Mr. Putin and the Art of the Offensive Defense: Approaches to Foreign Policy (Part Two)

Editor’s Note: In part two of her series on Vladimir Putin’s thinking, Fiona Hill examines the Russian leader’s beliefs about foreign policy and the threats that face Russia. Also read Part 1 on the building blocks of Putin’s thought and Part 3 on Putin’s messaging.

Putin sees the main external threats to Russia coming from three dimensions. First, and most obvious, the threat to Russia’s territorial integrity based on its long history of wars and invasions.  Second, the threat to Russia’s political sovereignty. In this case, Russia must be fully in command of its own destiny. Only Russians can be trusted to make decisions in Russia’s interests as foreigners will never have Russia’s interests as a priority. Third, the threat to Russia’s “national identity.” This dimension is vague, almost mystical, but it is an equally essential and vital element as the first two.

The threats to Russia’s “national identity,” as Putin and those around him see them, are more subtle.

Putin understands Russia’s national identity as its unique history, culture, language, and values. Any attempt to impose non-Russian values on Russia is a threat. Especially suspect are “universal values,” as argued by the West in general and the United States in particular. They are by definition, anti-Russian.  In the world, as Putin sees it, there are only a handful of truly politically sovereign states. Even fewer states have a true national identity. Russia is more than just a “nation,” “a people,”  “a state,” it is also a separate “civilization.” 

All this means that, for Putin, there is very little margin for negotiations, for domestic or foreign policy “deals,” or for taking an “off ramp,” if Russia’s survival is perceived to be threatened in some way.  Putin will not make sacrifices or compromises unless there is some ironclad guarantee that the benefits will far outweigh, and mitigate any negative consequences for Russia.

In foreign policy, Mr. Putin no longer sees the West as a model worth emulating. In his view the United States is politically gridlocked, mired in debt and overextended in foreign entanglements. The situation in Europe is no better.  Russia, Putin has concluded, needs to go it alone—now more than ever. Russia must emphasize its own model.  This further complicates efforts to deal with Russia on the diplomatic front in Ukraine, all the more so because, since the 2000s, President Putin has personally taken charge of Russian foreign policy.  Vladimir Putin has repeatedly asserted, and seems to believe, that he is the only person capable of effectively countering the threats to Russia. This reinforces Putin’s conviction that he has to maintain his grip on power to counter all the threats Russia faces.

Putin tends to act on the global scene as he does at home.  He scales his approach to domestic politics up to the international arena. As a former KGB case officer, international relations for Putin are mainly about people––or (in the old KGB parlance) “working with people.” In other words, this is all about recruitment, using all the intelligence officer’s tools to profile individuals, seek out vulnerabilities, exploit them and turn a target into an asset, an agent. This translates into a very top heavy focus in Russian foreign policy. Putin and the Kremlin, not the Russian Foreign Ministry and other parts of the Russian state bureaucracy, deal directly with the leaders of other countries, or indirectly through trusted intermediaries and informal back channels. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is more of a trusted (and extremely skilled) intermediary than a foreign minister. Putin stands behind Lavrov, not the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Putin resorts to methods he learned in the KGB for handling people at home and abroad to turn them into assets that will further his goals. These methods range from soft persuasion to naked intimidation and force. Since 2012, Putin has focused on dealing with the Russian opposition—co-opting some, and intimidating others by using the Russian legal and penal systems as a blunt instrument of repression. Abroad, Putin has used similar methods to mitigate the blow-back to Russia from a series of external shocks, including in the Middle East with the Arab Spring and its aftermath, in the global economy from the Eurozone crisis, and now in Ukraine.

Ukraine and the Eurasian Union:

The current crisis in Ukraine was triggered by Putin’s attempts to bolster the Russian economy in response to a significant slow-down in GDP growth. When he first came into power, Putin was fixated on cementing Russia’s status and its global standing on the basis of GDP growth and superior economic performance. In the 2000s, largely thanks to high and rising oil prices, Putin not only paid off the Russian state’s debts, but he also presided over a period of economic growth that put Russia on track to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. GDP growth replaced military might as Russia’s most important indicator of success. Russia’s growth boosted jobs and incomes and contributed to a decade of domestic stability.

In 2012, as Putin came back into the presidency, the future looked less rosy. Absent another sustained rise in oil prices, Russia’s annual GDP growth seemed unlikely to surpass 1-2%. Slow growth could endanger domestic stability if jobs were lost in Russia’s critical manufacturing sectors—which are poorly positioned to compete in the global marketplace. To deal with the threat of slow growth to the Russian state and political system, Putin turned to his survivalist instincts. He and his top financial and economic ministers and experts consistently lowered expectations about the future performance of the Russian economy. They jettisoned the rhetoric about Russian GDP growth. Putin asserted that economic success would now be gauged by making sure that the Russian economy was robust enough to withstand future economic shocks. He emphasized a policy of economic retrenchment––hunkering down and protecting the economy, ensuring fiscal stability, avoiding more ruinous state debt, building up financial reserves wherever possible, and holding onto existing Russian jobs and markets for Russian goods. 

Putin’s essentially defensive policies were suddenly upended, in his view, by the European Union (EU) pushing to conclude Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia at the end of 2013. This was something of an unexpected development for Putin and Russia. Up until 2013, Moscow had been focused on its own economic “modernization partnership” with the EU and negotiations to expand trade and investment, as well as secure visa free travel for Russians with official or service passports. Russia had not been paying a great deal of attention to the fine print or implications of the EU Association Agreements, which the other four states on its borders had been working on with Brussels. These agreements, however, included Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements that went far beyond the scope of what Russia was negotiating with the EU. The Association Agreements, once signed, would put Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia on a path toward the adoption and implementation of critical provisions of the European Union’s “Acquis”––the body of legislation, regulations, norms  and obligations assumed by full member states of the EU.

The agreements threatened to close those states––with their collective populations of 62 million consumers––off from the Russian economy, or at the very least to increase the competition for Russian goods. Over the longer-term, as in the case of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (which were part of the Russian and then Soviet empires for 200 years), close association with the EU would reform and reorient the “post-Soviet” economic and governance structures of the four states in fundamental ways.  Russia would no longer be able to assert itself as their major economic and political partner.

At the same time that Moscow had been negotiating its own trade deals with the EU, Putin had been promoting the creation of a separate Russia-led trading bloc, the “Eurasian Union.” This would expand an existing Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan to pull in other former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia. Putin wanted to use the Eurasian Union as a platform to re-establish the trade, transportation and other economic linkages that had been ruptured by the collapse of the USSR, to retain regional markets for Russian products, and help guarantee Russian jobs. He proposed that Russia lead the current and future members of the Eurasia Union in further trade negotiations with the EU. Getting back to the theme of threats to Russia’s “national identity,” Putin also came to see the Eurasian Union as a means of keeping the region around Russia as a buffer against the advance of political ideas and cultural values coming in from Europe and the West. There would be close trade relations between the Eurasian Union and the EU, but the Eurasian Union would steer clear of Europe’s political norms.

Over the course of 2013, the EU made it clear to the four states and also to Russia that the Association Agreements were incompatible with the Eurasian Union. This would have to be an either or proposition. For Vladimir Putin, steeped in the zero–sum calculations of the past, this was unacceptable. Given the imperative to protect Russia’s economy, he wanted to make sure that Russia, and Russia’s interests were going to be factored into to any agreements. 

At the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” summit in Vilnius at the end of November 2013, the EU initialed Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Georgia and Moldova. Russia exerted considerable pressure on all of the countries to forego their agreements with the EU and join the Eurasian Union. Armenia capitulated a couple of weeks before the EU summit and agreed to join the Eurasian Union.  With days to go before the Vilnius meeting, Ukraine’s leadership requested that the final signature on its agreement be postponed, citing Russian threats as the precipitating factor along with the perilous state of the Ukrainian economy. Shortly after the Vilnius summit, in December 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accepted what amounted to an economic bailout from Russia, mostly in the form of quarterly purchases of Ukrainian bonds, and a lower gas price. The protests, violence and chaos in Kyiv that led to Yanukovych’s ouster at the end of February 2014, began in direct response to these actions.

Although the current crisis in Ukraine has deep domestic roots in internal Ukrainian political dynamics— including regional fissures, poor governance, and the personal financial preoccupations of President Yanukovych and his inner circle—the situation has been exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s fixation on countering threats to Russia. Of all the countries in negotiations with the EU, Putin viewed Ukraine’s decision to reach an Association Agreement with the EU as the greatest threat to Russia’s complex of interests.  In interviews, Putin readily conceded that the Eurasian Union would not amount to much without Ukraine, given its population of more than 45 million, its industrial base, and its close economic, historic and cultural ties to Russia. 

Putin’s Offensive Defense

If Ukraine had begun to adopt EU legislation and regulations immediately after the Vilnius summit, Moscow’s leverage over the Ukrainian leadership would have been greatly reduced. Yanukovych stepped away from the Association Agreement, but Ukraine’s opposition leaders have pledged to return to the negotiations with the European Union and sign the agreement as soon as possible. With the move into Crimea, Putin is trying to regain Russian leverage over Kyiv, before a new government can assert and consolidate itself and get back to business with the EU. He has made his move using the same methods of manipulation, intimidation and force that he has deployed at home, as well as abroad in the war with Georgia in 2008. Putin has sought out vulnerabilities and aggressively exploited them.

Ukraine only has an acting president and an interim government, which has not been legitimized by elections. The temporary political arrangement includes representatives of the protestors whose collective action toppled Yanukovych. Putin has moved swiftly to underscore that Viktor Yanukovych is technically still the legitimate president of Ukraine, and to declare the interim government illegal. He has demonized the entire protest movement along with Ukraine’s opposition parties, by focusing in on the violence (including the sniper fire on protestors and security forces) that engulfed Kyiv’s Maidan Square in February. And he has highlighted the activities and the presence of extreme rightwing elements among the protestors, while downplaying the representatives of a broad spectrum of Ukrainian society that swelled the crowds. Putin has further used the appointment of prominent rightwing protestors in the interim government to depict the temporary authorities in Kyiv as nothing more than a band of xenophobic extremists, thugs, and terrorists.

On this basis, Putin has extrapolated a major threat to ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and other ethnic and religious minorities, in the east and south of Ukraine close to Russia’s borders. Stoking inter-ethnic tensions and fears in these regions in the Russian media (which is also the staple of news and information in Ukraine), Putin has invoked the right and the obligation of Russia to protect ethnic Russian and Russian speakers from attack. This right was first claimed under Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s and is now enshrined in Russia’s military doctrine. Attacks on Russian speakers outside of Russia’s borders are seen as a legitimate trigger for Russian military action. A February 28, 2014 resolution of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, has given Putin additional legal cover, by approving intervention in Crimea and on the territory of Ukraine to defend ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.

Using these and the other legal levers at his disposal, including the agreements on the long-term basing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, appeals for Russian assistance from local authorities, and a hastily arranged March 16 referendum on independence (to get well-ahead of a new presidential election in Kyiv), Putin has effectively taken control of Crimea. Large-scale military maneuvers in Russia’s western military district close to Ukraine’s borders have increased the tension and signaled Russia’s intent to use more force, in and outside Crimea, if necessary.

« Part I —
Observations on the Crisis in Ukraine and Crimea
Part III —
Ukraine and Its Meanings »