The Putin Endgame

-Michael Martelle

It is a strategic truism that in order to counter a strategy, you must first know the goal of that strategy. NATO’s response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been hindered by the fact that, as of yet, there is no clear picture of what it is Russia, or specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin, is looking to achieve. Opinions vary from working towards a broad “Eurasian Union” to trying to win Ukraine back from EU influence after the Euromaiden Protests, but opinions are often colored by personal impressions of Putin as a wild, unpredictable actor. These impressions are fundamentally off the mark, and will continue to cause misreadings of Putin’s strategy.

Putin’s Cult of Personality
 
Putin, then serving as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin’s administration, became acting President of Russia after Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999. Putin had previously been selected by Yeltsin to be Presidential successor, and won the position in the first round of a March election. Putin immediately turned his focus to domestic issues and reforms, and much of his initial popular image was likely tailored with this focus in mind. While many in the West hear “Putin” and think of a bare-chested judoka who shoots tigers, dives for treasure, and brazenly walks off with Superbowl rings, it is important to remember that Putin succeeded a President who was thought of as unstable, overweight, and drunk. It is also important to remember Putin’s past as a KGB officer operating in East Germany working with the Stasi secret police. Why does a former secret agent reveal so much about his habits and pursuits? For political gains. Putin took the weak areas of his predecessor’s image and made them his own strengths to the point of self-satire. Crazy? No, calculated. Effective? That can be argued either way, but the office of the Russian President is far stronger now than it was under Yeltsin.
Putin’s Aim in Ukraine
It is impossible to say with certainty what Putin’s final goal (or goals, more likely) is in Ukraine, but it is possible to make a deduction by looking at the tactics currently employed in Ukraine.
One of Putin’s first moves following the Euromaiden Protests and the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovitch was to claim the peninsula of Crimea. Crimea has long been significant to Russia, both culturally and strategically, and it is unlikely Putin wants to be remembered as the second Russian leader to give away the peninsula. It has reasonably been assumed that Crimea is a high priority for Putin, but what hasn’t been given much thought is what this means for Putin’s designs on Eastern Ukraine. While Crimea is currently firmly under Russian (or pro-Russian) control, its only land border is with Ukraine. To control the utilities and transport routes that feed and power Crimea, Putin will have to secure a land route linking Crimea to Russia. This would most directly be established along the route where Russian armor has been reported moving towards Mariupol.
The most “inscrutable” aspect of Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is, not surprisingly, its inscrutability. It is entirely possible that confusion and indecisiveness on the part of NATO is one of Putin’s goals. A global perception of NATO’s impotence in Ukraine suggests that his strategy has succeeded thus far as faith in NATO’s commitment to the region has been shaken, particularly among former Soviet Bloc nations. His recent peace proposal is being interpreted by some as an attempt to sow further confusion (a ceasefire called among combatants with loose chains of command, such as the pro-Russian rebels, would likely turn chaotic) or even lay the groundwork to freeze the conflict at a moment when the map has evolved to his liking, a tactic that he has already used in Abkhazia/Ossetia and Moldova.
If these are in fact Putin’s goals, look for Russia to continue sowing confusion in Ukraine and among NATO countries, and for a continued direct thrust along the southern highway through Mariupol and into Crimea.

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