foreign accounts are having even more trouble, especially since several Russian banks have been ejected from SWIFT.
And although Russia’s economy did not decline as drastically as some have predicted, revenues used to prop up the economy are going to dry up, especially with price caps on Russian oil, which are meant to reduce revenues for the Kremlin and are doing exactly that.
And while Moscow is forced to pull convicts out of prisons to fight in Ukraine and turn to world pariah North Korea for ammunition, the western world is sending tanks, HIMARS, missiles, sniper rifles, machine guns, and other needed weaponry to Ukraine to fight the Russian menace.
In addition, the West is determined to ramp up enforcement of sanctions evaders and those who are facilitating Russia’s access to funds, weapons, and technologies. Last week, OFAC sanctioned 252 individuals, vessels, and entities on the anniversary of Russia’s attack of Ukraine. The UK and the EU did the same, with the UK sanctioning 80 individuals—including high-level officials from Russia’s state-owned nuclear giant Rosatom, military officials, Nord Stream CEO Mattias Warnig, and five senior Iranian executives in Qods Aviation Industry, the company that manufactures UAS used in Ukraine—and 12 entities. The EU sanctioned roughly 120 individuals and entities, including those involved in the abduction of Ukrainian children, those who spread disinformation, Iranian individuals involved in sending unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to Russia, and members and supporters of the Wagner Group.
The more Russia pushes, the more the West responds.
And although these measures on their face appear not to have done much to stop Russia’s invasion and human rights violations in Ukraine, the West is settling in for a long game, gradually ratcheting up pressure.
I judge Putin was hoping his troops could hang in there until the West gets tired of supporting Ukraine.
I doubt that will happen.
This is a great explanation of Putin’s MO. Should be a must-read for the soft isolationists who squawk “what has Putin done to hurt me?”
Now Medvedev wants to push back Poland’s borders. But nothing to see here, move along.
Very well done! Russia, under Putin, has always had only ONE goal, and that was to bring the USSR back into existence. He'd gotten away with Crimea, so he thought he could get away with it in Ukraine. But he didn't count on them fighting back as hard as they did, considering the number of Ukrainians that had been 'moved' to Russia for 'safe keeping'.