Analysis |

Everybody Asks, What Does Putin Want? We Think We Have an Answer

What is Russian President Vladimir Putin really thinking with regard to Ukraine and Russia’s place in the world? If we could interview him, this is probably what he would have to say

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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No one knows what Putin will do. Not in Moscow, nor in Washington, Kyiv, Berlin or Beijing
No one knows what Putin will do. Not in Moscow, nor in Washington, Kyiv, Berlin or Beijing.Credit: REUTERS
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Will Russia invade the Donbas region of Ukraine? Or is this a high-stakes game of brinkmanship diplomacy in which amassing 100,000 soldiers on the Russian-Ukrainian border and positioning equipment and munitions for 75,000 more is just for show, intended to extract compromises from the United States and NATO?

Is Russia willing to pay the political and economic price that will inevitably be exacted in the event of an invasion, or is President Vladimir Putin just enjoying being in a relevant and key position in world affairs?

No one knows what Putin will do. Not in Moscow, nor in Washington, Kyiv, Berlin or Beijing. No one knows because as far as contemporary Kremlinology goes, the decision-making process in Russia has now been reduced to one man.

But what we can know and analyze is what Putin actually wants. He wants to appear strong. He wants to be decisive. He wants to confuse, rattle and divide NATO. He wants an effective veto on NATO expansion. He wants to impress China with his resolve and geopolitical and diplomatic savvy. Most of all, Putin wants to distract America, to cause chaos in the U.S.’ foreign policy priorities.

For Putin, relations with America have been a zero-sum game ever since the traumatic disintegration and dissolution of the old Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

There are three options that can play out: First, Putin has already decided on a limited military incursion into Ukraine and is just waiting for favorable weather conditions. This could be a major military operation or an ongoing hybrid warfare campaign, involving terror, cyberattacks aimed at destabilizing Ukraine and, by extension, deterring the Baltics states.

Second, Putin hopes to avert military confrontation. He knows the price may be high and the already-weak Russian economy will be further rocked by U.S. and Western sanctions.

Three, Putin enjoys the commotion. It plays into his “Russia is big, strong, powerful and will no longer be ignored or dismissed as a mid-size power” theme.

The two separate forums for diplomatic dialogue – the Russian-U.S. and Russian-NATO, in Geneva and Brussels, respectively – seem to be intended to portray a “going through the motions” while keeping everyone guessing as to Russian’s true intentions in Ukraine.

We asked Putin, in absentia, to answer some questions on his Ukraine policy. This is very likely what he would have said.

A woman holding a sign stating "Say no to Putin" during a protest in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky /AP

President Putin, it has been said that you never got over the demise of the Soviet Union; that you’re trying to return Russia to its czarist grandeur and that it’s in this context that Russian policy should be viewed.

“Yes, I’ve read these analyses and the biographies about me. Very imaginative. It’s simple. I want Russia to be respected, I want Russia to prosper and not be intimidated by other countries, and I want the U.S. to cease its patronizing and imperialist tendencies. Russia has interests in Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, the Far East, the Black Sea. These interests need to be respected, or at least understood.”

What do you hope to achieve by threatening Ukraine with military action? What is the point?

“I sincerely hope that it won’t come to military confrontation, but there’s a crucial point that needs to be made: Since 1992, Russia has been bullied by the U.S. and NATO. We grudgingly accepted some of it, tolerated other aspects and hoped that better understandings and relations would evolve. We were wrong.”

How so?

“The grandiose and provocative policy of NATO’s expansion. It comes at the expense of Russia.”

The U.S. is saying that there was never any commitment made to refrain from expanding NATO, and that you’re using this as an excuse to justify aggression and a crisis.

“Secretary of State James Baker III made this commitment in 1990. He thought we were weak, disintegrated and vulnerable, so he made it. And NATO arrogantly reneged ever since, citing all kinds of ‘collective security’ and depicting Russia as a constant and ominous threat. Who did we threaten?”

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, last year.Credit: Patrick Semansky /AP

Mr. President, Baker vehemently denies making such a commitment or promise. Neither explicit nor implicit, neither he nor President George H.W. Bush.

“He did make it, certainly about East Germany – by then unified with West Germany – but that’s not the point. In January 1990, two months after the Berlin Wall fell, then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said in a speech: ‘There will be no an expansion of NATO territory to the east – that is, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.’ That was two years before we dissolved the USSR.”

So a German foreign minister said something in 1990. Thirty-two years ago. This is the basis for creating an explosive crisis?

“No. The basis is that we will no longer be pushovers. America will not dictate what happens on our doorstep and historical sphere. That’s exactly my point. They made ceremonious speeches and reneged soon afterward. In 1997, the Americans and NATO made a decision to allow former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO. So, between 1999 and 2004, nine – nine! – of those countries joined NATO: Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Then, in 2008, NATO invited Ukraine and Georgia to join. I ask you, is this not an act of aggression against Russia? How can Georgia be important to U.S. national security when they can’t even count votes properly in their own Georgia?”

Back to Ukraine: The U.S. is saying that in fact it’s Russia that has violated an agreement: the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, signed between the U.S., Britain and Russia, which stipulated that in exchange for Ukraine dismantling its nuclear arsenal of 1,900 warheads, Russia committed to “respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.” That hasn’t happened.

“Everyone had a prime and vested interest in immediate nuclear disarmament in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Can you imagine where some of these nuclear weapons would have been today had the agreement not been implemented?”

That’s not the question. Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“First of all, Crimea was always Russian, not Ukrainian. That Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea as a present to our sister republic in 1954, to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of a 1654 treaty when Ukrainian Cossacks unified with Moscow, does not make it ‘Ukrainian.’ And anyway, that memorandum from 1994 was before nine countries bordering us joined NATO. What if Canada, Mexico and Guatemala joined the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s? Would the U.S. just say ‘We respect their sovereign decision’?”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaking during a media conference in Brussels last week.Credit: Olivier Matthys /AP

Russia has some 6,400 nuclear warheads, advanced state-of-the-art military technologies, cyberwar capabilities and vast territory. How can you possibly claim to be threatened by Ukraine joining NATO?

“Yes, Russia is strong. We make no excuses for that. However, there is a misconception in the West regarding how and in which historical context we view our national security. For decades, Western historians of Russia have claimed that its vastness saved us from invasion and occupation. That’s half true. Our size and proximity to tumultuous regions also made us vulnerable and penetrable.

“Look, you have to understand how we interpret history. The Mongols invaded Russia between 1223-1236 and wreaked havoc. Then, in the Crimean war of 1571, the Ottomans invaded Russia beyond Crimea and destroyed Moscow. Poland – yeah, the Poland that asks for the world’s pity and cries for American help every other day – invaded in 1605-1618, then Sweden. Those peace-loving, pontificating Swedes. Twice they invaded Russia. Then there was 1812. Napoleon invaded Russia and reached to hearing-distance of the bells of Moscow. Remember the ‘1812 Overture’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? The bells and cannons? These are formative events in our history.”

Yes, but this is 2022, not 1812. You cannot seriously argue that any country poses a threat of invasion. Lithuania? Georgia? Poland?

“I’m not done. Remember World War I? The Russian Empire collapsed, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states all ceded to Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Then Japan again invaded in 1918-1922, after they has done so in the war of 1905. Poland again took advantage of the Russian Revolution and civil war in Russia and invaded in 1919-1921. And then there was June 1941. The great patriotic war. The Nazi-German invasion that nearly destroyed and subjugated Russia. In October 1941, German officers could see the Kremlin through their binoculars. Do you get my point?”

Essentially, you are demanding something the U.S. cannot conceivably give you – veto power over who joins NATO and, effectively, veto power over countries’ sovereign decisions to join the alliance.

“Russia is not asking for veto power, but on the other hand we don’t appreciate being dictated to. Neither on Ukraine nor the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that we built with Germany and the Americans are trying to prevent from becoming operational. We are asking for common sense, consideration and smart statesmanship which recognizes that we too have interests and we too have concerns. I’m sure a formula can be found if the Americans will be forthcoming. Personally, I don’t even know what NATO stands for, or against whom and against which threats it still exists. But that’s not for me to decide.”

You’re concentrating on Ukraine, but it seems to be backfiring as Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO.

“I hope they don’t. Sweden was neutral in World War II. Finland fought against us, with the Germans. So you can see why I’m a little annoyed.”

So what will you do?

“I haven’t decided yet.”

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