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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Just days ago, Vladimir Putin seemed on the verge of the unthinkable in Ukraine, having massed 130,000 troops on the border. Embassies withdrew staff from Kyiv, and Washington warned of an immediate threat. Now, the Russian leader is sagely supporting diplomatic engagement. Official footage shows tanks apparently returning to their bases, and Russian television pundits are ridiculing Western reports of imminent attack as hysteria. Ukrainians, the Kremlin spokesman mocked, should set alarm clocks to ensure they don’t miss the action.

The crisis is hardly passed. Yet whatever comes next, Putin has already given a masterclass in equivocation and confusion. He has created a state of tension that he has every interest in sustaining. Turns out the answer to the ubiquitous question of what Putin really wants may be deceptively simple: disquiet.

This strategic ambiguity was on display when Putin stood next to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this week. The Russian leader declared he wanted to resolve the current crisis “right now, immediately, through negotiations and by peaceful means.” But he also decried Ukraine’s actions in Russian-backed breakaway regions as “genocide,” and that same day the lower house of parliament voted to bring to Putin an appeal to recognize the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent, a “popular” demand that would amount to an open provocation and undermine the Minsk peace accords. For now, the idea has been set aside.

Whiplash has become a feature of late-stage Putinism. It’s a system that, at home and abroad, requires permanent uncertainty, whether that’s about Putin’s anointed successor or military invasion. It feeds on gaslighting and disinformation.

Plenty of risks come with the unorthodox coercive diplomacy of the past weeks and months, but the benefits that come with sowing anxiety - and fueling confusion even on basic issues, like Putin’s real goals - are already clear. It keeps the United States from directing its attention elsewhere. It forces international focus to remain on addressing Putin’s grievances. And it enables Russia to punch above its geopolitical weight.

That’s a win Kremlin propagandists are already claiming, in a tone set by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “It’s clear that our initiative on European security… shook our Western colleagues,” he told Putin, “and means they are no longer in a position to ignore our many previous appeals.” This matters to the Russian leader, for whom grievances over Ukraine and the post-Cold War settlement are deeply personal.

Russian action abroad has domestic motivations and consequences too, of course. It would be simplistic to claim that Russia’s destabilizing gambits are a distraction from plentiful domestic troubles - though there are many, from inflation to squeezed household incomes and the dramatic toll that covid-19 is exacting on the country, with less than half of the population fully vaccinated despite a heavily promoted home-grown jab. Such gambits are helpful, perhaps, but Putin has long put himself above the fray of daily domestic headaches.

Rather, this uncertainty helps to maintain, without actual conflict, the state of siege that the regime needs. Russian state television talk shows, even as concerns built over recent days and weeks, have broadcast a stream of us-versus-them vitriol, mockery and fury over purported Western war-mongering. This sense of being under assault, of course, leaves Putin as the only man to save the nation, and casts opponents, by extension, as being in cahoots with outsiders. The only certain consequence from this crisis is the Kremlin’s even tighter grip on any remaining form of opposition - either because an emboldened Kremlin can silence more supposedly foreign-backed adversaries, or because it needs to.

War is not a given. Putin no doubt recognizes that an incursion today, or even action in Donbass, is unlikely to trigger the same sustained popularity boost he saw after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Plenty of Russians have ties to Ukraine and see it as an independent nation, not a historically Russian territory. One December survey put support for sending military forces to fight Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine at just 8%.

Risks remain. Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, has argued that Putin is often wrongly perceived as a “one-man show,” when many constituencies are involved. But he pointed out to me that in foreign policy, the president does play an outsized role, with far fewer individuals consulted or involved. It’s an idea underlined by the political theater around the Donbass recognition proposals, an option structured as a popular appeal to Putin himself.

Personalist leaders face few checks on their power and few consequences for missteps, and so are more inclined to take gambles. They fail to assess their limitations dispassionately and to see long-term risks clearly. They overestimate themselves and underestimate enemies. Putin, isolated and over-confident in his overhauled military, is no exception.

But having backed himself into an uncomfortable corner, Putin surely considers this equilibrium a good outcome, so there’s every reason for the Kremlin to sustain a drawn-out war of nerves. The West, armed with sanctions and cool heads, must learn to cope.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.


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