Putin’s Pickle

Vladimir Putin
Photo by Alexei NikolskyTASS via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 3, 2022

One thing that’s been on my mind recently, in fielding questions on TV or in casual conversation about the Russia-Ukraine crisis, is how quickly the political-media narrative calcifies into conventional wisdom. I don’t think that people necessarily do this out of malice. There’s a lot going on in the world at all times, and most people don’t have the bandwidth to follow it all, let alone incorporate all the necessary nuance—especially if you aren’t an expert in the area. 

So with that in mind, I want to share five broader thoughts that I’ve had while reading and thinking about the current Ukraine crisis, in addition to talking to domain experts and people with deep first-hand knowledge of the situation. 

We Still Don’t Know Anything

It’s tempting, as a lover of history, to imagine the present crisis from the perspective of some future historian. Or, if this had happened 100 years ago, how would we see it today? And what jumps out at me immediately is how we mistakenly perceive history as occurring in spasms. An army invades. A treaty is signed. Even when we read more scholarly works, describing all the behind-the-scenes details and negotiations and movements, we still don’t fully understand what it was like to experience events as they were unfolding. I recently ran across this sentiment, perfectly captured in W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” 

This is all to say that the current crisis feels like it is progressing so quickly and yet so slowly at the same time. I now spend hours each day trying to stay on top of the various developments—troops moving here, a diplomatic response there—but the overall picture hasn’t changed much at all. There is a lot of frenetic movement behind the scenes, but the central question—will Russia invade Ukraine?—remains as difficult to answer as it has ever been.

Personally, I find this feeling of stasis, one that is somehow also chaotic and tense, to be deeply strange and more than a little unnerving, especially when I go on cable news to comment on the situation and, after dramatic music and terrifying graphics, the camera cuts to me and I have to say, “We still don’t know.” 

But that is the truth and that is my first, somewhat meta observation at this precarious moment. Indeed, imagining the various outcomes of multi-level negotiations with potentially militaristic outcomes is complex, ever-changing, and not always suited for YouTube clips or Twitter. As you’ll see below, only one person right now—Vladimir Putin, of course—knows if Russia is going to war, and even he doesn’t seem to know yet. 

Room to Maneuver?

My second observation is that there has been a small, but arguably significant, shift in the Kremlin’s rhetoric—both on state-run TV (which I have spent far too much time watching of late) and from Putin himself. After ratcheting up tensions and threatening the largest European land war in decades, Putin and the entire apparatus of the Russian state are suddenly acting like they have absolutely no idea what anyone is talking about. 

A month ago, the talk coming from Moscow was all about Putin’s red lines; NATO’s aggressive expansion; Putin’s warning of a “military-technical solution” if his demands weren’t met; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov backing him up with the threat of “a nightmare scenario of military confrontation” in Europe. Now, however, the emphasis has shifted to NATO’s arming of Ukraine, which, the Russians claim, is deploying more and more troops closer to the occupied regions of the Donbas in an attempt to entrap Russia in a military confrontation they are keen to avoid. 

One Russian political talk show I watched the other night, Time Will Tell, compared Ukraine to Russia’s intellectually disabled sister who was being passed around by different men (i.e., the U.S. and NATO) who told her that they loved her while sticking their fingers, erm, everywhere and turning her against her beloved, tender-hearted uncle (you guessed it, Russia). All those Russian troops that have Ukraine virtually surrounded, well, they’re “at home, where else would they be?” as one Channel One journalist said, failing to mention that there’s a lot of them now in Belarus which is not part of Russia—yet. 

In this new rhetorical configuration, the Russian media is now largely explaining away the panic in Ukraine—troop build-ups, civilians training to take up arms and defend their homes—as America’s attempt to pull Russia into a war it never wanted but that the U.S. desperately craves. It reminds me of the old Russian joke about a naughty child who gets caught red-handed and says, “I never touched the vase, and I put it back after I touched it, and it was already broken when I got here.” 

So far, we don’t know if this is just classic Kremlin deflection—we’re all old enough to remember those rhetorical questions about what Russian soldiers in Crimea, when there were some 20,000 troops there—or if it is an opening for Putin to retreat from the situation he created by managing to look like the one adult in the room. 

Putin’s Hamlet Complex

Those of us who have spent far, far too long studying Putin have come to see a pattern in how he makes decisions under pressure: he hates it. The more public glare, the more pressure to do something (like pull back Russian troops from the border), or to not do something (like not invade Ukraine), the more Putin digs in his heels and stalls for time. 

This gives him some space to maneuver, which thereby gives him the two things he always needs: the ability to preserve as many options as possible, and keep everyone guessing what Putin the Mysterious is going to do. More often than not, Putin makes his decision once the glare of the spotlight has moved on and people have somewhat forgotten about the issue. This way, he has made the decision alone, not bowing to anyone’s pressure because, as his internal logic goes, he is a strong man and an even stronger leader.

And though Putin has done this several times at home—like when he amnestied dozens of political prisoners, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of Pussy Riot—I would even venture to say that this is his favorite geopolitical genre. First, he creates a crisis, then positions himself as the one man indispensable to solving said crisis, then he pivots to emphasizing the importance of diplomacy—i.e., bureaucratic wheel-spinning. The goal is to present himself as the only adult in the room, the one person who wants peace while the bellicose West wants war. It’s an old Soviet tactic, but because so many Western diplomats today are too young to have dealt with the Khrushchevs and the Brezhnevs, it works wonders for Putin.

So there’s a growing little thought kernel inside my brain now that imagines the following scenario: The Chinese government has reportedly asked Putin not to invade Ukraine during this month’s Beijing Olympics. Both Moscow and Beijing have issued heated denials, but the report seems plausible to me: Putin already ruined one Olympic celebration for Beijing by invading Georgia on the opening day of the games in August 2008. And in 2014, Putin barely waited for the Winter Olympics to end on his home turf, in Sochi, before sending in forces to Crimea and the Donbas. I could see Putin deciding to respect Beijing’s celebrations and taking advantage of the world’s attention wandering away from Ukraine, then walking back much of the situation he’s created around Ukraine sometime thereafter, touting some kind of diplomatic concession from Washington and taking cover under the gaslighting operation I outlined in point two. 

Is it likely? Who knows. Is it possible? Sure. 

Sanctions Shmanctions

There are a lot of threats being waged, and a lot of ink being spilled, about the consequences to Russia, particularly its energy sector, if it invades Ukraine. Nord Stream II, warned Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, will be “a hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean” if Russia attacks. That’s all very poetic, but you’ll understand why such threats might ring hollow.

Let’s consider the fact that the pipeline was built after 2014, after Russia had already invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed a chunk of its territory, and, most importantly, after Germany imposed sanctions on Russia for doing so. In 2017, three years after the Russian invasion, turbines made by the German company Siemens somehow ended up in Crimea, where E.U. countries had agreed not to do business to punish Russia for the annexation. And though Siemens said it had been duped by a local partner, two years later, in 2019, the company announced it was increasing its investment in Russia. And on Tuesday, Viktor Orban, president of Hungary, which is a NATO member, met with Putin in Moscow and asked to increase his country’s supply of Russian gas, invasion or not. 

All of this makes me wonder, what has Europe been doing all this time? Russia has been weaponizing gas flows to Europe since shortly after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, when a pro-Western government came to power in Kyiv. Much of Russia’s gas flowed through Ukraine—and Ukraine collected the tolls for that passage—so Russia turned off the spigot to punish Ukraine, leaving Europeans downstream freezing. This fate befell the Bulgarians in the winter of 2007, the Czechs in 2009, and so on. So more than a decade before Europe and the U.S. decided to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, Russia was already playing games with its energy supplies and Ukraine, and adversely affecting European consumers. 

And yet, Europe’s diversification away from Russian energy sources has been incredibly slow. While renewable energy sources come online, they’re still not at the point where they can fully handle Europe’s energy needs. The Netherlands stopped digging for natural gas because it caused earthquakes, and Germany, freaked out by Fukushima, has shut down nearly all of its nuclear power plants. Since 2014, some liquefied natural gas terminals have been built in Europe, which would allow the import of non-Russian natural gas, but hardly enough to cut Russia out of the market. Depending on the country, Europe gets anywhere from a third to 40 percent of its energy from Russia. It’s wild to me that, eight years after the invasion of Ukraine, and more than a decade after Moscow started playing games with its gas flows to Europe, the continent has done so little to secure other energy sources. Can you blame Russia for being skeptical when the Europeans threaten the country with energy sanctions? 

One more note on sanctions. Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced that, if Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.K. would freeze and possibly seize the assets of the Russian oligarchs who have parked their wealth in London. This would be a truly painful punishment for the Russian super elite, but it seems like a pipe dream at best. One, the British have made quite a handsome living off the shady money parked on their shores by people from Russia, China, and the Gulf. Is Britain willing to sacrifice all that Russian money—and possibly scare off everyone else—over Ukraine? Two, it would be pretty hard to seize property in a country with private property rights and an independent judiciary—which is exactly why Russians stash their money there: it’s far harder for the government to seize assets in London than it is in Moscow. So as tempting as it sounds to the Russia hawks in Washington, even the British seem to know it has little chance of becoming reality: when Truss made the announcement in front of Parliament, audible laughter rose from the chamber.

Make Russia Great Again

One common misconception I run up against in speaking to otherwise educated, worldly Americans is the belief that sanctions will force a change in Putin’s behavior because they will ruin the Russian economy and make life difficult for ordinary Russians, who will, as a result, push for change in the Kremlin. Let’s just say that it’s a very American way of looking at things. Not only does Russia not have a political feedback system, but this is just not reflective of the predominant cultural mentality.

First of all, as a Russian journalist once explained to me, most Russians outside the tiny slivers of educated city dwellers have little expectation that life will get better. Americans feel entitled to a growing economy, but Russians just hope it won’t get worse. 

The other issue is that, for many, many, many Russians (not all!), it still feels extremely important to live in a strong state, one that is feared and respected on the world stage. I’ve had so many Russians explain this to me over the years—about how Russia’s natural state is that of an empire, that it’s much better to be the citizen of a superpower than a democracy. Much of this sentiment derives, of course, from the propaganda of the Soviet era, deepened by the deep trauma of the Soviet collapse and the attendant loss of identity (if you haven’t read Nobel laureate’s Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, do so immediately), and amplified, cynically, by Putin’s propaganda machine. 

The U.S. and Russian systems of government are also predicated on fundamentally different promises to their citizenry. The U.S., at least on paper, claims to be a government for the people; Russia does not. If anything, it’s built on the opposite assumption: the people exist for the government, to make it great, to build it up through their sacrifice. The notion that the government should work for the people, not the other way around, is something that the Russian opposition has been trying to popularize for years, but it hasn’t gained all that much traction. So when Western sanctions make life harder for the average Russian, the average Russian is more likely to rally around Putin and the Russian flag, and to blame the West.

I am similarly skeptical when people in the Washington foreign policy establishment talk about sanctions targeting Putin’s closest buddies or revealing Putin’s vast wealth. On the first point, the West did that in 2014. As a result, a lot of Putin’s closest associates shifted their wealth around to wives and children and mothers-in-law and the Russian government quickly found a way to compensate these national hero-victims for their losses from the federal budget. And these biggest fish ate some smaller fish and took over their revenue streams to compensate for the hurt the sanctions caused. The smaller fish went to jail and balance was restored. 

As for revealing Putin’s wealth, jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been doing that for years. His team’s latest revelations—photos from Putin’s $1 billion Italianate Black Sea palace—didn’t cause much of a stir inside Russia. For many, many Russians, it is entirely fitting for the Russian leader to live in such luxury. It is the splendor befitting the emperor of a great empire. What is he going to do, live in a two-bedroom apartment like some average schmuck? Humility and inconspicuous consumption is not what Russians look for in a leader. Whenever I take Russian friends on a tour of Washington, they always say the same thing when we get to the White House: But it’s so… small! Though some Russian citizens were of course dismayed and disgusted by Putin’s palace, I am absolutely positive that many watched both investigations the way we used to watch MTV’s Cribs: with awe and not a little bit of jealousy. 

This is something I encounter nearly every day in Washington, which doesn’t seem to have quite learned this lesson, even after the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan: the rest of the world is not America. If you try to understand the rest of the world by simply projecting the American mindset onto it, you will never get the right answer.