Will Putin roar again?

Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a weak and discredited “Paper Tiger” and not a long-term threat to the West. Economist Sergey Aleksashenko warns against too easily discounting Russia as weak. Pavel Baev counters that Aleksashenko misunderstands the sources of Russian strength.

This debate is about more than just an obsession with labels. If Russia is a weak, declining country (a cornered rat, in Putin’s own formulation), it will soon decay on its own. Pressuring Russia with more sanctions will only provoke a hasty reaction, born of fear, as demonstrated last year in Ukraine. On the contrary, if Russia is relatively strong and resilient, a lack of Western responsiveness to its transgressions will only encourage it to pursue more destabilizing adventures in its neighborhood and beyond.

Tomayto, tomahto

The problem is that scholars understand “strength” and “weakness” differently. To Valeriano/Maness and Baev, Russia’s “weakness” is more strategic, implying that its increasing geopolitical isolation and ultimate unsustainability of its current political system will eventually tell.

To Aleksashenko, however, “Russia’s strength” stems from the Putin regime’s economic resilience and its capacity to survive external shocks. In a similar vein, Gaddy and Ickes call Russia’s economy the “cockroach of economies—primitive and inelegant in many respects but possessing a remarkable ability to survive in the most adverse and varying conditions.” Recent events prove this point to some extent: Russia’s economy was certainly weakened by the combined effect of collapsing oil prices and sanctions, but to a lesser extent than many analysts expected.

The definitional confusion obscures the real issue at stake here, since the debate over whether Putin is weak or strong doesn’t tell us very much about whether he will leave Ukraine. That’s the more salient question. Is Putin so weakened now that he’ll leave Ukraine alone? The answer to that question is clearly “no.” The battle for Ukraine is unfinished and we are likely see more rounds of this bloody game of thrones.

Valeriano and Maness’s argument that “past behavior suggests that Russia’s leadership will continue to be restrained and rational” is surprising—the assumption of the Kremlin’s rationality has led Western analysts to repeatedly fail to predict Russia’s invasions (of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014). Actually, Valeriano and Maness acknowledge that “letting Russia assert its regional interests has resulted in outcomes that counter its own goals.” Analysts often fail to predict Putin’s moves because they misunderstand his aims and ideology. The very unpredictability of the Kremlin’s actions should serve as a warning to analysts seeking comfort in a “paper tiger Putin.”

Current developments are equally hard to predict. There is a direct contradiction between the opinions of political experts and military analysts (at OSCE and ISW, for instance) on Moscow’s intentions. Many political experts agree that Russia—at least for now—is not interested in further military escalation of the Ukraine conflict. On the other hand, military analysts have been reporting for the last two months signs of the separatists’ preparation for further military assaults.

Some analysts now consider that the most likely scenario is a frozen conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. For example, as Balasz Jarabick from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, “it looks like there will be neither war nor peace: Minsk implementation will continue to be discussed—if only abstractly – while both Russia and Ukraine will look for alternative ways to get the upper hand in Donbas.” Experts of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, headed by ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov have recently called frozen conflict the most likely scenario as well, since neither side of the conflict is currently interested in serious concessions, nor able to achieve its goals.

The problem is that a frozen conflict is unlikely to remain frozen for long for three reasons. First, the interests of the parties involved differ too much, and they each face incentives to forcefully challenge the status quo. Second, as Alexei Venediktov has pointed out by, the likelihood of a tragic accident that would refuel the conflict (à la Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) is too high, especially given the number of weapons the separatists have. Finally, Putin remains convinced that in Ukraine he is facing a U.S. challenge to Russia’s sphere of influence and ultimately Russia itself. Regardless of whether Ukraine stays “frozen,” Putin’s strategic goal of opposing the United States across the globe will remain unchanged. That means we should expect future provocations from Russia.

Far from over

Additionally, as I show elsewhere, Russia—like other petrostates—tends to get aggressive when oil prices peak. The oil prices are down now, hence we observe Putin’s becoming nice again and attempting to negotiate with the West. But that doesn’t mean that he will completely pull out of Ukraine—after all, it took the Soviet Union until 1989 to exit Afghanistan, years after oil prices crashed. Russia’s current attempts at diplomatic solutions are purely tactical, and once (or if) the oil price peaks again, we will immediately see Russia regaining its posture and confidence. In that case, the likelihood of direct confrontation—or at least further escalation on the ground—will dramatically increase.

That is why we see the Kremlin elites currently reciting spells about oil prices bouncing back in two years or so—it is their ultimate hope, in order to regain leverage in both domestic and international spheres. Given Moscow’s obvious goal to inflate oil prices in the near future, one might expect more provocations in other world regions, as well. Moscow will probably try to use its international influence in the Middle East and other regions to attempt to escalate tensions (which will also, in Moscow’s view, weaken the U.S. position). These tactics will include selling more weapons to Iran, potentially fueling the Syrian conflict, supporting China’s claims in the South China Sea, encouraging Greece to away from the EU, and so on.

Given all this, the Ukrainian conflict is far from over. Russia’s current regime may not be sustainable in the long run, but as Keynes said, we are all dead in the long run. Tactically, however, Moscow may well regain its strength and leverage in the near future and might well attempt confrontation at some point. The paper tiger Putin will likely roar again.