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Inside Vladimir Putin’s Head

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Zvi Magen and Sophie Kobzantsev

At the center of the world order is the crisis between Russia and the West regarding Ukraine, which threatens to escalate into a Russian military move against Ukraine. The question is: what are Putin’s motives surrounding the current crisis, and what picture is emerging as a result?

The motivation to restore the crown to its former glory is at the forefront of Putin’s motives, and in doing so, his ambition to rebuild the Soviet Union is evident. Inter alia, this means Russia’s control of the post-Soviet space. In this context, we are witnessing Russia’s moves to contain the efforts of the Western system, the United States and NATO, to expand into Ukraine and prevent Ukraine’s departure from under Russia’s thumb.
Putin is waging a stubborn effort to tackle the existing world order and build Russia as a world power. As such, his drive is to create a multi-polar world and to restore to some extent the world order to what it was after 1945. In this context, Russia is working to take advantage of opportunities to breach the current status, in the face of opposition by other powers. Ukraine’s attempt to shake off Russian oversight and join NATO has been taken as a challenge to the existing order. Hence Russia’s efforts to present an ultimatum to the West that NATO not expand eastward and eliminate its strategic presence in Eastern Europe. This joins the emerging image of weakened Western control in the international system.

Since 2014 Russia has been under severe economic and political sanctions. Meanwhile, Europe’s need to grapple with an energy crisis is woven into Putin’s web of considerations, as energy sources are Russia’s main export product. The current crisis makes it possible to produce a complex system of international pressures. Russia would like to see Western sanctions lifted, and thereby recover from the economic crisis currently plaguing it.

Alongside these motives are Russia’s internal political considerations. The loss of public support along with power struggles at the top levels of the government – in the wake of the current political and economic background and sectoral conflicts of interest, as well as power struggles as part of the war of succession around Putin – create a near crisis situation in Russian power centers. One reflection of this was the letter from the organization of Russian officers, which was made public recently, and expressed opposition to going to war against Ukraine – and even called on Putin to resign.

In the current evolving reality, these considerations lie behind the flare-up of the current crisis, which is ostensibly surrounding Ukraine vis-à-vis the West (NATO), yet is essentially the demand to change the world order. This crisis has been managed for a long time with pressures exerted and a cognitive war on both sides, in parallel with the concentrations of forces that are reported along the Ukraine border. Throughout the current period, there has been an ongoing dialogue between the parties, so that despite the statements regarding the Russians’ intentions to attack, the negotiation has not yet ended. It is clear that both sides prefer a compromise solution, but it is too early to conclude there will be one.

Possible responses to a Western refusal to comply could include a limited invasion of Ukraine with the aim of undermining or replacing Ukrainian rule. Also, it is not inconceivable there is a possibility of starting a crisis in other areas, including the Middle East, and in particular, regarding the Iranian-Syrian-Israeli issue.