by Mark N. Katz
What a difference a few months make. During much of 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin was riding high. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine quickly and relatively bloodlessly. Putin was also able to help pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine effectively secede from the rest of the country and prevent the Ukrainian government from retaking these areas. Western governments howled in protest and even imposed economic sanctions on Russia, but were unable to force Putin to back down. Putin’s unsettling actions also seemed to help keep the price of oil high, which Russia benefited from as a leading petroleum exporter. And while the West was highly critical of him, many governments elsewhere—most notably in Asia—seemed indifferent or even sympathetic toward Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
At present, though, things look very different for the Russian president. Western sanctions, which initially seemed quite weak, now appear to be having an increasingly negative effect on the Russian economy. More importantly, the dramatic decrease in the price of oil over the past few months has contributed to a sharp drop in Russia’s export income as well as to the value of the ruble. Eastern Ukraine has meanwhile become an increasingly costly venture for Moscow—not least because of the mounting deaths of Russian soldiers engaged in the fighting there. Absorbing Crimea is also proving costly for an increasingly cash-strapped Moscow. As Western disapproval and even fear of Russia have grown, the ranks of European political and economic leaders calling for accommodating Moscow and cooperating with Putin have thinned. Finally, those non-Western governments that earlier seemed indifferent or sympathetic to Putin’s policy toward Ukraine now seem either indifferent or eager to take advantage of Russia’s increasing economic difficulties.
Putin, in short, now seems to be facing something of a dilemma. Continuing his current policies toward eastern Ukraine will probably not bring about an end to what is becoming a quagmire there for Moscow, and will mean that Western economic sanctions on Russia remain in place or even worsen. Yet withdrawing from Ukraine could weaken Putin domestically since the Russian public has supported his forward policy on Ukraine and would not be happy to see it reversed.
So what will Putin do now? Many fear that he will lash out at the West by supporting Russian secessionists in the Baltics or elsewhere. Putin himself has contributed to this fear by talking about how a cornered rat will attack its pursuers. But despite the deteriorating situation that he now faces, the Russian president need not become that rat in the corner. Indeed, he can be expected to ensure that he does not.
This is because Putin is basically a pragmatist. While he can support Russian secessionists in the Baltics, Belarus, northern Kazakhstan, or elsewhere in Ukraine—as he did with those in Crimea and eastern Ukraine—Putin cannot now be certain that he can gain control over these territories quickly and easily like he did with Crimea. Instead, supporting such groups or intervening directly may only result in more drawn-out conflicts such as the one now taking place in eastern Ukraine. If it is increasingly costly for Russia to be involved in just one such conflict, it will be even costlier still for it to become involved in more of them. If he thought he could replicate what happened in Crimea, Putin might be tempted to do this. Indeed, his quick victory in Crimea may have persuaded him that he could also win in eastern Ukraine. But now that eastern Ukraine has proven to be so problematic, Putin must be aware that similar adventures elsewhere could prove similarly risky—and that Russian forces could only get more thinly spread if they become involved in more such conflicts.
Some fear that Putin might lash out in some other manner by, for example, ending Russian support for the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But this also seems unlikely because: 1) Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, either and 2) the United States and its Western allies could still reach an agreement with Tehran on this matter without Russian help—which would only serve to demonstrate Russian impotence.
Russia stepping up its support for the Assad regime in Syria is another possibility. Doing so, though, would make Russia more of a target for Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Nor does it seem plausible that Putin would want Russia to become more involved in Syria when Moscow is far more concerned about what is happening in Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
Some fear, though, that reported Russian submarine deployments in Swedish waters, military overflights over several countries, and claims in the Arctic are all signs that Putin is preparing something even worse. However, while hardly reassuring, these moves seem aimed more at showing the Russian public how strong Putin is than as precursors to Russian initiation of conflict.
What all this suggests is that while Putin is aggressive, he is not reckless, and he demonstrated this during a Dec. 18 press conference. Indeed, while insisting that any Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are “volunteers,” he seemed also to hold open the door to cooperation with Kiev—and with Georgia, too (which Russia won a brief war against in 2008).
Returning to the rodentine analogy that Putin himself has used: if a cornered rat lashes out, one that is not cornered is more likely to find a safe place to run to instead. What this means for the West is that while it should assist Ukraine in resisting Russian incursions, it should reassure Putin that if he compromises on Ukraine, the West will not use this as an opportunity to rout him altogether. By continuing to cooperate with Russia on problems of common concern (such as Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear issue, and terrorism) and by reiterating how Western sanctions would be lifted if Russia modifies its policy toward Ukraine, we can help Putin achieve his own goal of not ending up in a corner.