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Sat. September 23, 2023
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What does Putin Want, and How To Handle Him?
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By Jack Pearce

One often hears questions about what Vladimir Putin wants in the Ukraine and why is he being so difficult.  This is not a hard problem. Look at the history of Russia. Does one not see centuries of remarkably successful territorial expansion, resilience to setbacks, and a country often under highly autocratic rule? Putin says the recent setback, a temporary bankruptcy, was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Note the he is only referencing one country (Russia) and that this geopolitical catastrophe is related to his rebuilding program in the 21st century

What would you, just off the top, think this organizational descendant of Russian Tsars wants? Expansion of influence and organizational control, with a highly centralized organizational apparatus milking the lot. That is the pattern of the past centuries, notwithstanding the recent regrettable temporary bankruptcy. And the recent drop in oil prices is not, of itself, a sufficiently large or long lasting setback to alter long run plans for the country.

The situation of Ukraine moving toward the West is a considerable setback to Russia. Putin does not want to lose. He wants to hang on to any industrial fabric, territory, and  population he can, so that he can keep on slugging and slogging along. He will try to destabilize and fragment rivals or alternative organizations, and keep sympathetic populations involved with Russia by whatever means necessary.  However, there are limits to what he can do. He does not want to lose his population and civilization in a nuclear war. Short of nuclear war, the limits are not military at the geographic margins of the Russian empire but, more proximately, they are economic. Given whatever limits Putin feels, would we not expect continuous brinkmanship in playing for time and incremental nibbles on the margins? Russia has done that for a very long time.

 So what should the US and Europe do?  Playing the economic inclusion/exclusion apparatus seems a wise choice. Keeping the door open to as much of Ukraine as possible to us seems a sound long-term strategy. The goal is to keep on winning the economic competition and to make Putin's force-backed expansion game costly, while trying to keep de facto economic integration of Russia into the global geopolitical fabric going if possible.

In the long game, the Russia has plenty of land and some severe limitations

  • Its population is unhealthy.
  • Its population and economic masses are small relative to Europe and the USA.
  • Its centralized, corrupt political and economic system is not as dynamic and productive as the West's has been.
  • It depends on Western markets for goods, services, capital, and customers.
  • And in the long run, Siberia is vulnerable to China.

Russia has been losing in the global geopolitical and geo-economic competition for over half a century. It has not been able to recruit and entrain in its system as much economic activity and as many people as the Western European/North American system.

We think Russia has been losing because its political and economic system is not as productive as the current version of liberal, democratic capitalism.

But Russia does not seem to think it has lost the geopolitical game. Evenif it did think so, old organizational and cultural inertias are powerful and persistent.

For over half a century, Russia has been a competitor and a rather surly neighbor. In the longer term, its neighbors in the West have abused it from time to time. Russia remembers Napoleon and Hitler, invasions which were about a century and a half apart. Russians might ask themselves whether another such invasion could arise in this century. Uncivilized behavior has not been lacking on either side of this relationship. Therefore, Russian proactive 'defense' instincts are not without some historical foundation.

So do we have a choice other than to keep the geopolitical and economic waltz with Russia going? Not a good one that I can see at the moment. We want to keep the doors open for win-win relationships, while not letting a certain shaggy animal steal food off the shared table.

Should we expect Putin to stop playing the Tsar game in his lifetime? I don’t see such a shift.  Will Russia, as a culture and civilization, learn better to play by win-win geopolitical rules? It probably is not really inclined to do so. But Russia currently seems to lack the heft and appeal to overtake or overthrow the system it so resents. If that is so, and if the West stays cohesive and operates its economies and citizen enfranchisement systems better than the Russian model, Russia will be continue to be under pressure to shape codependent relationships with its larger sparring partners.

So, as to basic posture, stay strong, stay united, avoid overly threatening actions towards Russia, and at the same time don’t let the Bear snatch anything for free.

This is all necessary, though not necessarily easy. Russia is a good reminder, if we needed it, that Europe needs to maintain a unified, stable geopolitical structure. If Europe falls apart, or substantially weakens, the acquisitive neighbor to the east may have the wherewithal to reclaim field position.

But is it all we can hope for in the long term? No. Faced with Putin-Tsarism, the Euro-American civilization needs to continue to project a vision of peaceful co-prosperity. Russia has much to offer to the world, if Russia can get over trying to dominate it, and can get over feeling victimized when it fails to do so. The world has much to offer Russia as well, if Russia will come to terms with peaceful economic coopetition.

So we should, even as we guard our borders, consciously, publicly, privately, and diplomatically continue to project a vision of mutual security, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial capital, trade, and intellectual exchange.  

Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.


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