Vladimir Putin: Cunning Strategist or Aggressive and Reckless Leader?

MOSCOW – At the height of the Ukraine crisis, it all boils down to what kind of person President Vladimir V. Putin is.

In Moscow, many analysts still believe that the Russian President is fundamentally rational, and that the risk of invading Ukraine will be so great that his amassing a massive army only makes sense as a very convincing hoax. . But some are also open to the idea that he has fundamentally changed amid the pandemic, a change that could make him more paranoid, irritable and reckless.

The The 20 foot long table that Putin used For some longtime observers, separating him socially this month from European leaders flying to the crisis talks, for some longtime observers, the his separation from the rest of the world. For nearly two years, Mr. Putin has locked himself in a virus-free cocoon unlike any Western leader, with state television showing him holding most important meetings by assembly. remotely alone in the room and kept his distance even from his ministers. rare occasions where he directly summons them.

Speculation about a leader’s mental state is always tense, but as Putin’s big decision approaches, commentators in Moscow are wondering what he might do next in Moscow. Ukraine is finding some degree of inescapable armchair mentality.

Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and former member of Putin’s human rights council, said of Putin’s recent public appearances, “The public is being shown that he She has been living in de facto isolation, with fewer breaks, since the spring of 2020.”

According to many analysts, a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would be a major escalation compared to any actions Putin has taken before. In 2014, Kremlin submarines allowed Russian forces to strip their identification marks in order to take Crimea without firing a single shot. The proxy war Putin promotes in eastern Ukraine has allowed him to refuse to be a party to the conflict.

“It is not in Putin’s interest to start an all-out war,” said Anastasia Likhacheva, dean of the faculty of world economics and international affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It is very difficult for me to find any rational explanation for the desire to carry out such a campaign.”

Even if Putin could take control of Ukraine, she noted, such a war would accomplish the opposite of what the president says he wants: to push back NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe. In the event of war, the NATO allies would be “more united than ever,” Likhacheva said, and they would likely deploy powerful new weapons along Russia’s western borders.

At home, Putin has always wanted to project the aura of a sober statesman, overcoming nationalist slogans on prime-time talk shows and in Parliament, who have urged him to merge. more Ukraine for many years.

And while he sees himself as the guarantor of Russia’s stability, he could face severe economic setbacks from Western sanctions and social upheaval should there be war casualties. schools and civilians. Millions of Russians have relatives in Ukraine.

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent Moscow pollster, said for the time being, Russians seem to subscribe to the Kremlin’s narrative that the West is the aggressor in the Ukraine crisis. . The alarm message from Washington about an impending Russian invasion, he said, only reinforces that view because it makes the West appear to be the one who is “pressing and escalating tensions.”

If Putin had carried out a short and limited military campaign along the lines of the five-day war against Georgia in 2008, he said, the Russians would likely support it.

But “if this is a protracted, bloody war, we will be in an unpredictable situation,” Volkov said. “Stability ends.”

Given that such a war still seems unthinkable and illogical to many in Moscow, Russian foreign policy experts generally view the standoff over Ukraine as the latest stage in the effort. Putin’s years-long effort to force the West to accept what he sees as Russia’s fundamental security concerns. . In the 1990s, according to that mindset, the West forced a new European order on a weak Russia, disregarding the historic need for a geopolitical buffer in the west of the country. Now that Russia is stronger, these experts say, it would make sense for any Kremlin leader to attempt to redraw that map.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Moscow foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin, said Putin’s goal now is “to force the outcome of the Cold War to be partially corrected”. But he still believes Putin will stop full-blown aggression, instead using “special, asymmetrical or combined means” – including convincing the West that he is indeed prepared to attack. labour.

“A hoax has to be very convincing,” Mr. Lukyanov said. And the United States, he continued, with its powerful depictions of an aggressive Russia ready to invade, “is playing at 200 percent.”

Following this line of thinking, Russian analysts say that American officials have an exaggerated image of Putin as an evil genius. According to them, because of Putin’s past efforts to negotiate with the West on arms control and NATO expansion, the Kremlin has chosen to raise its stakes to the point where their interests cannot be ignored. .

“He’s very successful in using the negative image that has been created of him as a demon,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, describing Putin as capitalizing. fear that he was prepared to unleash. horror war. “The plan was to create a threat, to create the feeling that a war was possible.”

But the experts were wrong before. In 2014, Putin occupied Crimea, even Some analysts in Moscow have predicted a military intervention. And skeptics of the notion that Mr. Putin is cheating point out that during the pandemic, he has taken actions that previously seemed impossible. His harsh crackdown on Aleksei A. Navalny’s network, for example, contradicts the widely held view that Putin is happy to allow some domestic dissent as a exit valve to manage discontent.

“In the last year, Putin has passed a lot of Rubicon,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, an Arlington, Va.-based research institute. “Those who believe that something impressively unlikely or impossible may not have observed a change in that substance over the past two years.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/world/europe/putin-russia-ukraine.html Vladimir Putin: Cunning Strategist or Aggressive and Reckless Leader?

Fry Electronics Team

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