What Does Vladimir Putin Want?

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Photo: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

Since the election of Donald Trump, a chasm has opened in American views of Vladimir Putin. Liberals see him as a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who hacked the election and might somehow be manipulating the president. Meanwhile, he’s enjoyed a surge of popularity among GOP voters, thanks largely to Trump’s consistent praise.

But how does Putin look in his own country, where his approval ratings are sky high? What does he give Russians? What really motivates him? What’s his long game? Unfortunately, much American journalism has been content to give lazy answers or brush these questions aside altogether.

Alexander Vershbow was the U.S. ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, and later an ambassador to South Korea and the deputy secretary general of NATO. He’s also been a student of Russian language, history, and culture since his teens. Vershbow believes that Putin still thinks in Cold War terms of “spheres of influence” and sees NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe as encroachment on a sphere that rightfully belongs to Russia. Below, Vershbow discusses possible Trump campaign ties to Putin, how Russia could influence elections in Western Europe, and how his vision for Russia is different from that of earlier Soviet leaders.

How unusual is it for an ambassador to meet with members of different campaigns or of incoming administrations?
It’s not that unusual. One of the duties of any embassy in a foreign country is to report back to their capital on what’s going on in politics, and the likely positions of different candidates, so in that sense Ambassador Kislyak was doing his job. There are more questions about what the Trump campaign representatives were trying to achieve in these contacts. Were they sending signals about future policies of the administration? That wouldn’t be totally inappropriate either. Or was there something related to the hacking, to WikiLeaks, et cetera? That would raise serious questions.

Clearly the Russians have many different agendas, but I don’t think the ambassador is likely to be engaging in subversive activities. He has plenty of people on his staff who do that. I keep chuckling because I’ve known Kislyak in many stages of my career, probably going back 25 years, and he’s the last person I would label a ‘superspy’ as he’s being labeled in some of the media coverage. He’s a relatively low-key, self-effacing figure who’s really an expert on security and arms control. That’s his passion: being a professional arms-controller and problem-solver.

It’s the administration’s secretiveness that’s leading to questions about possible collusion with the Russian hacking effort. Do we know there was any such collusion? No. But I’m convinced that having either a 9/11-style commission or a bipartisan select committee would be appropriate, given that undermining our democratic system is a pretty big deal — a bigger deal than things that have been the subject of select committees in the past, like Benghazi.

Assuming all the intelligence agencies are right that Russia meddled in the election, why do you think they would do so?
It reflects a broader kind of hostility on the Russians’ part towards the West. It was brewing for some time, and I think it burst into full flower after Putin came back into the presidency in 2012. He became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power. He and his fellow KGB veterans never viewed Gorbachev and Yeltsin as legitimate, and in a sense are restoring the status quo ante — but without the Marxist-Leninist ideology. It’s the same kind of fervent Russian nationalism and the same defensive view of the relationship with the West — defensive and zero-sum.

Why did Putin feel that way so much more strongly after he returned to power in 2012?
I think the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia in the mid-2000s convinced him that by supporting democracy and civil society, the West was in fact aimed at bringing about regime change and reorienting traditional Russian and Soviet neighbors towards the West. Fast-forward to 2008, when he saw Georgia trying to use force to recover territory that Russia had been occupying since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Again, he saw the West having instigated an effort to tear a country under Russia’s influence away from Russia. Then I think the big tipping point was the Arab Spring and the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi as the leader of Libya.

He came back into office convinced that the West was once again on the march against Russian interests, and then when the demonstrations took place after his election, he claimed the protests were instigated, financed, orchestrated by the West, and the U.S. in particular. That’s why there’s such animus against Hillary Clinton. He said at the time that she was the godmother of these protests, and I think he really believed it.

What do you think the proper response to the hacking should be?The most important thing is to fully appreciate our vulnerabilities, and if not eliminate them, at least reduce them. Russia has proven that it can undermine confidence in our own institutions and traditions.

You’ve said that the prospect of Russia interfering in other European elections is one of the biggest and most immediate threats that we face this year. Could you elaborate on that?
There are already patterns emerging in the behavior of RT, which has German service, and the Sputnik “news agency,” which is pumping out stories clearly aimed at boosting Kremlin-friendly candidates like Marine Le Pen in France and the Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany, and trying to run down the more mainstream candidates.

They seem to be gunning for Angela Merkel, because she has been the linchpin of the European unified response to the aggression against Ukraine. She’s kept the EU in line when it comes to renewing the sanctions every six months, and so I think they’re trying to undermine her. They’re portraying her as out of touch with the people on migration issues, and they’re promoting messages similar to what we saw in Trump’s campaign: about the dangers of migrants, crime, murder, violence being perpetrated by these thousands of Syrians and others who Merkel has imposed on us, that kind of stuff. It’s not necessarily without some factual basis, but it’s playing to the disgruntled and to the dissatisfied, in identifying Merkel with their biggest grievances. Whether it will be decisive or just an irritating influence remains to be seen. The German election is not until September.

Of course, the Russians also do this in smaller countries that are less noticed by the U.S.: countries where they’ve historically had influence, like Bulgaria and Serbia and Moldova. Moldova recently elected a president who is very pro-Russia. Of course, they have very corrupt mainstream parties, so there’s also popular rejection of the status quo in these kinds of countries. Russia is just one of many factors, but they don’t seem at all inhibited from trying to do what they did in the U.S. in other places.

You’re always saying, on Twitter and in interviews, that Western countries shouldn’t forget Russia still has troops stationed in eastern Ukraine. Why do you think it’s so important to keep this in mind?
Because it represents the biggest challenge to the whole European security order since the end of World War II. Allowing the Russians to get away with it only creates the likelihood that Putin will strike again somewhere else, perhaps against other vulnerable neighbors like Belarus or Kazakhstan, where there are also potential inter-ethnic disputes that could be exploited.

The economic sanctions on Russia were imposed for a very specific reason: the things they’ve done, including the aggression and the changing of Ukraine’s borders by force, have been ruled out by international law. The Russians have torn up the rule book, and it’s important that we not let them get away with it.

It would be unfortunate if the new administration decided to basically trade Ukraine for the illusion of cooperation on fighting ISIS or something else, or even for the reality. If Russia wants to fight ISIS with us, good for them, let’s do it, but we don’t have to sell out Ukraine in order to get that kind of cooperation.

It’s often difficult, when you’re going from American media, to get any sense of how Putin’s actions look to him or his supporters. What does he think he’s doing in Ukraine? What does he want to achieve there?
He’s trying to prevent Ukraine, in a broad sense, from joining the West —but in particular, from joining NATO and the EU. Just as he was trying to prevent Georgia from joining the West in 2008. He was quite angry when, at NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO said, “We agree that Ukraine and Georgia will one day be members of NATO.” Some people say it pushed him over the edge in attacking Georgia.

The Russians have maintained a naval base in Crimea since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Putin was clearly worried that his lease on the Port of Sevastopol would be swept away by the popular revolt. He even said in his celebratory speech after the annexation, basically, “If we hadn’t done this, NATO’s fleet would be in Sevastopol before you know it.” It comes back to European integration, but NATO is sort of the bogeyman.

That explains the motive for seizing Crimea, but what about other parts of eastern Ukraine where he’s dispatched troops?
He may have succumbed to delusions of grandeur. He really believed some of his own propaganda: that those people in Ukraine, who used Russian as their first language, wanted to be part of Russia, and that instigating an insurrection in some of these Russian-speaking areas would lead to a chain reaction, and all of Ukraine would fall apart and fall in his lap.

Even though this whole project to stir up pro-Russian rebellions across the southern and eastern part of Ukraine failed, it was still a success for Putin by creating this smaller renegade state-within-a-state in eastern Ukraine. It keeps the country unstable for as long as Russia really wants to keep the pot boiling. That too prevents Ukraine from being an attractive candidate for NATO. Keeping at least eastern Ukraine in a state of semi-chaos is in and of itself an objective.

Why is he so afraid of NATO enlargement?
For Russians, it’s psychological. They lost their empire, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and NATO’s still there. Of course, now they’ve reawakened NATO by what they did against Ukraine. NATO’s now spending more. We’re building up collective defense, and not just doing expeditionary operations in Afghanistan. Putin has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

NATO has more reason to be concerned about Russian military capability, which has substantially expanded and improved qualitatively after the Georgia war, when they discovered that their forces were really third-rate and had been under-maintained. They’ve been spending a fortune with new generations of everything from strategic nuclear missiles to new tanks, flamethrowers, air-to-air missiles, surface- and ship-to-shore missiles. They’ve got new everything, and now Trump is going to see them and raise them with the defense budget that he’s about to announce.

What do you see as the outlook for U.S.-Russian relations under Trump?
As somebody who’s worked on U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations over the last 40 years, I can understand why Trump would want to try to improve the relationship and reduce tensions. At the same time, I worry that important principles could be sacrificed for the sake of a so-called reset in the relationship. Russia might be able to help in fighting ISIS, but their objectives in Syria have not been the same as U.S. objectives. They’ve been doing everything to preserve Assad and destroy all opposition to him, including the more moderate strands of opposition in Syria.

On Ukraine, I hope that Trump will try to succeed where Obama failed, which would be to try to negotiate a durable political solution that gets the Russians to disengage from eastern Ukraine and reintegrates the occupied territories into the rest of the country. Putin claims he wants to do that, but the challenge is to come up with incentives. Obama wasn’t able to do it. The Germans and the French have been unable to do it. Can Trump get a good “deal” for Ukraine? That would be great. I hope he tries, but the odds are not necessarily all that favorable.

Have the sanctions produced any visible effect?
I think they’ve deterred Putin from going further. There were concerns in 2014 and early 2015 that he might try to recapture additional cities. Russia’s economy has clearly been affected. It had negative growth two years ago, and last year they were pretty close to zero growth. Part of that is because of lower oil prices, and part of it is because of failure to reform their economy. But the sanctions have been a factor. They’ve made Russia a reputational risk for Western investors, so there’s an intangible effect as well.

Putin clearly wants to get them lifted. Russian leaders have talked bravely about how “We’re becoming more self-sufficient, and we don’t need the West,” but sooner or later the Russian man on the street will get tired of nationalism and will want better food and a better standard of living. The Russians are actually eating less in the last three years. They’re consuming 18 or 20 percent less food, because the sanctions are really cutting into people’s incomes. Putin’s still popular, but the famous, “It’s the economy, stupid,” eventually will become applicable to Russia.

What about Russia’s involvement in Syria? Do you see any upside? For instance, weakening the overall power strength of ISIS?
I think the outcome remains to be seen. They clearly prevented Assad from falling, which was their main objective. That may make it much more difficult to ever get to a political solution that’s consistent with the many U.N. resolutions that have been passed, all of which talk about a transition of power to a new leadership that would be representative of all the different elements in Syrian society.

Now the Russians are basically saying, “Assad isn’t going anywhere. He isn’t even going to be eased out over a transition period.” If the U.S. and Turkey and other key players grudgingly agree, the question is whether the rebels will compromise and accept bit parts in a postwar Syria. It’s hard to see that country ever being put back together again under stable governance.

What do you think Putin wants for Russia 20 years from now? What’s his long-term vision?
I think he does want Russia to permanently have at least a soft empire, involving long-term dominance over Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics, maybe even over the eastern flank of NATO. In this vision, the West pays deference to Russian interests to a far greater degree. I don’t think he thinks of the future Russia as a powerhouse in science and medicine and aerospace exploration, all the things that the Soviet Union, with all its weaknesses, still aspired to do. He doesn’t mind being a giant gas station in terms of the economy. It’s more about just naked power than about achieving greatness through the achievements of Russian people.

If I were writing a tweet on that, I would put “sad” at the end. That’s why there’s huge brain drain. Most of the really innovative Russian inventors and scientists have emigrated to Europe or the U.S. Since these people tend to be renegades, the Russians say “Good riddance,” and that too is sad.

What Does Vladimir Putin Want?