Will Putin Lash Out?

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.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com



  1. Interesting post. Overconfidence, from one side or the other, seems to be what drives the Western view. Underestimation of what Putin can and can’t do, is also a western trait, that shouldn’t be too relied upon as far as who pushes who. As the world has seen in Iran and how it has dealt with sanctions, it isn’t cast in stone, that Russia can’t adjust. One lesson that seems to be missing here, is the western resolve to how long this standoff can go, or who will blink first. Denying that the west isn’t losing any treasure, is absurd, with the E.U. paying a heavy price, being the tool of the U.S. I might add, Russia is no stranger to being an underdog, as it has proven it can survive.

  2. . Putin’s “unsettling actions” were actually a reaction to the US-fostered coup d’é·tat in Kyev which endangered Russia’s security. Throughout the affair, Putin has encouraged negotiations however a nation’s security can’t be negotiated away. Further Russian reactions to Western provocations might be described as “Putin lashing out” but that’s mere hyperbole.

  3. My one impression from the study of Russian history has been a rather common element throughout the ages: That in the face of external threats they move rather cautiously, slowly, and cunningly. They may be sloppy, but they remain committed. Their moves are slow, sometimes deceptively so, in that they wait out the enemy’s period of strength and strike back at a time of their choosing when the enemy is vulnerable. As such, they rely on the mistakes of the enemy as an element of their strategy. Russia’s being so vast, so gifted with human and natural resources allows them to absorb mistakes of their own. You can see this pattern in the Napoleonic wars, in the wars with Western Europe over Eastern Europe, in the two world wars, as well as against Japan both early in 20th century going all the way to the end of WW||, after which not only did they recaptured territory lost to Japan, but they took some of their territory that they still hold on to. And you can see how when they step out of that comfortable mold they often pay a dear price, as in Spain and Afghanistan.

    Will Putin lash out? Not now. Not the way we in the West are impatient and demand actions right away. He’ll wait out this period. Because the Russian Bear hibernates in the winter and waits for the enemy to get complacent and weak. For the West to win in this chess match we’d have to realize their pattern as well as break out of our own pattern of acting out of arrogance rather than prudence. When the West acts in its familiar knee jerk mode then it does what it did in WW||: going to war against Germany to save Poland, and in the process losing the ENTIRE Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. It went to war against Germany to prevent another war, and in the process it got a long hot war and an even longer cold war to save the rest of Europe from being overrun. At the end, Eastern Europe was saved from the yoke of communism but after decades of an incredibly costly cold war, not to mention WW|| itself, and it needn’t have happened that way. How does the West break out of its familiar mold and not repeat the mistakes of the past? Look at what the most plausible outcome of all this is going to be: at the end, I see the West and Russia coming to an understanding over Ukraine, that Russia will let go of Eastern Ukraine in return for some autonomy there plus the West not adding Ukraine to NATO. That’s either going to happen after decades of costly conflict just like Eastern Europe after WW||, or it’s going to happen with a handshake and an understanding now. Because while the West has the stronger hand now, Russia not going anywhere, nor is it going to accept NATO on its border. It’s going to lay there and hibernate, waiting for when we become week and dormant to strike back.

  4. One hopes Putin grasps the simple fact that stability in Ukraine is a good thing for Russia’s economy.

  5. Putin has lost all the trust that he had put in the West. For a while he thought that they could cooperate without back stabbing. Now he is seeing that the West continues to seek ways of weakening Russia for fear of its revival and expansion in Europe.
    It is a new game now, a new form of cold war that the sanctions have triggered. I trust Putin will play it very well because he is a brilliant strategist and most of the European leaders he is dealing with are on the brink of been kicked out of their job.

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