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Putin’s Long War

Nothing in Putin’s record suggests that he will stop trying to drag Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact, Putin’s consistent, persistent policy toward Europe and the United States, together with Ukraine’s critical place between Russia and the Western alliance, suggests that he is not about to change course.

Published on December 9, 2022

For once, Vladimir Putin has decided to be honest with the Russian people and admitted that the war with Ukraine will be long. After the Russian army’s string of losses in Ukraine, the prospect of even more setbacks in the weeks and months ahead, and predictions of its imminent collapse, his candor is long overdue. There has been speculation that these developments will cause Putin’s regime to crack or that they will force him to negotiate an end to the war. Both are premature. Russia’s battlefield setbacks notwithstanding, Putin is poised to wage his war on Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes to achieve his ultimate vision of victory. His life trajectory and record as the leader of Russia leave little doubt that this is what he intends to do.

Lately, Putin has been described as unhinged and reckless, traits that presumably led him to blunder into invading Ukraine. This article argues that his record suggests otherwise: he is calculating and deliberate, and he has pursued a long-term, consistent strategy at home and abroad. This is not to say that Putin has mapped out his every move in advance. Rather, he has pursued twin overarching goals: to secure the political regime he has built at home and to provide maximum security—as he understands it—for the Russian state by establishing a sphere of influence around it to shield it from external threats. Putin’s pursuit of both goals logically led him to wage war on Ukraine. That strategy and these goals have deep roots in Russian history and will likely outlive his presidency. This has grim implications for Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

Fate? Luck? Something Else?

The only surviving child of a Soviet “greatest generation” couple—a war veteran and a survivor of the horrific 1941–1944 siege of Leningrad, during which as many as 1 million of the city’s residents died of starvation—Putin grew up a working-class kid to whom the Soviet system was good. He was accepted into a top university and then into the KGB, an elite institution that posted him abroad, which offered material goods rarely available to most Soviet citizens and a position of prestige in society. There is no reason to doubt that he served the system loyally in return. Then everything collapsed rapidly and without warning. Putin’s prestigious position, career prospects, material well-being, and even the state that was so good to him and that he had served and believed in were all gone. Then, just a few years later, he was plucked from obscurity and began his rise to the top. If Putin did not believe in fate before, how could he not believe in it now?

It has been said often that Putin got lucky, that he owes the impressive economic growth during his first two terms and his popularity to the difficult and unpopular but necessary reforms undertaken on President Boris Yeltsin’s watch in the 1990s and to the rise of oil prices in the 2000s. In other words, he did little more than ride the wave of petrodollars to unchallenged political power. The benefits of reforms and rising oil prices were undoubtedly important drivers behind Putin’s early successes but, emerging from obscurity, this “nowhere man” demonstrated considerable political skill and determination—and often ruthlessness—in dealing with multiple challenges at home and abroad. Consider what he was up against as he took over from Yeltsin: a band of powerful oligarchs who had ruled the economy and politics and roamed freely the corridors of the Kremlin, equally powerful and unruly regional barons, the insurgency in Chechnya, the task of repaying massive debts accumulated under his predecessor, a demographic crisis that Russia-watchers predicted would doom the country, and a population exhausted by the terrible decade of the 1990s.

It’s the Economy

Putin’s solutions to these problems were hardly systemic or transformational but they were good enough. Moreover, in dealing with the baggage of the 1990s, in matters of economic policymaking, he deferred to professional expertise even when it may have been less than politically expedient. He has retained a team of competent economic technicians and followed their advice throughout multiple crises. The tight fiscal discipline, the accumulation of reserves to hedge against economic downturns, the refusal to fund ambitious schemes promoted by influential business and political interests—all point to the Russian leader’s respect for and reliance on his economic team.

Nonetheless, Putin’s economic record leaves a great deal to be desired. The country’s excessive reliance on exports of raw materials, especially hydrocarbons, has long been singled out as its weakness. Russian leaders, including Putin, have long talked about the need to diversify the economy, yet little has been done to accomplish that, for reasons that have been explored at length elsewhere and are beyond the scope of this article. Arguably, the main reason for the lack of diversification of the economy is that this would require wide-ranging economic and probably political changes, a reordering of investment priorities, and a conflict with powerful entrenched business and political interests. Clearly, another perestroika is not something that Putin has ever been prepared to envisage.

What is also clear is that, in Putin’s mind, the health of the economy is about more than the health and well-being of the citizenry. It determines the country’s position on the world stage. In his narrative, with its economy in a free fall in the 1990s, Russia could not defend its interests against encroachment by the West. Economic weakness had resulted in loss of sovereignty, and that should never happen again. This has been a persistent theme in the Russian president’s public statements.

A Persistent, Consistent Foreign Policy

In foreign policy, at first, Putin tried to build bridges to the West. But soon it became clear that those bridges could be sustained only if he compromised on the twin goals of protecting his increasingly undemocratic regime at home and restoring control over the former Soviet space as a buffer against encroachment from the West. Putin thus began his retreat from accommodation with Europe and the United States. The twin goals became one as NATO and the EU expanded their web of partnerships and advocacy of democratic values in the former Soviet lands, and as membership in both institutions emerged as major goals for Georgia and Ukraine.

Putin’s refusal to accept the notion that either country might not want to return under Russia’s economic and security umbrella and would rather join Euro-Atlantic institutions manifested itself in heavy-handed meddling in Ukrainian politics during the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005, bans on Georgian imports, and aggressive propaganda campaigns to intimidate the publics and governments of both countries and to dissuade them from pursuing closer ties to the West. Putin articulated his rejection of the emerging Euro-Atlantic security order most clearly in a speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. In 2008, he followed up with concrete actions as the Russian military crushed the tiny Georgian military in a brief war.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of its undeclared war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 may have been a panic move by Putin intended to prevent the irrevocable loss of Ukraine to the West. But it was fully in line with his twin goals of shielding his regime and his country from the perceived threat from the West. The sudden, unexpected collapse of the Moscow-backed government of president Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv and its replacement with a government committed to pursuing membership in the EU and NATO threatened the long-standing goal that Putin had attempted and failed to achieve during the Orange Revolution: ensuring Russia’s control over Ukraine’s politics and foreign policy. Defeated again by the determination of Ukrainians to leave Russia’s orbit, Putin did not give up. Instead, he moved to annex Crimea and launched the undeclared war in Donbas.

Was Putin’s policy successful? On the one hand, his heavy-handed dealings with Georgia and Ukraine clearly backfired. After the Orange Revolution and then the Maidan uprising in 2013–2014, Ukrainians recoiled at Russian meddling in their politics and aggression. Georgia’s resolve to join the EU and NATO hardly diminished. On the other hand, Putin’s message that he would tolerate no further eastward expansion of NATO was undoubtedly heard in the West. Despite the promise of eventual membership made to Georgia and Ukraine at NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008, in practical terms their applications were placed on hold indefinitely. Notwithstanding numerous public declarations by Western officials to the contrary, Putin in effect achieved a major goal: securing a veto over both countries’ prospects of joining the alliance.

Moreover, Russia suffered few if any major consequences after its war against Georgia. Shortly after the fighting was over, the West proved eager to turn the page and resume normal relations. A period of détente followed. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration signed a new arms control treaty with Russia and launched a dialogue about modernizing the country’s economy; NATO engaged in discussions about cooperation on missile defense; and construction began on a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

This had little impact on Russia’s resolve to maintain its red lines around the former Soviet space, however. The Kremlin’s opposition to NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine remained firm as ever, regardless of how distant that prospect was. Russia was equally determined to expel the United States from the base in Kyrgyzstan that Washington used to support its war effort in Afghanistan.

Outside the former Soviet space, the thrust of Russian foreign policy remained consistently aimed at undermining Western influence and policies. Russia’s abstention on the vote to impose a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 was the exception that proved the point, since shortly afterward it changed course and criticized the Western “crusade” against that country. Since then, the West’s intervention in Libya has been cited by the Kremlin as an example of its reckless interventionism.

The Libya misstep was not repeated in Syria. Russia’s diplomatic and financial support, and ultimately its military intervention in 2015, proved decisive in saving the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The intervention came as a surprise to many and initially prompted predictions that this would be a disaster for Putin. Instead, it became a disaster for the people of Syria as the Russian air force conducted an indiscriminate bombing campaign against civilian targets.

The intervention was a boost to Russia’s reputation as a major power with a long reach, willing and able to stand up to the United States and to thwart its attempts to overthrow the Assad regime. It transformed Moscow from the marginal actor it had been in the Middle East for two and a half decades after the fall of the Soviet Union into a major regional power broker. Every actor involved in the Syrian civil war, from Saudi Arabia to the United States, now had to deal with Russia.

The Syria intervention was not the only manifestation of Putin’s ambitious foreign policy aimed at challenging Western interests far beyond Russia’s borders. Hardly constrained by Western sanctions and by economic difficulties at home, he embarked on far-flung ventures including mercenary, hybrid, and military deployments in various parts of Africa; oil and arms deals in Central and South America; and meddling in the politics of the United States, several European countries, and the ever-fragile Balkans. All these wide-ranging activities had one unifying theme: to undermine what has become known as the liberal international order or, in other words, to challenge and erode the power and influence of the United States and its allies. Even if they were far from always successful, these activities reflected a remarkable degree of consistency and persistence.

Strategic Partners

Further evidence of Putin’s consistency, policy cohesion, and strategic calculus is to be found in his pursuit of two key partnerships essential to his ability to sustain the confrontation with the West. The first, more enduring and important of the two is with China. The other, more recent, is with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and with Saudi Arabia in particular.

China—the Geopolitical Partner

Putin’s pursuit of ever-closer ties with China has been a pillar of his foreign policy alongside the confrontation with the West. Begun under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the rapprochement with Beijing accelerated dramatically under Putin. From the step-by-step settlement of long-standing unresolved border disputes culminating in the signing of the final demarcation agreement in 2008 to the forging of personal bonds with Xi Jinping upon the latter’s accession to the leadership of China in 2013, Putin has been deliberate and strategic in dealing with China.

Some observers have warned that Russia is becoming China’s junior partner, with all the attendant risks. Putin’s courtship of China, however, is hardly a blunder. He has deliberately embraced another authoritarian regime that, unlike the West, neither insists on domestic change in Russia as the price of better relations nor threatens the stability of the political order that Putin had built.

Moreover, having chosen confrontation with the West, Putin can ill afford to have bad relations with China. It is hard to imagine that he does not realize that Russia is well on the way to becoming China’s junior partner, if it is not one already. The difference between their positions on the world stage and prospects is unmissable even to a casual observer. But a confrontation with the West requires that Russia’s rear in Asia be secured. The Soviet Union’s Cold War experience of confronting adversaries in Europe and in Asia simultaneously probably serves as a reminder for Putin that the principle of economy of force applies to geopolitics as much as it does to military strategy.

Putin’s embrace of China helps him achieve his strategic goals. It frees him to concentrate Russia’s resources on the European theater where, in his view, the country’s physical security and stability are at risk from the eastward expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions, and it increases his ability to ignore Western demands to change Russia’s domestic political arrangements in ways that threaten the regime he has built.

OPEC+ and Saudi Arabia—the Business Partners

With oil revenues fueling Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, the relationship between Russia and OPEC, and especially with Saudi Arabia as the dominant actor in the cartel, has come into sharper focus. The rapprochement between Moscow and Riyadh is the product of several factors. Many, if not most, of these are well beyond the Kremlin’s control, but it capitalizes on them.

First among them has been the rebalancing of U.S. priorities away from the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq, lack of support for Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak as he was toppled by popular protests, and the abandonment of “red lines” in Syria, among other things, prompted concerns among U.S. partners in the Middle East about Washington as their long-term partner and security manager in the region. The erratic posture of Donald Trump’s administration only added to these concerns. The resulting geopolitical vacuum was an open invitation for Putin to walk in.

Second, and perhaps even more important for Russia and Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members, was the fact that they shared a rival in the oil markets—the United States. Thanks to the shale revolution, the United States emerged as the world’s top oil producer and exporter, challenging the position of the cartel and Russia in the global market. Whereas previously Russia and Saudi Arabia viewed each other as rivals, the new challenge from the United States created a powerful incentive for these two oil giants to cooperate. The result was the establishment in 2016 of OPEC+, or the OPEC plus Russia cartel, which Moscow and Riyadh have relied on since to maintain high oil prices and to manage the flow of oil to the world market.

That Putin, who is known to hold grudges, entered into a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia—a longtime U.S. partner that supported separatist guerillas in Chechnya in the 1990s and the mujaheddin fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s—suggests a calculated move on his part to protect a vital Russian interest against the challenge from the one power he believes poses an existential threat to his regime and Russia.

Taken together, the partnerships with China and Saudi Arabia positioned Putin to pursue his geopolitical ambitions where it really matters to him—in Ukraine.

Ukraine, the Indispensable Country

Fixating on Ukraine, as Putin does, is not a new phenomenon in Russian history. Over the course of its existence as a modern state, since before the reign of Peter the Great, Russia has waged a succession of wars—with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire—to conquer and control the lands that constitute modern Ukraine. With warm-water ports, fertile lands that became Europe’s and the world’s breadbasket, vast mineral resources, and, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the industrial heartland of the Russian empire, Ukraine was the prize European major powers fought to control, not just in the distant past but as recently as the twentieth century. In other words, the country’s military, economic, and geopolitical importance is hard to overstate. Moreover, in Putin’s personal rewriting of Ukrainian and Russian history, Ukraine took on special cultural significance: in this view, Kyivan Rus’, as the cradle of Russian statehood, is an inalienable part of the great Russian state and therefore must be returned to it.

Ukraine is also a buffer state between Russia and the rest of Europe, the key prize in the Kremlin’s centuries-long quest for strategic depth to absorb the blow of invasions from the West and an essential requirement for the country’s security. Strategic depth saved Russia in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion and in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. In the eyes of Russia’s national security establishment, without Ukraine to shield its southern flank, the Russian heartland is dangerously exposed—especially since Romania joined NATO in 2004 and Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership in the alliance in 2008, changing the balance of power on Europe’s southern flank to Russia’s disadvantage. Ukraine also played the pivotal role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Putin famously described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Putin failed to reestablish dominion over Ukraine in 2004 and in 2014. In February 2022, after all measures short of an outright war had failed to do so, he shed all remaining pretenses and went to war. And he has failed again.

What Next?

Will Russia’s battlefield setbacks convince Putin that the invasion of Ukraine was a mistake? There is nothing in his record since he came to power or his personal background to suggest that he is likely to abandon his project of dragging Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact, Putin’s consistent, persistent policy toward Europe and the United States together with Ukraine’s critical place between Russia and the Western alliance suggest that he is not about to change course.

The scale and ambition of the task of restoring Russia’s control over Ukraine are such that it dwarfs everything Putin has tried in the international arena during his long rule. Were he to give up on it, this would become the epitaph of his presidency, ending it in failure. He turned 70 in October and is probably looking at the next stage of his career as its final chapter. Failure, therefore, is not an option.

Moreover, the Russian leader, who lectured Obama during their first meeting in 2009 about the many wrongs the United States had done to Russia, almost certainly recalls the slights by Western leaders (such as remarks that Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country, that Putin has one foot in the past, that Russia is a regional power) and the long string of predictions of failure by him and by Russia as a major power. In fact, virtually the entire record of Putin’s rule is one of defying the odds and predictions of imminent failure.

What does Putin have to look forward to regardless of whether he gives up now or keeps fighting? Isolation from and scorn in the West, junior partnership with China, partnerships with autocrats and kleptocrats from Myanmar to Zimbabwe? A reputation as a war criminal, even if he is unlikely to ever face trial? A badly damaged economy and an impoverished, embittered population disappointed and betrayed by the leader it has supported in the hope that he would bring glory, security, and prosperity? Growing discontent among the elite, pressure for radical domestic changes, and constant rumblings that potential successors may not wait until he dies? It is too late for Putin to give up on the biggest undertaking of his career. He might as well keep the war going hoping to prevail somehow and then write the final chapter of his career as a winner. He would rather die trying or try until he dies.

Unable to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, Putin has evidently decided to destroy it and make it unlivable, as the waves of missile attacks against civilian infrastructure and urban centers suggest. The tragedy of this situation is that the more the Russian army loses on the battlefield, the less likely Putin is to back down from his murderous course. The more Russia’s industry is hamstrung by sanctions and the less access it has to advanced technology to produce “smart” weapons, the more indiscriminate and destructive Russian missile and artillery barrages will be, conducted with “dumb” weapons.

If one looks to the future beyond Putin, Russia’s national security establishment is more than likely to keep Ukraine in its crosshairs as the great strategic prize in the standoff with the West for historical and geopolitical reasons. The misfortune of Ukraine’s geography means that it will always be in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis Russia, absent a fundamental change in Russian domestic politics and strategic culture. And betting on the latter has a low probability of success at best.

A negotiated end to the war that can reliably ensure security for Ukraine and restore durable peace in Europe cannot be achieved with Putin. The odds are that it will not be achieved with the leader or regime that will succeed him, either. The alternative is then for Ukraine’s security to be achieved through a combination of military capabilities sufficient to deter Russia from launching another aggression and security guarantees or assurances provided by its partners and possible future allies.