What’s Driving Putin?

From a Western perspective, Russia is losing the war in Ukraine. But that’s just a Western view

Still seeing a way forward. Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 21, 2022. Image Credit: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik via AFP

By most American measures of strategic thinking, the last thing that Russian President Vladimir Putin should have wanted was to unify NATO, push Finland and Sweden into the alliance, and prompt Germany to rearm. But from Putin’s perspective, he may still have many paths to victory, regardless of what happens on the battlefield.

If Putin extracts a pledge from Ukraine not to join NATO or the EU, that will be a win for him. If he achieves Ukrainian neutrality, that’s a win, too. If he causes massive destruction and withdraws, leaving the West to diminish its resources by spending tens if not hundreds of billions on Ukraine’s reconstruction, that’s also a win. If he can use the war to root out domestic opponents, strengthen his internal security service, strangle the last vestiges of a free media and boost his approval ratings at the same time, that is a substantial win, even if he acquires not one inch of new Ukrainian territory.

And if, in time, Western sanctions slacken, Western solidarity erodes and Russian exports again begin to flow, his daring gamble may have paid off even more than he hoped. He might in that scenario be stronger at home and more feared abroad—which is exactly what he wants.

In an article for “War on the Rocks,” American University’s Joshua Rovner argues that Putin is an inept strategist because he has wrecked the Russian economy and turned the Western world against him. But that is to view his actions through a Western lens. The same was said of Anwar Sadat for having launched a war in 1973 against Israel—a war that he was nearly certain to lose and did, in fact, lose badly. But from Sadat’s perspective, victory did not need to come by defeating Israel. Simply by striking first and catching Israel unawares, he restored Arab pride, which had been badly damaged in the Six Day War of 1967. In the process, he strengthened his hand at home. Egyptians looked upon him with admiration and respect. His calculations were difficult for Israelis and Westerners to comprehend, which is why they were uniformly caught off guard by the attack.

We often misread our enemies for a simple reason: When assessing their behavior, we focus too much on the enemy’s intentions, when finding out what drives them is what we need to figure out. To put it another way, if intentions are what an enemy wants to do, drivers explain why they want to do it.

It is tempting to project our own ideas onto others, assuming that they will think and act as we would—a condition called mirror imaging. But understanding Putin requires stepping out of our own world view and trying to see the world as he sees it. To do that, we have to reconsider our assumptions about what really drives him to act.

In Putin’s case, Western commentators often think of the Russian leader’s actions as tactics when they might actually be reflections of his core drivers. For instance, daring is often thought of as a tactic, but it can also be a driver. Based on his pattern of past behavior, Putin appears to see daring as a demonstration of courage, strong leadership and a willingness to put Russian interests first (that is, Russian interests as he sees them). But viewed from the Western perspective, Putin’s most aggressive prior moves might have seemed more like measured opportunism. For example, in 2008, when he invaded Georgia, Putin could easily have sent troops into the country’s capital, Tbilisi. Instead, he limited himself to occupying parts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which sit on Russia’s border.

His annexation of Crimea in 2014 was not the culmination of a well-planned assault, but rather the response to Ukraine’s Maidan uprising, which had led to the ousting of that country’s pro-Russian president and had robbed Putin of influence in Kyiv. He recognized the moment as a chance to achieve an irridentist aim, and he took it. And in 2015, Russian forces might have moved farther west after successful operations in eastern Ukraine, but Putin did not push. Aggressive? Clearly. But each of these actions looked cautious as well. Western observers could reasonably have imagined that Putin was an incrementalist—not a man who would push too far.

Until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, his actions suggested that he would not launch the current war. But if we look beneath his past behavior and dig deeper into his underlying drivers, we can see that daring lies at their heart.

In addition to a thirst for daring, Putin may also be driven by a desire to be seen as a brutal adversary. In classic KGB fashion, he has had his opponents attacked with nerve agents and injected with radioactive chemicals. This form of cruelty is not necessary. It is costly and difficult to execute. A simple gunshot would suffice. We must reckon with the possibility that brutal killings give him pleasure. The atrocities being committed by Russian troops, undoubtedly with his consent, are gruesome evidence of behavior that the Russian leader holds dear.

If war crimes had been committed only by a handful of soldiers, then they could be considered anomalous. But the scale of atrocities, from rapes to torture to the needless killing of non-combatants, strongly suggest a policy, or at least a pattern, that could only continue with Putin’s permission. Putin knows that such crimes are not necessary and could even strengthen Ukrainian resistance. They may, however, please him. Again, brutality is not merely a tactic; in his case, it may be better understood as a driver: a motivating force; a deep desire to act a certain way.

Brutality and daring might work in service of what is for him an even deeper driver: aggrandizement of self and country. His goal of restoring Russian influence means that he can take peaceful paths to that end, but he does not hesitate to use force when peaceful maneuvers are stymied. Nataliya Bugayova of the Institute for the Study of War has written that Putin has three core objectives: “the preservation of his regime, the end of American hegemony, and the reinstatement of Russia as a global power.” But these are actually all part of a single goal: to make Russia great again. Solidifying his rule and diminishing America are both means to that end.

The goal springs from his core driver of aggrandizement, made manifest through cunning when possible, through brutal violence when necessary or even pleasurable. These may be among the key underlying drivers that motivate Russia’s new tsar, and they are the qualities that many observers may have overlooked in their assessment of his intentions. If we understood Putin’s drivers, we might be better able to anticipate his likely future moves.

Putin’s drivers might have led him to a perfectly reasonable strategy, but one unlike what a democratic leader would pursue. Even if Russian troops are ultimately forced to withdraw from all of Ukraine, Putin may still succeed in self-aggrandizement, possible national aggrandizement (at least in his and many Russians’ eyes), as well as demonstrating his daring and brutality. Putin’s strategic thinking is neither irrational nor inept; it’s just foreign to most of us. But if we have any hope of defeating him, we must learn to think like someone with his repugnant values.

The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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