Lilia Shevtsova on What Putin Really Wants

Dr. Lilia Shevtsova is an acclaimed Kremlin expert. She taught political science at Georgetown University, Berkeley University, Cornell University, and was visiting professor at the Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She was Senior Associate of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and founding chair of the Davos World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Russia. She has also held roles at the Brookings Institution, Chatham House, and the Robert Bosch Academy.

You recently published an article originally titled “What Putin Really Wants” with the New York Times. Are Putin’s goals Russia’s goals?

For starters, “What Putin Really Wants” has become a popular guessing game in the political world, and I also participate in this collective exercise. The reason for the guessing is apparent: the world wants to know which goal the leader of the nuclear state pursues when he kicks over the global chessboard.  And we love to identify Russia with Putin, and to penetrate his brain and tell us his deepest thoughts. One can understand these efforts: political institutions in Russia have become obsolete and one man in the Kremlin is the decision maker. This forces us to put on the psychologist hat.

Russia has an uncanny ability to generate misconceptions about itself. But Russia’s stubborn desire to hide its true self under various disguises does not explain the analytical failures. We need to acknowledge a lack of true expertise that is often compensated by the attempts to penetrate Putin’s brain. To sell the story about Putin in the role of a demon is easier than to get attention for the analysis of the Russian system.

Anyway, there is a litany of failures to understand what Russia is about and where it’s headed. The most spectacular fiasco was the failure of Sovietology. Sovietologists asserted that the Soviet Union was as solid as a rock, right up to the moment it started to crumble. It was really a formidable failure of the Western political thought the West tries to forget!

Regretfully, not the only one. Look at the recent failure: who could have foreseen that a member of the Council of Europe, former U.S. partner in the “reset”, and a participant in the E.U. Partnership for Modernization would suddenly breach all of the Helsinki Accords principles and upend the world threatening war in Europe? Who would have predicted two years ago that Russia would corner the U.S. and NATO, and demand to change the European order? All of us have to eat our slice of humble pie.

The immediate task for the expert community would be to stop the attempts to understand Russia through anatomizing Putin and try to see the multilayered and dramatic reality. This will be the way to discover that Putin’s goals are not Russia’s goals.

And now back to your article title: What does Putin really want?

I would explain Putin’s current agenda in the following way: having refurbished the Russian system of personalized power, Putin had to strengthen its geopolitical “spine”—the Great Power role. This demands to dump the current European order that still includes hope for Russia’s integration. Moreover, the Kremlin shift toward militarization and enemy search as the key instruments to control Russian society has dictated Putin’s assertive foreign policy agenda.

Putin is trying to enforce a new European order which includes buffer zones around Russia, guarantees that neither Ukraine nor any other post-Soviet state will join NATO, but also the Kremlin’s right to interpret the rules of the game. Ukraine as the victim of escalation would force the West to accept Putin’s offer.

In short, the domestic needs pushed Putin toward his militarist gambit, as did the logic of his personal survival. However, the gambit could have taken much softer shape if not for Putin’s perception of the West and the Western leaders. It looks that after dealing with them for two decades, he has come to the conclusion that he can play macho and bully, and they will back down.

Hence, here is my explanation of Putin’s current gamble: his conservative mentality, the logic of power survival, and the weakness of the West.

Does Putin really want war or are we dealing with bluff and blackmail?

I will respond with my own question: do you think the leader of the state that is using the West as its economic and technological resource and depends on Europe buying its oil and gas, wants to be at war with the West? Of course not! Putin has used escalation, hoping the West will surrender. He has been partially right. Some European countries are ready for a deal with the Kremlin. But Putin was wrong when he hoped Biden would backtrack. Here he miscalculated.

Now the Kremlin either has to agree to a compromise and de-escalate or raise the level of aggression. The first scenario could bring humiliation. The second could end with catastrophe. I would argue that at the moment we speak Putin still tries to exploit escalation, while thinking about how to present a future compromise as his victory. His rhetoric on February 14 says that he definitely deliberates not about invading Ukraine but on how to get out of the mess he himself has created. 

But even at the moment we are doing this interview anything may happen—when the troops and so many armaments have been assembled in one place, the rifle can suddenly shoot.

What are currently Russia’s strongest means to reach their goals?

Looking at the military budgets of the involved actors, there’s a clear asymmetry. Russia’s military budget is about $65 billion, the U.S. military budget—$752 billion and the NATO budget amounts to $1,092 billion.

One would say that with this asymmetry, Russia should not even attempt to enforce its will on the West. But Russia has demonstrated that recklessness and readiness to upend the rules can compensate for insufficient military might and economic resources. It went to war with Georgia, forcing the West to accept its seizure of Georgia’s territory. Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas while the West failed to contain Russia’s military campaign. Russia went to Syria and helped dictator Assad to survive, risking confrontation with the U.S. Western behavior during these moments apparently persuaded Putin that the West will back down again.

Weakness of the West and its fear of confrontation with the nuclear opponent is the Kremlin’s strongest weapon.

Is the West getting caught up in the details? How can the West better understand and respond to Russia?

There are extremely thoughtful Western analysts who have qualities that we, Russian analysts, lack.  They are less emotional and less engaged in the Russian domestic partisan debates. They have more possibilities for comparative studies.

There is, however, analytical weakness that unites all of us—the Russian and Western experts. We tend to believe we can put Russia into a familiar category and predict its trajectory on the basis of historical experience. In the 90’s, we underestimated Russia’s uniqueness when we argued that it embarked on the path of transformation. In reality, Russia started to imitate democratic institutions that became a new way for the personalized regime to survive.

Today, another approach prevents us from seeing the complexity of the Russian phenomenon: our attempts to prove that Russia can’t change. That it has to be viewed as genetically unable to adhere to the rule of law and get rid of its imperialist legacy.

We would better understand Russia if experts who analyze it try to see the nuanced canvas and stop to turn either to Russia’s past or to the experience of other countries.

How better to respond to Russia today? The most effective way for the West to respond to Russia will be to follow its own standards and principles. This could gain respect even from the Kremlin.

Finally, any advice for future Russia scholars? What aspects would you highlight for entering the field?

For future Russian scholars, success in understanding Russia and confronting Russian mythology requires an end to trusting the existing axioms. Success also needs honesty and stamina to confront crowds of analysts who try consciously or not to defend interests and assessments that are helpful in accommodating the Russian personalized power system. Today, to understand Russia and present one’s understanding publicly often means courage to swim against the tide.


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