Alexander Demianchuk / Courtesy Reuters Putin in Sochi, March 16, 2014.

Is Putin Rational?

Probably. Here's How to Work With Him

Ukrainians are waiting to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, having wrested Crimea from Ukraine, will continue his advance. The outward signs point to yes. Tens of thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles are amassed along Ukraine’s borders. The Kremlin insists that they are conducting military exercises, but that seems unlikely. Ukrainian armed services have caught Russian agents, tasked with gathering military intelligence and fomenting unrest, in several of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces. And border guards have stopped thousands of armed Russian “tourists” from entering Ukraine. Pro-Putin militants have seized government buildings and violently attacked peaceful demonstrators outside of Crimea, in Donetsk and Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Russia’s state-controlled channels whip up anti-Ukrainian hysteria as Putin and the Kremlin insist that the government in Kiev illegitimate.

No one can fully know Putin’s intentions. One’s best guess depends on one’s assumptions of his rationality. If he is irrational -- unable to correctly judge the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine because he is in thrall to some ideology or the pursuit of power -- then it is safe to assume that he will continue on his current course. Lilia Shevtsova, a liberal Russian analyst, and Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former economic advisor, make that case. “He believes that he is chosen by divine providence to punish liberated Ukrainians,” Illarianov writes, “He believes that now there is a unique historical situation: Ukraine is in [a] state of severe crises, its authorities and institutions do not function effectively. He dreams that providence demands him to fulfill this mission.” If Illarionov and Shevtsova are right, nothing can stop Putin from launching a massive land war against Ukraine, regardless of how much it would cost in human life, property, and prestige. Such a Putin could conceivably keep marching up to the Atlantic, as Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian political scientist and Putin’s ideological mentor, believes Russia must. “If we win,” he recently wrote, “we will begin the expansion of liberational (from Americans) ideology into Europe. It is the goal of full Eurasianism -- Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Great Eurasian Continental Empire.”

If, alternatively, Putin is rational -- and thus capable of weighing costs and benefits and associating effects with causes -- then there is reason to hope that he will stop somewhat short of destroying Ukraine and the world order. To make such an assumption is not to suggest that Putin is a benign leader. Quite the contrary, he probably possesses all the qualities he was trained to have as a KGB agent: ruthlessness and arrogance. But that doesn’t mean he can’t understand risk or won’t respond to punishment. In this telling, the occupation of Crimea was a grand and glorious little war that raised Putin’s popularity with hyper-nationalists in Russia, cost no lives, and transpired quickly and relatively inexpensively. It might have turned Russia into a rogue state, but Putin could reasonably argue that “Russian glory” was worth that price, the full effects of which would not be felt immediately but sometime in the future.

Seen in this light, a full-scale assault on all of Ukraine -- or even on Kiev -- would be extremely risky and costly. And it would offer few or no tangible benefits to Putin or to Russia. The Ukrainian army, newly formed National Guard, and militias would put up a fight, and it is by no means certain that Russia could easily advance in Blitzkrieg fashion. A subsequent occupation would entail the deployment of several hundred thousand troops, who would be the targets of a popularly supported resistance movement. And the West would be livid. It could provide significant military assistance to Ukrainian partisans, and it would certainly impose sanctions on the Russian economy as it searches for immediate alternatives for Russian energy. Russian casualties would likely reach the thousands, and the hyper-nationalist hysteria in Russia would diminish as the body bags start arriving home. Dugin might not be fazed by these prospects, but a rational Putin should be.

Less risky and possibly less costly would be the annexation of one or more of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces. They border Russia, they’re smaller than all of Ukraine, and they’ve been the targets of agitation and subversion by Russian special forces, “tourists,” and thugs for months. But even that occupation wouldn’t be as easy as invading Crimea. Ukrainian armed forces with tanks and heavy weaponry are already positioned along the eastern border. There would be fighting and Russian casualties could be high. The occupation would be less costly, but resistance would still be likely and pacifying the population would require a long-term commitment. All in all, these provinces would be an enormous drain on Russia’s economic resources.

In all likelihood, Putin is motivated by some combination of Duginite ideology, geopolitical interest, and self-interest. All leaders in all countries are. The ideology provides a set of ultimate goals (freedom, democracy, socialism, Lebensraum) and informs policy choices. But it rarely serves as the sole motivating force. Lenin, for instance, believed in world communism but agreed to a peace with imperial Germany in order to save the revolution. Stalin went even further, abandoning world revolution for “socialism in one country” in 1925 and becoming an ally of Nazi Germany in 1939. Putin might want to teach Ukraine and the West a lesson even as he remains responsive to Western and Ukrainian behavior.

For its part, Kiev has beefed up its armed forces and border defenses and started to crack down on Russian special forces in Ukraine. The United States and European Union have imposed ever more painful political and economic penalties on Russia and its leaders. None of these measures may convince Putin to abandon his long-term dreams in Eurasia, but they should encourage him to search for face-saving alternatives to costly wars that bring little benefit to him or to Russia. The United States could tip the scales in rationality’s favor by agreeing to supply the Ukrainian armed forces with military assistance. Armaments need not be on the table just now. Trucks, jeeps, uniforms, food, fuel, and medical supplies would suffice to send a strong signal of the United States’ seriousness about Ukraine’s security.

At the same time, the West should be ready to talk with Russia at any time, any place. On March 17, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about forming a Group for Assisting Ukraine that would consist of Russia, the United States, and Europe. Its job would be to help Ukraine overcome what the ministry calls the “deep crisis of the Ukrainian state” in accordance with certain principles and policy goals, most of which are not intrinsically offensive. (One point, that “the right of Crimea to determine its fate in accordance with the results of the free expression of the will of its population in the March 16, 2014 referendum will be acknowledged and respected,” is a nonstarter.) Leaving aside the irony of Putin lecturing anybody on constitutional norms and human rights, the statement does not sound like the sort of thing an ideologically driven irrational leader would issue. Why pussyfoot with the West when it is so much easier to send tanks toward Kiev?

Ukraine, the United States, and Europe should take up the ministry’s offer and propose a series of high-level meetings at which the issues raised by the Russians -- as well as issues to be raised by Ukraine and the West -- would be discussed. Ukraine and the West could reasonably insist that such discussions could not be held in good faith as long as Russian troops were within striking distance of Ukraine and Russian special forces were fomenting trouble in the southeast. Ukraine could also withdraw its troops from the eastern border, and United Nations peacekeepers could be invited to patrol the territories. The negotiations might turn out to be a bust, but they would at least force everybody -- and especially the Kremlin -- to take a deep breath and survey the situation with some measure of calm. As the diplomats talk, there’s a chance that Putin will come to his geopolitical senses, the war hysteria in Russia will cool down, the sabers will stop rattling so loudly, and Ukraine will get some breathing space. Peace might then appear to be the win-win solution.

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