The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin has carefully calculated the odds. Right now, they’re in his favor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a news conference on Dec. 23. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
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What does Vladimir Putin want? It’s a question Washington finds hard to answer because we Americans rarely put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Two important essays, by Dmitri Trenin in Foreign Affairs and Eugene Chausovsky in Foreign Policy, provide some clues. Both suggest that the Russian president has stayed in power since 1999 not by being a reckless gambler but rather by being careful, even rational.

Trenin points out that Putin has watched four waves of NATO expansionism since he took power. His military incursions have usually been reactions to events rather than grand initiatives of his own. In 2008, the response followed Georgia’s decision to retake the separatist province of South Ossetia. In 2014, it came on the heels of the Maidan uprising in Ukraine that drove President Viktor Yanukovych out of office. Putin’s one significant military intervention in an area that is not historically part of Russia’s core security sphere — Syria — has been limited, mostly using Russian air power.

In the case of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s first effort was to bribe Ukraine with an offer of $15 billion in loans and lower prices for gas after it rejected an association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych accepted the deal, igniting the Maidan protests, and then fled his country. Putin then annexed Crimea. In recent years, he has tried to get the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to make a deal on the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, home to the highest proportion of Russian-speakers in the country and where Russian army irregulars have been fomenting an insurgency. He tried to get the Germans to push Zelensky to accept a referendum in eastern Ukraine on secession.

From the arch-conservative Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the liberal reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian leaders have regarded Ukraine as fundamentally tied to Moscow. Ukraine’s first two presidents, while asserting the country’s newfound independence, were careful not to break too sharply with Moscow. According to a census conducted in 2001, almost 30 percent of the country’s population spoke Russian as their first language.

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Putin’s dilemma is that Ukraine is, in slow motion, escaping Russia’s grasp. In the past decade, the country has become more independent, democratic and pro-Western. The West, in turn, has been cooperating and assisting Kyiv in ever-greater measure. But Putin is probably also conscious of the reality that an outright Russian invasion would create what he fears most — a permanently anti-Russia Ukraine. His goal, then, is to get the Americans and Europeans to recognize that Ukrainian membership in NATO is a step too far. He also wants for Kyiv to recognize that, in the long run, it has to have good (by which he means respectful, even subservient) relations with Russia.

For the West, Ukraine is a good cause but not central to its grand strategy. For Putin, it is a key Russian national interest. Russia is next door and has deep ties to the country. Ukrainians have told me that Russian spies are active in every part of the country, including the government. Putin can find many ways to keep Ukraine crippled, weak and dysfunctional. Trenin speculates that, if Moscow’s negotiations with NATO were to fail, Russia might recognize the two eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists have proclaimed “people’s republics.” Moscow has already used the same approach with Georgia, where Russia has recognized the two Russian-dominated parts of the country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states.

But why is Putin doing this now? Partly, he sees NATO creating a de facto alliance with Kyiv. At the same time, Putin must be aware that this is a moment of Russian strength. At a time when there is a growing energy crisis around the world, Russia has consolidated its position as an energy superpower.

Energy prices are rising across the globe but perhaps nowhere as sharply as in Europe. The price of natural gas — used by most Europeans to heat their homes — rose more than 400 percent in 2021. And yet, in recent years, most European countries have been shutting down their gas production even as they have been unable to ramp up renewables to completely take their place. The result: They are critically dependent on Russian gas.

Meanwhile, Ukraine, which has received about $2.5 billion annually to allow Russian gas to travel through its country, could see that revenue plummet if Nord Stream 2, a pipeline designed to transit more Russian gas directly to Germany and Europe, is certified. In these circumstances, sanctions against Russia could trigger an energy crisis in Europe on the scale of the 1970s oil crisis, which no European government would want.

Putin is not engaging in reckless adventurism. He takes risks, but he has calculated the odds carefully. Right now, they’re in his favor.