Putin’s brain and the Ukraine disaster: What does the Russian leader really want?

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To this point, the Russian military is losing the war in Ukraine despite overwhelming numerical superiority. Western intelligence agencies believe the Russians have suffered casualties of more than 100,000 killed or wounded and that some of the most elite and best-equipped Russian military units have been destroyed. The collective morale and will of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine — and likely of the Russian military as a whole — has been severely degraded. A significant portion of the territory that the Russians captured during their initial invasion nine or 10 months ago has since been retaken by the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian military is consistently outmaneuvering the Russian military and defeating it on the battlefield for a variety of reasons, including superior leadership and soldiering, a fully mobilized population that is dedicated to resisting the invasion and, of course, a large amount of weapons, supplies, intelligence, training and other support provided by the U.S. and other NATO countries. Recently the Ukrainian military has become so confident it has begun attacking military bases, airfields and other targets well inside Russia.

Military experts have concluded that it will take decades for the Russian military to rebuild, whatever the final outcome of the war may be. Vladimir Putin’s reputation as a fearsome strategist and powerful leader, with an unusual ability to outflank and defeat adversaries has also suffered enormous damage

How do we separate myth from reality in our understanding of Vladimir Putin and the results of this conflict so far? To what extent is the war in Ukraine an extension of Putin’s raw force of will, unquenched ambitions, ego and misguided dreams of recreating the lost Russian Empire — and how difficult does that make it to end this war and bring peace to the region?

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Was Putin’s previous image purely a concoction of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine? Has that false image led America and the world to miscalculate in its strategic and tactical approach to Russia on the global stage?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Andrew Weiss, who is James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia. Prior to joining Carnegie, Weiss was director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Russia and Eurasia and executive director of the RAND Business Leaders Forum.

Weiss has also served in a range of public policy roles at the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon during both Republican and Democratic administrations. His new book (with art by Brian “Box” Brown) is “Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin.”

In this wide-ranging conversation, Weiss reflects on the successes of the Biden administration in supporting Ukraine, maintaining stability in Europe and countering Russia’s aggression. He counsels against overreacting to Putin’s threats of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which he sees as an example of bullying behavior and bluster intended to test the resolve of the U.S. and NATO.

Weiss warns toward the end of this conversation that Putin’s long-term plan — and one of the few ways he could still “win” the war in Ukraine — is to support Donald Trump and other Republican extremists in the United States, in the hope that if Trump or another Trump-like conservative returns to power in 2025, American foreign policy will once again favor Putin and Russia’s interests.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the war in Ukraine and the general state of America and the world, how are you feeling?

The past year has been quite an emotional rollercoaster. The war in Ukraine has been a truly wrenching and horrible thing to witness. Of course, my personal situation and feelings are not remotely as bad as what’s happened to people who actually live in Ukraine or who have family over there.

What is it like to have a job where you are most busy under conditions of dangerous conflict?

I am fortunate to work at a truly outstanding think tank in Washington, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I work alongside a team of American and Russian colleagues who are the best analysts of that region anywhere in the world, outside perhaps government circles. I’ve been working on Russia for the better part of my entire career, 30 years or so. Having a job where I can apply my expertise and help policy audiences and the public understand issues like the war in Ukraine is a unique opportunity. I also realize that it’s a privileged position: I don’t envy anyone who is working on these issues on the frontlines inside Ukraine or at places where I used to serve, like the Pentagon. There are no easy solutions or magic bullets for the issues they’re grappling with.

One thing that motivates me is how best to communicate what I know to audiences that are heavily dependent on mainstream news sources and “conventional” wisdom about the war in Ukraine. All of us are being inundated with information in near real time, but much of it is incomplete or misleading. When I have a chance to write op-eds and longer research projects, or to provide comment to a reporter who’s working on Ukraine, I’m conscious of the fact that my views may not be much better, or all that different, from what a dozen other people in my field might say.

All of us are desperate for good news and broadly sympathetic to Ukraine. Images of people celebrating in Kherson are infectious, but they may not tell us much about what’s going to happen next.

I also recognize that it can be very hard, in that format, to capture the nuances of Russia’s complex history or the bigger picture of why the war in Ukraine broke out in the first place. That is precisely why I wrote a graphic novel on Vladimir Putin. How did we end up in a horrible head-on collision with Russia? Who is the real Vladimir Putin? Is he different from the person he presents himself to be on the world stage?

At the core, I am an old-fashioned Russia analyst. I read and speak Russian. I read tons of material and try to determine if there is anything substantive there. Increasingly, the open source data that we all have access to is poor or unreliable. As a result, many Western observers often project their own views onto events in Russia. I do my best not to fall into that trap, but I am far from infallible in that department.

What are some common misunderstandings or misperceptions about what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine, even among members of the public who consider themselves well-informed?

One recent notable example would be the consequences of the very impressive victory by the Ukrainians in recapturing the southern city of Kherson. The Russians had conquered it early in the war. The Ukrainians were then able to take back Kherson, and it did not turn out to be the bloody house-to-house urban battle many of us had feared.

But I trust what Gen. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in the wake of Kherson. When asked to assess the current state of the war, he said that Ukraine will not be able to achieve its stated military objectives and win the war anytime soon.

All of us, obviously, are desperate for good news and broadly sympathetic to what Ukraine is trying to do on the battlefield. Images of people celebrating the victory in downtown Kherson or elsewhere are infectious. Unfortunately, those images may not tell us all that much about what’s going to happen next.

For people of a certain age and generation the idea of a land war in Europe and these discussions of nuclear weapons summon up fears and memories of the Cold War and those moments where it almost turned “hot.” How does that color our understanding and analyses of the events in Ukraine?

The incident with the missile that landed in Poland is quite revealing in this regard. The stakes of the war expanding outside of Ukraine’s borders are self-evident. When that incident occurred, it wasn’t immediately clear what had actually happened. Was it a Russian missile that had hit a small Polish town and killed a couple of people? Was Putin testing NATO’s resolve? Was it a horrible accident? It was remarkable to see how quickly people began to jump to conclusions. There were even voices on cable news demanding immediate U.S. military action before all the facts were known.

In this case, the Biden administration did precisely the right thing: They let their military and intelligence experts gather the facts about what really happened, and then acted to make sure our allies were lined up alongside us.

All the hysterical talk after the missile strike in Poland was a reflection of how we haven’t had to think about all-out nuclear war for a long time. All this breathless news commentary can be counterproductive.

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, President Biden made clear that he did not want, in his phrasing, to start World War III as a result of what was happening in Ukraine, nor did he want to see any widening of the conflict. He insisted that the war should be confined within the boundaries of Ukraine and it not be allowed to escalate to a U.S.-Russia nuclear conflict.

All of the hysterical talk right after the incident in Poland really was another reflection of how we haven’t really had to think about all-out nuclear war for a long time. On social media and our 24/7 news culture, not enough people were looking at these fast-moving events with enough sobriety and sufficient caution. It’s simply a fact that the war in Ukraine is nowhere close to ending and that all of this breathless news commentary can be counterproductive.

There is a narrative that the world is actually much safer, in terms of the number of wars and conflicts, than it has been for a long time. Your thoughts?

I think there’s no question that the world is going through a really convulsive and dangerous phase. The Ukraine war shows us that the world is vulnerable to opportunists and other dangerous people such as Vladimir Putin. He believed that he could attack Ukraine without much pushback. That was a huge miscalculation. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are other very powerful structural forces at work in the world today. The war in Ukraine is a microcosm of some of those drivers, but it is not the be-all and end-all. For example, the world has shifted to a place where the U.S. is no longer an unchallenged dominant force. This is what the Russians like to call a multipolar world, where powers like China, Russia, India and other countries have started to take on more and more authority. It basically means that the U.S. just can’t dictate to everyone else what to do.

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There is also a broken Middle East, which is spewing out all sorts of instability and challenges. We are experiencing a massive environmental and economic transformation of the energy economy, of which Russia was a prime beneficiary for many years. Nationalism and populism are also ascendant in various parts of the world. There are huge shifts in the ways that technology impacts our lives. All of this is happening on top of a breakdown of order and peace and tranquility in delicate regions of the world like Ukraine.

America and the world are facing challenges that are both immediate — such as the war in Ukraine — and long-term, such as the global climate disaster. How should policymakers balance those priorities and agendas?

It is really hard. My heart goes out to anybody who’s trying to do this type of work at the most senior levels of any government right now. Back in 2021, the Biden administration was eager to try to short-circuit any sense that we were in a spiraling crisis with Russia. That would have allowed the Biden administration to focus on the other challenges you highlighted. The goal was to avoid a situation where Russia found itself in a test of wills with the United States.

But then Afghanistan happened. The world saw a U.S.-supported government crumble when it faced a real threat to its control over the country. Putin took that outcome and incorrectly applied it to Ukraine. Putin also misread how the Europeans would respond to his war against Ukraine. Most importantly, the Russian military has committed horrible crimes and atrocities. By engaging in naked aggression and criminality, Russia’s basically blew up the sense of restraint that the U.S. and other countries had exercised up to that point. It basically propelled us into the world we’re in today, where the U.S. has provided $20 billion in military aid to Ukraine. This is not going to be over anytime soon. The stakes will only grow higher the longer this goes on.

Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult for the United States not to get sucked into this crisis directly and to preserve its ability to effectively manage all the other global challenges we are facing.

Most wars are the result of a failure in signaling between leaders and governments. War is often the result of a series of breakdowns in communication and intent. In terms of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what signals were being sent and what signals were misunderstood?

The war in Ukraine is not new. It actually started eight years ago. Putin can be very cunning and nimble, but sometimes he overreaches and tries to seize opportunities that blow up in his face. Much of what we are seeing with the war in Ukraine began in 2014, when the biggest thing on Putin’s agenda was having a flashy show at the Olympics to show off all the great things Russia has accomplished. He wanted more respect from the world and then, out of nowhere, a popular uprising began on the streets of Kyiv and upstaged everything.

The Russian leadership truly believes that such events happen only because there are U.S. intelligence operatives who go out and instigate uprisings and protests, and not because average people might want to get rid of an authoritarian leader. As a result, Putin annexed Crimea and started a covert war in Donbas, with the thinnest of deniability that it wasn’t a Russian-orchestrated war. Throughout this whole crisis, the Russians keyed in on Barack Obama’s statements about Ukraine as a good example of a situation where we have to be crystal-clear about where our vital interests are, and where we are and aren’t willing to go to war.

The lesson the Russians took away from that posture was, “OK, if we act really crazy, and do really crazy, dangerous stuff, the United States is going to back off because no one wants to tangle with a nuclear power.” With the war in Ukraine, Putin and Russia unleashed a series of events and outcomes that they thought they would never have to confront. Likewise, I am of the opinion that the U.S. and its allies probably did not think that the Ukrainians would be as successful as they have been so far in pushing the Russians back.

How alarmed should we be at Russia’s repeated statements about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, or other “special weapons” if they deem it necessary to “defend” their territory? Is this just saber-rattling, or a real threat?

What makes it tricky these days is that the Russians deliberately create dangerous situations. They believe that other countries do not want to tangle with them, and they try to exploit that as a tool of intimidation.

Russia is acting like a big drunk guy in a bar who is causing trouble for the other patrons. That person keeps coming closer and closer to you to see what you will do. The challenge is knowing when it’s appropriate to show resolve and to enforce what you believe are vital interests. We saw this during the conflict in Syria, where the Russians were doing similarly dangerous things on purpose and trying to push American forces out of the areas they wanted to control. That culminated in 2018 when a Russian-backed force of “mercenaries” attacked a U.S. Special Forces base in Syria. The U.S. military ended up killing several hundred Russians. The United States warned the Russian government what would happen if they didn’t back off, but they failed to listen to our warnings.

Now we’re in a world where the Russians have made a similar miscalculation. They did not believe that the war would last more than a few weeks or that the U.S. would aid Ukraine to the extent we have been doing. We should not assume that the Russians are always good at reading America’s intentions correctly. Any communication with the Russian government must be very disciplined and carefully managed.

The people of Ukraine are fighting for their very existence in the face of a quasi-genocidal onslaught. The Russians are great at using nuclear threats to unsettle the U.S. and its allies. When Ukraine shifted the momentum in the war through its successful counter-offensive in the autumn, these Russian threats served as an intentional distraction and cause for worry.

Now things are a bit different. Russia is mainly trying to buy time to regroup. The Russians are trying to wait us out and make Ukraine totally unlivable in the meantime by bombing sites like civilian power plants. If there is no heat or electricity, they’re hoping that average people will flee the country and alienate Ukraine’s key European partners. The ultimate bet for Russia is that Donald Trump or someone like him returns to the White House in 2025. They want someone like Trump who will shift U.S. policy onto a trajectory that de-emphasizes support for Ukraine in its moment of need.

The Russians are trying to wait us out and make Ukraine totally unlivable. The ultimate bet for Russia is that Donald Trump or someone like him returns to the White House in 2025.

In the meantime, the Russians will keep doing things, through trial and error, to disrupt our economy and critical infrastructure. While this is happening, Russia’s conventional military is being destroyed on the battlefield. Russia is going to have a very difficult time trying to regenerate those forces. In the end, this means that Russia will become even more dependent on its nuclear forces during the long period it will require to rebuild the conventional military.

How do we separate fact from the fiction about Vladimir Putin? He is an almost legendary figure in American and Western popular culture as some type of super-spy and KGB killer who is always playing 3-D chess and outthinking his opponents. The war in Ukraine has certainly complicated that narrative.

My new book opens with a scene where Putin has already been serving in the KGB for 10 years. For his whole life, Putin has wanted to serve in the KGB. After 10 years in a series of low-end jobs, like the HR department and the counterintelligence department, he was still far from where the action was. At some point in the mid-1980s, Putin was finally invited to join a training program to go to an overseas assignment. Putin went home to Leningrad, but he got into a fight on the subway and broke his arm. In the scene he tells his buddy that there are going to be consequences for what has just happened. Instead of staying in that training program for a couple more years, he was asked to leave after one year.

That seems to explain why Putin ended up being sent to Dresden in East Germany, which was not what anyone would have called a prestigious assignment. That episode is a revealing indication of who Vladimir Putin is. Instead of fixating on the familiar iconography of Putin without his shirt on or carrying guns and looking like an action hero, we need to remember that beneath all that artifice he’s a real hothead.

Much of Putin’s original image was artificially created by the Kremlin because they wanted to draw a contrast to Boris Yeltsin, the previous Russian leader, who was frequently incapacitated because of his alcohol abuse. The Kremlin wanted to show the Russian people that they had a young, intelligent, competent, former intelligence officer who was going to make Russia much stronger than Yeltsin did. But now all of that Kremlin image manipulation and propaganda has boomeranged back on to the U.S. and the West, and not everyone is in on the joke. That is dangerous. We have misread Russia and Putin, turning them into a force that is far more powerful than is actually the case, as we see nearly every day in Ukraine.

Was the war in Ukraine the result of Putin’s will, or were other structural and institutional factors at work?

Part of what’s going wrong in this stage of Putin’s tenure is that there aren’t any counterweights to his impulses and whims nowadays. Putin went into self-isolation because of COVID. He retreated into a very small inner circle and spent lots of time reading distorted histories about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Putin convinced himself that Ukraine had to be conquered to cement his legacy. There are not many people left in Russian leadership circles who can confront Putin and talk to him straight. No one was around who could tell the boss that invading Ukraine was a really bad idea. The world is suffering because of that lack of counterbalances.

The global right, and in particular the neofascist white right, admire Putin and what they see as his vision for a reborn Holy Roman Empire as a champion of “white Christendom.” What is Putin’s actual vision and intent?

Why is Putin viewed so positively and admiringly by the Trumpists and the MAGA wing of the Republican Party? Part of that is rooted in Putin’s image as someone who embraces “family values” and moral conservatism. That image is largely artificial. In 2011 and 2012 there were a series of street demonstrations in Moscow and other major cities after Putin flamboyantly announced that he was trading places with his friend Dmitry Medvedev and would be Russia’s next president. The Kremlin’s response to the public uproar was to claim that the demonstrations were secretly organized by Hillary Clinton. They were trying to tell their core electorate that these demonstrations are being led by people who are not like you, the “average Russian.”

What happened with the group Pussy Riot around this time is particularly illustrative. The Kremlin claimed that Pussy Riot were outsiders and enemies who would defile the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Moscow and promote LGBTQ equality. They will try to teach your children gay lifestyles, they are American agents, they are henchmen of George Soros.

Putin is viewed so positively by the MAGA wing of the Republican Party because of his image as someone who embraces “family values.” That image is largely artificial, part of a propaganda and influence operation.

During that same time period, people in the Christian right in America and the tea party movement were also being cultivated by Putin and his operatives. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, traveled to Moscow and started saying that Putin was a “real Christian” who was “protecting the family,” unlike Barack Obama. Fox News mainstays like Sheriff David Clarke, a tea party activist, and others in that orbit were flown over to Moscow. NRA representatives were flown to Moscow. This was all part of a propaganda and influence operation where the Russians were able to present Putin as a great leader who would protect “family values” and a “traditional way of life.” These connections, of course, blossomed even more under Donald Trump.

What is Putin’s own internal narrative? How does he imagine himself and his mission?

First and foremost, there is always the need to preserve his regime and power intact, in its current configuration. The second thing is that Putin is fixated on his belief that the U.S. has hurt and embarrassed Russia. Putin wants to knock the U.S. back down to size and get revenge. Finally, Putin believes that the world just shouldn’t be led by the United States anymore, that Russia and China should have much more influence in the world. This shows us how shortsighted Putin’s behavior has been, because the war in Ukraine has actually backfired in that regard. More countries in Russia’s neighborhood now feel totally unsafe and are going to look to the United States for leadership and protection. If Putin were really so smart and such a great strategist, he would not have launched a war against Ukraine. It has set his agenda back by decades.

If you had a private conversation with Vladimir Putin, what would you ask him?

I spent some time with Putin at an earlier stage of his career when I was at the White House, and it made me very skeptical that you can really level with him, or that he will ever level with you. Vladimir Putin has been in power for more than two decades. He generally runs circles around most of his foreign counterparts. Joe Biden is an interesting exception to that, given that he has been in public life for much longer than Putin. Still, Putin is formidable and clearly knows how to conduct himself at a high-level meeting. He’s always well prepared and he gives nothing away. He’s no slouch.

The problem, of course, is that Putin is a product of the Soviet KGB, and you can’t necessarily put much stock in what he says publicly or privately. Trust between Western and Russian leaders has evaporated since the war in Ukraine started in 2014. Throughout this period, Putin has refused to acknowledge basic facts. It’s hard to conduct a dialogue with someone like that, who doesn’t live in the same universe or accept basic principles.

A senior diplomat once explained to me why it’s so maddening to deal with Putin. He said that there are three sections to Putin’s brain. The first section consists of all the garbage that’s poured into him by the Russian intelligence services that are the KGB’s successors, as well as the career bureaucracy. It’s laden with conspiracies, it’s just hall-of-mirrors nonsense. The second hemisphere of his brain consists of all of the things that he has personally been involved with during his 20 or more years in power — making deals and dealing with international issues — as well as all the grievances and anger that have been built up along that journey.

The last part of Putin’s brain is the real world, which consists of what anybody who reads a good newspaper and follows world events would know about. The maddening aspect of dealing with Putin is that he’s constantly toggling between these three hemispheres every time you’re talking to him. You’re just never sure which one he’s in when he’s talking to you.

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