It’s cute that people think Putin needs a pretext to go to war.
Did you see last week’s story about the staged atrocity shot on video, with Russian actors playing vicious Ukrainians? There was no big strategy behind it. It was just Putin having fun. Nothing to see here.
It was just as silly when Hitler pulled the same thing in 1939. He dressed a few of his thugs in Polish army uniforms, who then raided a German radio station near the Polish border. Impersonating Poles, they started broadcasting bad things about Germany, a provocation that the German high command declared — almost as if they’d rehearsed it — too bellicose to ignore.
They brought in a few prisoners from Dachau and shot them, just to make the scene look convincing, and the next day Germany invaded Poland with several tank divisions that, just by coincidence, were right there at the border when the “incident” occurred.
So before we get too crazed about Putin ginning up the bloodlust of his citizenry, let’s acknowledge that this is just the old “false flag” trick, and even Putin himself has used it before — in Crimea in 2014.
It doesn’t mean he is, or isn’t, going to war. It doesn’t mean he will, or won’t, use this as a pretext. It doesn’t mean this isn’t a head-fake that distracts from something else he’s doing. To him it’s just one of the many dirty tricks he can pull, any time he wants.
This particular trick could even have been a publicity stunt, a story he leaked to western news outlets just to see how worked up we’d get. Playing with our heads is what he does.
I’ve been following writers with far more knowledge of Putin than I, and they all seem to agree that even he isn’t sure what he will or will not do. They’ll tell you that he enjoys cranking up the anxiety level of the West to eleven, keeping everyone stressed-out and prone to mistakes. It’s classic bully behavior, but on an unimaginably grand scale. He creates a fraught situation, assigns enormous resources to making it worse, then tweaks it based on how it plays out.
These Putin watchers are by no means unanimous in their assessments of the current situation. But taken together, I think I have a feel for their consensus.
They seem to agree that he has more to gain by not going to war. As long as he can keep us all off balance and guessing what he’ll do next, an actual invasion — with a subsequent occupation, possibly forever — makes no sense. Especially since he is arguably already getting what he wants.
I say “arguably” because there’s plenty of arguing about what he wants, and because he and his people are blowing all kinds of smoke at us. We hear that he’s restoring Russia’s rightful place as a world power. We hear that he’s protecting the Motherland from the malign forces of NATO. We hear that he’s getting the old Soviet Union back together and taking it on the road. Don’t believe any of it.
What he really seems to want, more than anything, is attention. In many ways it’s as juvenile as Trump’s reign of petulance, but with far more power.
He wants respect. He wants stature on the world stage. And, being Russian, he knows these things will never be a given.
Because Russia has, throughout its history, always been a chronic underachiever. The Renaissance and the Reformation — the two foundational pillars upon which western liberal democracy rests — never reached Russia. The West grew from those movements, building both workable governments and, not coincidentally, vibrant economies. But Russia, held back by sclerotic autocracies, rampant corruption, and a feudal system centuries past its sell-by date, became an economic basket case.
In many ways, little has changed. Despite being among the world’s largest and best-educated countries, Russia still does not make a single world-class consumer product. Even now, 60 percent of its economy derives from oil, gas, minerals, and other “extractive” industries. This is not a recipe for long-term success, and Putin knows it.
In that respect, he’s playing a weak hand. If he decides to invade Ukraine, he brings a world of hurt down on his military, his oligarchs, his banking system, and, oh yes, the long-suffering Russian people.
Speaking of whom, the average Russian’s understanding of the Ukraine situation is hardly encouraging. Most Russians think what state-run media tells them to think. Sort of like having all your media — everything you watch, read, or click on — owned by Rupert Murdoch. Ordinary Russians, like ordinary Americans, think almost nothing about foreign affairs. Which makes them, and us, easier to manipulate.
What the media is telling them these days is that Ukraine is an American puppet, that bloodthirsty Joe Biden is provoking Russia into a war it doesn’t want, and that this military buildup is nothing more than an understandable defensive action against western aggression. The vast majority believe it.
As for the sanctions being threatened, Americans are characteristically naïve about them. Yes, they will most likely cause enormous pain, with geopolitical ripple effects that can’t be predicted. But they won’t make the problem go away. As Julia Ioffe writes:
[Americans believe 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 … Americans feel entitled to a growing economy, but Russians just hope it won’t get worse.
So even though Putin is on track to make the average Russian’s life significantly worse, nobody knows if that even figures in his thinking. He has little or no personal vulnerability. His vast security apparatus exists, in large part, to protect him. He can, at any time, lay low in his personal palace on the Black Sea — a high-tech fortress right out of a James Bond film — living in unimaginable luxury while the rest of the world burns. So yes, the big fear among the Putin watchers is that he doesn’t care, even slightly, about anyone but himself.
He has already succeeded in getting the West to pay attention. He already has us jittery, quarrelsome, and in danger of overreaction. And like bullies the world over, he clearly gets a big kick out of it.
Is it enough to satisfy him? Are bullies ever satisfied?
P.S. For an excellent discussion of what’s going on, or might be going on, in this crisis, check out this podcast by Der Spiegel (in English), featuring three women — Masha Gessen, Nina Khrushcheva, and Sabine Fisher — who certainly ought to know. For more of my take on Putin, see my post from this time last year, when he crushed Alexei Navalny — who, as of this writing, remains crushed.