Prediction: Putin’s Objective Is to Embarrass the U.S.


There has been much concern over what Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be trying to accomplish, with his recent activity in and around Ukraine. The suggestion advanced here is that, as virtually every European and American hopes, Putin’s objective is not to follow in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, with relatively small maneuvers leading up to a massive war.

Putin has been attentive to his popularity among Russians. A major war would be unpopular unless it were easy and quick, which it would not be. Putin has burnished his image with a variety of publicity stunts. His actions regarding Ukraine may be a continuation of that tendency. Compared to war among major nations, the Crimea land grab and the continuing policy of fomenting instability within Ukraine have been relatively simple and low-cost.

Those maneuvers have enhanced Russia’s image, and self-image, as an important player on the world stage. The point seems to be that economic criteria are not sufficient to distinguish world powers from secondary nations; one must also consider the military. As with occasional American operations, the ability to achieve a tidy solution — with the use of stealth, coordination, and force, as in Crimea — tends to generate respect.

It could be that Putin did not consider steps the U.S. might take in response to his Ukraine adventures. It is more likely that he weighed at least some such steps and found them unconvincing. In effect, the U.S. has been shown unable to prevent him from doing what he wants to do in places like Ukraine.

The situation is similar elsewhere. For instance, by making the Baltic nations (i.e., Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) NATO members, the U.S. obligated itself to come to their defense in the event of attack. It was easier to make such a promise in 2004, before the U.S. had exhausted itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no chance that the U.S. would make the investment necessary to defeat Russian troops invading a Baltic nation today. By merely raising the question, Putin has put a spotlight on the awkward gap between American promises and capabilities.

In this reading, Putin may actually hope that the U.S. takes steps that will further highlight its own weakness. Obama’s recent gesture of sending small numbers of U.S. troops to the Baltics conveys such a message: it emphasizes that, in a pinch, the U.S. will be sending hundreds, not tens of thousands, of troops to northeastern Europe.

It may just be a matter of time before Putin uses the very presence of those several hundred additional troops to provide another illustration of American impotence. It may be feasible, for instance, to manufacture a crisis in which those newly arrived American troops will be made to appear ineffective and embarrassing.

Reminders of a newly assertive Russia — such as, for instance, the recent incursions by Russian military aircraft near land and vessels of the U.S. and other nations — do not seem consistent with a Hitlerian campaign to lull targets into complacency. Putin does not appear to be planning a major war. Nor need he. For some time, there will likely continue to be a variety of ways in which he can demonstrate Russian strength as a retort to American overreach.

Without denying the cost of sanctions, an image of power tends to beget forms of actual power that may ultimately pay for themselves. In a highly war-averse context, Putin may be able to help himself to a good assortment of low-hanging fruit, without necessarily coming up the worse for it. If that is all he wants, he may continue to engage in relatively pesky moves. A more frightening alternative is that he is probing in earnest, but attempting to avoid triggering serious defenses. In that case, his current activities may give way to a period of seeming calm before invasion.


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