Zachary Shore, D.Phil

Zachary Shore D.Phil

Judgment Calls

Conflicted Putin

Is This a Pattern-Breaking Moment?

Posted Feb 10, 2015

Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine

Every writer knows that tension drives a story forward. And the most compelling conflicts are not the external ones between characters or nations; they are the ones between a character and himself. To be or not to be, in some form or another, lies at the heart of every tragedy. The same holds true of many real-life leaders, as Shakespeare fully grasped.  Great statesmen do not always have a clear conception of the path ahead. Instead, they often struggle with conflicting aims.

As U.S and European leaders seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, they will be basing their policy prescriptions on a guess about President Putin’s underlying aims. They should realize that Mr. Putin is soon approaching a fork in Russia’s future. Does he hope to integrate Russia into global markets and thereby strengthen Russia’s wealth and power? Or is he willing to endure Western sanctions over Ukraine and let Russia go it alone?  Putin has made moves in both directions, suggesting that he may in fact be conflicted. The recent fall in oil prices should clarify which impulse is the stronger.

At pattern breaking moments, when forced to make a choice, leaders frequently reveal what matters to them most. In the routine course of business, statesmen can afford to make overtures to one side or another without committing themselves too deeply. But in times of crisis, when they impose serious, long-term costs upon themselves, it is those actions that tip their hands about their underlying aims.

Putin now finds himself in his own pattern-breaking moment, and Kremlin watchers should place great weight upon his actions in the coming year. The pattern until now has been that high-priced oil exports formed the backbone of Russia’s rise. An oil slump marks a true pattern break. By now continuing to support the rebels in Ukraine, Putin risks more than just his hopes of global economic integration. Sustained economic downturn could potentially shake his hold on power.

Last March, when Putin essentially annexed the Crimea, some Western pundits assumed that this exposed the Russian ruler’s thirst for conquest. Some even likened him to Hitler. Those observers reasoned that Putin, like the Führer, was bent on revanchist goals. They then interpreted his moves in eastern Ukraine as consistent with territorial aggression. Because he has not pushed the Ukrainian crisis to the point of war, the West is left to wonder if he has abandoned hope of integrating Russia into global markets. Although the source of Putin’s actions is still debated, history and economics can give us helpful clues.

If a historical analog is needed, we can learn more about Putin by considering Hitler’s predecessor. For most of the 1920s, Gustav Stresemann craftily directed German foreign policy, helping to restore his country’s place among the great powers. Though today he is remembered chiefly by historians, he was once a familiar figure in world affairs, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926. Yet his policies contained a contradiction. On the one hand he pledged Germany to integration with the West, promising to fulfill German obligations in the treaty of Versailles. At the same time, however, he was secretly rearming Germany through a covert arrangement with the Soviet Red Army, in stark violation of Versailles. Was he a peacemaker or prevaricator? Historians still cannot agree. Henry Kissinger once described the challenge of perceiving Stresemann’s aims as “one of history’s unsolved riddles.” But the puzzle becomes less puzzling if we accept that Stresemann, like most of us, could contain conflicting aims.

Stresemann sought both ends: integration with the West and the restoration of German military might, no doubt in part to one day revise his nation’s eastern boundaries. Therefore, cooperation with both the Russians and the West was necessary, despite the contradictions this policy entailed. But did he have a preference? Was he willing to sacrifice rearmament in order to foster Western ties? The answer could be gleaned in a pattern-breaking moment at the close of 1926. When Germany’s double-dealings were publicly exposed, Stresemann chose to continue rearming with the Russians, in hope that no further disclosures would occur. That choice involved some risk, and potential long-term costs. His actions at that moment suggest much about his true intentions.

In the coming months, if Putin backs away from further confrontation in Ukraine, if he accepts mediation and a compromise arrangement with Kiev, then we will know that his tough talk has been more bluster than belief. At the very least, moderation over Ukraine should signal that he values Russian integration into global markets more than the immediate domestic political points he scores with hardline Russian nationalists. In contrast, if Putin doubles down on Donetsk and fosters further instability in eastern Ukraine, if he hunkers down to ride out stormy economic times, then we can surmise that his anti-American rhetoric is real. This would mean that influence in Ukraine is so central to his conception of Russian might that it is worth the heavy cost of economic hardship – regardless of the many risks.

With the Russian ruble tumbling, his economy contracting, and the noose of Western sanctions tightening, Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine will provide a sober measure of his long-term aspirations. If Western leaders truly seek a glimpse into his soul, a clearer window has at last appeared.