As horrific and needless violence unfolds in Ukraine, my friends, family, colleagues, and media from around the world have all been asking the same questions: What’s eating Putin? What has driven him to start the largest war in Europe since World War II? What is driving him to threaten World War III, including the use of nuclear weapons?
My answer has been: It’s complicated. No single answer fully accounts for the display we are seeing of Vladimir Putin’s anger and grievance. Many Russian experts who know Putin well have been commenting on his mindset, but I want to lay out how I think about the picture. As I see it, at least eight different factors account for Putin’s erratic and dangerous behavior:
Genuine nostalgia. Putin has done a lot to stir up nostalgia for Russia’s imperial past and the nationalist trappings that go with it—Russian Orthodoxy, protection of Russian-language speakers, and conservative interpretations of Russian national identity. His 6,000-word treatise last summer on Moscow’s undying links to “Staraya Rus’”—now inconveniently located in independent Ukraine—is his clearest articulation of this nostalgia. He conveys the notion that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, ignoring opinion to the contrary.
Righting past wrongs. Putin has famously said that the demise of the Soviet Union is the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He holds in contempt Gorbachev and Yeltsin, two Russian leaders who let the Soviet republics go to seek whatever measure of independence and sovereignty they could achieve. The Crimean invasion in 2014 was one of his earliest efforts to right past wrongs. In 1997, a treaty between Russia and Ukraine established that the borders of Ukraine would be those of the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, which included Crimea. Putin reportedly argued fiercely against this outcome at the time, and so his 2014 invasion of Crimea can be seen as his first step in righting past wrongs.
A different reality. Putin is surrounded by a fortress-like inner circle that has long jealously guarded what information gets to the boss. Its members are allergic to wider viewpoints breaching the wall and Putin likes it that way. He no doubt genuinely believes at this point that NATO promised not to expand to the east, although his intimate experience with NATO should lead him to know otherwise. In 2002, Putin signed the Rome Declaration, which led to over a decade of pragmatic cooperation benefitting both NATO and Russia. By that time, NATO was already through its first waves of expansion to former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic States. This history seems to have been wiped from Putin’s memory.
Scorn for Ukraine’s leadership and system. Ukraine has evolved into a messy but vibrant democracy that Putin cannot understand. Its leader is a comic, its electoral system uncontrollable, its government, including security services, reforming in directions inexplicable to him—except they are taking Ukraine farther and farther from Russia’s orbit. The Ukrainians do not jump any more when Putin says so.
The global bully. In 2007, Putin brought his black Lab Koni into a meeting with Angela Merkel, because he knew she was deathly afraid of dogs. She was indeed frightened, visibly so, and he thus solidified his reputation as a bully. As Merkel commented at the time, “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man…He’s afraid of his own weakness.” That sounds like the classic definition of a bully. Now he’s playing the global bully, frightening the world with the Russian army and fierce threats of war. It is what he knows how to do best, and it pays off for him.
“Look at Me.” China has been astride the world stage, throwing its wealth around, building up its military, broadcasting that it owns the 21st century. This behavior has alarmed the 20th century superpower, the United States, which has duly pivoted to Asia. Prior to the current crisis, President Biden and his administration barely mentioned the word “Russia” in their talk about their foreign policy priorities. Putin does not like disappearing from sight and so has done what he can do—brandish his military might, insisting that the world “look at me.”
Domestic bargaining. Putin is 70 years old this year. He has reached the late stage of autocracy, when he constantly has to balance and bargain among powerbrokers who need him to sustain their own power but are jockeying already to succeed him. He also has a public steadily less trustful of his government. He has to keep everybody off balance, and claiming an existential external threat is a time-honored way to do so.
Real frustration. When Putin was first briefed on the nature of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), he reportedly got angry that the limitations in the treaty meant that he could not move his own forces around on Russian territory. The “flank limits” were designed to keep Russia from concentrating its forces close to the borders of NATO countries, against Norway or Turkey, for example. These NATO countries were also prevented from concentrating forces against Russia, but that did not stop Putin’s anger, which led Russia to declare in 2007 that it would no longer abide by CFE. In the current crisis, he has frequently said that he must have the right to move his own forces around on Russian territory.
What’s eating Putin is therefore a dangerous brew: part personal grievance, part bullying behavior, part scorn for his adversaries, and part dictates for staying on top in the Russian system. Given his grave isolation, a part may also be his sense of genuine threat. Trying to back him off this precipice will take a good deal of finesse. No foreign counterpart has found the means thus far to tempt him off the cliff, although many have tried. President Macron of France is still trying. Perhaps now that China has taken an interest in facilitating diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia, President Xi Jinping will be the hero of the tale. That would be interesting.
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