Never before have the messages coming out of Moscow about the future of relations between Russia and the West been so contradictory, with some of them suggesting that Vladimir Putin is ready for a new deal with the West and others pointing in exactly the opposite direction and pointing to a new world war.
Some of these messages are directed at the Russian domestic audience – and are dismissed by some Western analysts as a result as an indication of Putin’s intentions – while others are directed at Western leaders and populations without recognition being given to the fact that such confusion is part and parcel of Moscow’s aggressive approach to the world.
Sorting out these messages and determining what they mean, Novy Region-2 commentator Kseniya Kirillova argues, is never more important than at times like now when Russian forces are engaged in a broad new attack on Ukraine – and when some in the West still appear to believe that Putin wants a deal and that they can strike one with him.
In a commentary today, she says that in order to figure out what to expect from Russia in the future, it is critical to figure out “how to assess the information contained in Russian open sources.” And as a contribution to that effort, she offers three principles of interpretation of that flow.
First, Kirillova says, one must always keep in mind that “besides the declarations of Kremlin analysts, politicians and journalists, there are also facts, not opinions but facts, and these must never be ignored.” Facts include such things as the concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders, violation of NATO airspace, and increased military spending.
Second, she continues, everything coming out of Moscow must be evaluated in terms of “how closely they correspond with the goals and habits of thought and ambitions of Vladimir Putin personally.” It is not so difficult, Kirillova suggests, to specify exactly what these include and what consequences they have.
“No one would dispute that Putin beyond any doubt conceives not only Ukraine but the entire territory of the former USSR as the zone of his absolute influence,” she writes. He has certainly said that in a variety of ways over the course of many years. His talk about “the territorial losses of Russia” is especially indicative given that the Russian Federation has the same borders as the RSFSR under international law.
Moreover, Kirillova continues, “Putin is very much afraid of the expansion of NATO and the appearance of NATO military bases near his borders.” The membership of the three Baltic countries in the Western alliance is thus a particular irritant. But Putin “also fears an open military conflict with NATO” and therefore is unlikely to launch open military aggression there.
Moreover, Putin is committed to restoring Russian influence in Eastern Europe. His statements about a multi-polar world and the Yalta accords at the end of World War II show that what he wants is Western acknowledgement that Eastern Europe is within Russia’s zone of influence as well.
If the West shows firmness in opposing this, Putin’s comments suggest, he will back down or at least not expand his activities in this regard, especially given his problems at home. But if the West shows that it wants negotiations, he will not only pursue them but raise the stakes by pushing harder and further so that at the very least, he will have more to “trade.”
And third, Kirillova suggests, there is “another important factor which can assist in the analysis” of what Putin will do next and that is the domestic situation in Russia itself. Not only does he face economic problems as a result of sanctions, but he is even more worried about the possible blowback of the Pugachev-style revolts he has been sponsoring.
Perhaps more than he fears NATO, the Kremlin leader fears the possibility of the emergence within the Russian population of forces with guns that he does not control, forces that may emerge if he does not continue his aggression in Ukraine or elsewhere and that will return home to cause trouble.
For Putin, aggression he controls is fine; aggression that creates conditions he doesn’t control is a grave danger, Kirillova suggests. All this, she says, points to the conclusion that Putin’s “regime needs war, although it need not be in the Donbas or in Crimea.” It could be elsewhere, but Putin has created a situation in which he has no other way out.
Those who follow Russian events and those who seek to influence them should be under no illusions about that.