What is Putin Thinking?
Some thoughts on the current crisis and Putin’s reasonably-obvious motivations
Amid the general din of news reports about Putin’s declining mental state (which includes the possibility of Parkinson’s and steroid abuse) I have come across some speculation that there are other factors at work. These include that there is some kind of capitalist agenda here at work, that this invasion has something to do with politics in the U.S., or that it represents a failure on behalf of NATO, the U.S., and the EU to “see the writing on the wall.”
Allow me to explain exactly how asinine all this speculation is:
Don’t get me wrong! As a historian, I know all-too-well what crimes “the west” (aka. Europeans and colonials) are guilty of. This includes genocide, slavery, imperialism, colonization, and the massive inequality we see between developed and developing nations today. Not only does the legacy of this remain, but the crimes are still being committed in many forms.
However, there are some who run to that well just a little too eagerly whenever the subject of totalitarians like Putin comes up. Not only is it the first stop for Russian and pro-Russian apologists, but Putin himself has mastered the art of “whataboutism.” It is his knee-jerk response whenever someone raises the subject of assassinations, invasions, and human rights abuses that he is responsible for.
Neither the U.S., NATO, EU, or any other “western” organization is responsible for Putin’s invasion. As a former KGB agent who went on to become the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin is cardboard cut-out cliche of the old guard who view themselves as an “Iron Man of Russia.” He openly laments the disintegration of the Soviet Union and is upfront about how he views the USSR as the “good old days.”
In 1999, a few days before his inauguration, Putin called on Russians to unite to make sure that the country remained what he called a “first-tier” nation:
“For the first time in the past 200 to 300 years, Russia faces the real danger that it could be relegated to the second, or even the third tier of global powers.”
This address was issued on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, a nation that successfully broke away in 1991 and defeated Russia’s attempts to re-annex it in 1994. This second invasion was prompted by the Moscow Bombings, a string of terrorist attacks that FSB agents were implicated in.
Unfortunately, the attacks boosted Putin into office and he quickly buried any and all inquiries into the bombings. This included assassinating key members of the independence counsel who were investigating the FSB’s involvement, as well as poisoning Alexei Navalny and many other whistleblowers over the course of the past 20 years.
In 2005, during his annual State of the Nation Address, he called the breakup of the USSR a “genuine tragedy”:
“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
In a documentary film called “Russia. New History” that aired in 2021, Putin made the following comment to the filmmakers:
“It was a disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union. We turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost. “Sometimes (I) had to moonlight and drive a taxi. It is unpleasant to talk about this but, unfortunately, this also took place.”
As part of his“good old days” mindset, Putin has always demonstrated an unhealthy fixation with neighboring states. He has worked hard to install puppet regimes in these countries, consistent with his view that they are part of Russia’s “sphere of influence.” He has routinely threatened war the moment their governments have expressed interest in joining the EU, NATO, or participating in the (admittedly useless and stupid) Missile Defense program.
One cannot underestimate the role played by unresolved issues caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. On the one hand, you have the many entitites that have emerged since 1991 in the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Moldova and Georgia. These states include Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Turkmenistan, and (since 2014) Crimea, and the Russian-backed regions around Donetsk and Luhansk.
These attempts to breakaway and join Russia are referred to “frozen conflicts,” as they have all resulted in stalemate. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has developed a strategy wherein it uses conflicts in these regions to extend its influence and regain a foothold in regions where the Soviet Union was once present in force.
Another benefit for Moscow is the way these states allow it to evade U.S. and other foreign sanctions. Since 2014, officials in separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine will transfer money to South Ossetia in Georgia, where the funds are then wired to Russia. Russia then uses these funds to pay for goods that they ship to eastern Ukraine.
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On the other hand, there’s the way NATO — an organization founded to counter Soviet expansion — has grown since 1991. During the post-Soviet breakup, NATO sought to scoop up many of Russia’s former satellites as they could in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia. For Putin, this constituted one of the greatest foreign policy humiliations suffered by Russia in the 1990s.
It began the Soviet breakup when several former members of the Warsaw Pact requested to join NATO. Russia protested this based on the notion that they were within its “sphere of influence.” In 1996, the Clinton Administration announced that it was making NATO enlargement a crucial part of his foreign-policy.
Between 1999 and 2002, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia all joined NATO —which was met by fierce Russian opposition. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, while Montenegro and North Macedonia joined in 2020. Ukraine and Georgia have also been in talks with NATO since the 1990s and are designated as “NATO Aspirant” countries.
In 1994, both became members in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, which aims to foster trust between NATO and European states (particularly former members of the Soviet Union). In 2004, Georgia became a member of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), which outlines objectives for prospective NATO members. Since 2005–6, the dialogue between these countries and NATO has intensified.
For his part, Putin has been blatantly and consistently clear that he will not tolerate NATO countries on his border, and has issued many threats to that effect. Not only does he view NATO’s westward expansion as a provocation, he even stated that this was a factor in his decision to invade the Ukraine, saying that a Western-leaning Ukraine was a “constant threat to Russia.”
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The other major humiliation, which Putin and his apologists cite regularly, is the NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo Crisis. For over a century, Russia has had close ties to Serbia and even views itself “as the great protector of the Slavs.” As a result, they considered NATO’s military intervention in the Kosovo Crisis (and their inability to do anything about it) as a national humiliation.
These humiliations, all of which happened in the space of a few years, led to the growing unpopularity of the Yeltsin administration among Russians. Combined with the ongoing economic situation and the disaster that was the First Chechen War (1994–6), they also led to his deteriorating state and his eventual replacement by his Prime Minister (Vladimir Putin) in 1999.
Obsession with Ukraine
But the Ukraine has always been a particular thorn in the totalitarian ruler’s hip! Its decision to break away from the USSR in 1991, according to Russian sources, was viewed by Putin as a “betrayal.” The Orange Revolution (2004–5) and the Revolution of Dignity (2014) only deepened that sentiment.
The former involved a series of protests against the 2004 election. In the leadup to the election, popular candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned and nearly died. The results of the election were also rigged, as pro-Russian incumbent Viktor Yanukovych has apparently 100% of the vote in the largely Russian eastern Oblasts. After a runoff vote, Yushchenko was declared the winner and remained in office until 2005.
Unfortunately, Yanukovych found his way back into power in 2010. For four years, he enforced Putin’s agenda by keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit and crushing popular protests by Ukrainians who supported joining the EU. In 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted unanimously to remove Yanukovych for his corruption, human rights abuses, and obvious collusion.
At that point, Yanukovych appealed to Putin for help. Putin’s response was to annex the Crimea using paramilitary forces. This was followed by a referendum where the people of Crimea (as well as the occupying military forces) voted to join Russia. Putin also began sending logistical and military aid to pro-Russian groups in the eastern Oblasts to create “breakaway republics.”
In addition, Moscow began a ceaseless propaganda campaign to depict the democratically-elected Ukrainian government as a bunch of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. They also accused the U.S. and NATO of sponsoring the coup in Kiev and claimed that the new rulers were “western puppets.”
Just Look at the Maps
It has also been suggested that Russia’s plan is economic in nature (aka. “the capitalist agenda” angle) and that Putin is doing it to distract from Russia’s failing economy. As with most conspiracy theories, these notions can be dispelled by two counter-arguments. One, the invasion has been a disaster for Russia’s economy and Putin’s closest advisors did not fail to indicate as much.
Two, Russia’s invasion plans make it abundantly clear what their aim is. Below is a map based on data provided by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which is current to March. 16th. This map represents territory occupied since the Russians began invading on Feb. 22nd. As you can see, their advance has targeted territories around major cities like Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk, Luhanks, Mariupol, and Kherson.
Predictably, these largely coincide with large concentrations of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine as well. Since Russian puppet Yanukovych was ousted in 2014, Putin has been obsessed with annexing portions of the Ukraine that wherein Russians are the majority. This included seizing Crimea with paramilitary forces and backing Russian separatists in the eastern Oblasts of Luhansk and Donets.
According to Belarus’ invasion plan, their route through Odessa would expand on Russia’s gains in the south and secure another region populated largely by Russian-speaking people’s. Combined with the Crimean peninsula and eastern republics, this would effectively mean that “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) would belong to Russia again.
What a coincidence, since Putin has been saying for years that these should be in Russian hands! On April 17th, 2014, after the occupation of Crimea, Putin announced that this entire region should belong to Russia:
“[W]hat was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days — Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa — were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potyomkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The center of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.”
Clearly, the plan has not changed since 2014. With this invasion, Putin hopes to restore more of Russia’s old boundaries. This represent a bit of a break with Moscow’s policy of indirect control of border states (Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc.) that it has followed since the early 2000s. But with Ukraine breaking free and Belarus following suit, he has since resorted to direct measures!
They Already Tipped Their Hand!
In 2021, intelligence reports indicated that Putin’s military buildup along the Russian-Ukrainian border was part of a planned invasion that would be begin in January of 2022. However, Chairman Xi met with Putin and asked that he postpone any plans until after the Olympics wrapped up in late-February. Putin obliged, and the invasion began four days after the closing ceremonies.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is long-time Putin ally, much like former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych used to be. Since 1994, he has run the country through a combination of repression and rigged elections. His most important task, as far as Putin was concerned, has been to keep out the EU, NATO, and to stand behind Russia as it retakes its former SSRs.
In a video that Lukashenko inexplicably posted online, we see the puppet dictator addressing his security council and sharing the regime’s plan for an invasion. Among the highlights of this plan are:
-The direction of attacks launched by Russia
-Intervention in the breakaway state of Transnistria
-Missile attacks against Ukrainian military facilities (from Belarus)
-Invasion through Ukraine’s port of Odessa
While the sheer stupidity of posting something like this online raises questions about its authenticity, one can’t deny that the details presented make a lot of sense. For example, you have the matter of Transnistria, a breakaway state located along a narrow strip of land between the Dniester river and the Moldovan–Ukrainian border.
Similar to the Luhansk and Donetsk territories, Transnistria is controlled by pro-Russian separatists, but which broke away from Moldova in the 1990s. In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimea, it has asked to join Russia. This video lends new credence to intelligence reports that Russia has been planning a false flag operation in Transnistria (as a pretext for military intervention).
The mobilization of Belarusian troops is also consistent with intelligence reports that indicate how Belarus has been preparing for a full-scale mobilization to aid its ailing ally. By securing the Odessa region, Belarus would secure the last bit of “Novorossiya.” For someone like Lukashenko’s, this would place him in good stead with Putin, to whom he is a subordinate.
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But Why Now?
That should be obvious at this point. We know what Putin wants and how he intends to secure it! Alas, there’s still the nagging question that many people raised when sharing their theories: why now? Indeed! Why is he doing this now? Hard to say. And the sad thing is, we may never know the answer to that question. Sure, there are possibilities and everybody seems to have their favorite:
- Putin has suffered some kind of mental break, either due to COVID or Parkinson’s disease
- He’s been taking steroids and its affecting his mental state
- He’s feeling isolated and paranoid as a result of years’ worth of totalitarian behavior (i.e. he’s worried about a knife in the back).
- He’s always been weak and we didn’t notice because we bought into what his propaganda machine was churning out.
- He was concerned about growing opposition and the state of the Russian economy and needed a distraction
But if we’re going to question the timing of the invasion, might I point out a few recent events? In 2020, his most important puppet —let’s call him T**** (I refuse to mention his name anymore)— was ousted in a landslide election. Since then, he’s failed spectacularly to overturn the election results, launched a failed coup, and is now hiding at Mar-a-Logo waiting for criminal charges (which could include treason) to be filed.
The last time something like this happened was in 2014, and look how he reacted! Then, as now, Putin’s decision was to grab as much Ukrainian land and its Russian-speaking citizens as he could. While Putin can’t exactly invade the U.S. in response to Trump being ousted, he can and has invaded what he claims is a U.S. puppet regime.
Since Yanukovych was overthrown, he’s tried to paint the government in Kiev as some western-backed illegitimate state that is abusing ethnic Russians. Its obvious propaganda and delicious hypocrisy, but the point is, Putin has to act as though its the truth. Otherwise, the lie falls apart and he’s forced to admit he won’t be happy until he has a puppet-regime back in Kiev.
In recent years, his other major puppet (Belarus’ Lukashenko) has been facing growing levels of domestic opposition and there are people demanding he be overthrown in favor of an EU-leaning government — precisely what Yanukovych faced in 2014! Under those circumstances, Putin could be looking to make example out of Ukraine and Zelensky that Belarusians won’t fail to recognize.
Meanwhile, the civil war between Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists has been ongoing and the government in Kiev shows no signs of instability or collapse — if anything, its gained momentum and international respect under Zelensky. Eight years after his forces rolled in and took Crimea in defiance of the U.S., NATO, and international law, there’s been very little for Putin to claim as a personal win.
With all of that in mind, I would say it’s safe to assume that Putin’s intentions in this war included a something personal: a victory that would cement his leadership at home, intimidate potential opponents, and let all the world know that Russia should still to be feared. It makes sense in a twisted Orwellian kind of way, but that’s the kind of man Putin is.
He’s a dead-eyed sociopath who has no problem murdering people (including his own) if it serves his interests. But what matters is that his failure to do so has resulted in all manner of problems for Putin. And these problems, properly stoked, could represent a pathway to peace for all sides.
So… What Now?
The failures of his military forces have shined a blinding light on government corruption, embezzlement, and just how vulnerable its economy is. It’s also given time for foreign states to increase aid to Ukraine, slap additional sanctions on Russia, and for those sanctions to take effect.
Since the invasion began, Russia has become economically marginalized, the Rouble has plummeted in value, and the country was forced to default on its debts. They’ve lost the war online, a domain they previously dominated, and have become a pariah on the international stage. If Putin doesn’t agree to a lasting ceasefire soon, Russia is certain to experience economic collapse and become a “hermit kindgom” like North Korea.
Best of all, the war has created fissures between Putin and his main power base: Russia’s oligarchs. Not only are they upset over the sanctions that target them, the way Putin has been blaming anyone he can for all the military blunders threatens to widen those fissures into full-blown chasms. As the old saying goes, “nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure.”
For dictators like Putin, who rule through fear, success is essential to maintaining power. If you lose, your cronies will lose respect for you and start looking at you as a lame duck. Assuming Putin is showing signs of a mental breakdown, his oligarchs will also be motivated to remove him because they fear he might do something really desperate— like activate Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
This could take the form of a deploying tactical nukes against Ukraine, or arming and launching Russia’s entire nuclear stockpile. Either course of action would be suicidal for Russia — for the former, metaphorically; but literally for the latter. Ergo, if the Russian oligarchs suspect that Putin’s crazy enough to actually consider these options, they’ll definitely take him out—whether that’s in a straitjacket or with a bullet.