Putin's Wager

Why the Kremlin Is Betting on Escalation and Isolation

President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony unveiling a World War I monument in Moscow, August 2014. Yuri Kochetkov / Courtesy Reuters

After Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, a catastrophe almost certainly the work of Russian-backed rebels, the United States and the EU implemented new, wider-reaching sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by redoubling his Ukraine policy. Rather than distancing itself from the militia groups, Moscow has stepped up its support, transferring arms, providing diplomatic cover, and even ordering Russian forces to fire on Ukrainian military targets across the border. Given the opportunity to abandon an increasingly costly policy, Putin has chosen to escalate.

In so doing, he is steering his country toward a period of prolonged isolation and economic difficulty. U.S. President Barack Obama suggested last week that Putin is behaving irrationally. "Objectively speaking, President Putin should want to resolve this diplomatically, to get these sanctions lifted," Obama said. There is a limit to what the United States can achieve, he added, when Putin and those around him are “ignoring what should be their long-term interests.”

But those interests look very different from Moscow than they do from Washington. Putin and his close advisers may be cynical, but they are sincere in their cynicism. They see the West, and the United States in particular, as engaged in an unceasing effort to weaken and fracture Russia. For them, Ukraine represents a redline. Putin’s suspicions of Western motives, dissatisfaction with the post–Cold War global order, and fears of a pro-Western Ukraine are parts of the same potent cocktail of grievance and paranoia. The best, if not the only, prophylactic is what Putin understands as “sovereignty.” It is a concept that Putin warned his Security Council is “being washed out” by “ultimatums and sanctions.” It is also, as Putin sees it, what Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev let slip out from under him, leading to the disintegration of state power -- and thus precisely what Putin is intent on preserving.

To Putin, sovereignty constitutes the essence of power. “Putin’s motivating idea is that Russia’s

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