(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) With warnings Russia will invade Ukraine growing louder by the day, it is common to hear that President Vladimir Putin has passed the point of no return. Having made public security demands that NATO considers non-starters, anything short of invasion will be seen as weakness and undermine Putin’s authority at home. In other words, Putin may have—intentionally or not—backed himself into a corner.
Such accounts overlook key sources of Putin’s domestic appeal, which is based much more on pragmatically providing stability, security, and prosperity than on aggressiveness. This gives him options for backing off that Western governments should not neglect.
What Russians Want
Surveys have long asked Russians what kind of foreign policy they want, and two things are clear. For one, Russians do see the United States and NATO as a threat. But when asked about how Russia should treat the West, majorities consistently favor a cooperative, soft-line orientation. In other words, Russians want to treat the West better than they think it is now treating them.
What Putin Tells His People
In his major appearances, Putin sells himself to his people in just this way, as a cool head of reason and pragmatism in the face of a West that he depicts as rash, hysterical, and full of double standards and zealotry. This rhetoric has been remarkably consistent since his famous 2007 “Munich Speech.”
This is also how Russians understand Putin. Rather than a hawk, most believe they are getting a foreign policy moderate with Putin. Moreover, it is consistently pro-Western Russians—not anti-Western ones—who support him. Russians who advocate a more aggressive foreign policy tend to back others, such as the Communist Party (which recently called on Putin to recognize the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine) or the LDPR (whose leader, in turn, called for the whole of Ukraine to “become part of Russia”). These parties seldom risk overt conflict with Putin but allow Putin tactically to occupy a broad center, where majority opinion lies.
These conclusions emerge from a large-scale study we presented recently to the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. This study also included an original experiment embedded in a July 2019 survey conducted in Russia by the independent pollster Levada-Center.
Just before asking people how much they supported Putin, we reminded randomly selected subsets of respondents about different Putin statements on foreign affairs. Through this exercise, we do confirm the common wisdom that people become more likely to support Putin when he talks about how the West threatens Russia. But we also show that when he advocates conflict-avoidance with the United States, his political gains are about the same.
This should prompt us to think twice about whether Putin really is backed into a corner. Russian media commonly deny plans to invade, instead portraying a hysterical West overreacting to reasonable Russian articulations of its own security interests and domestic troop movements that are within its rights. Framed in this way, there is no problem should Putin ultimately decide to do nothing. He could just point to how ridiculous Westerners looked in overreacting and present his steps as a victory for reason and pragmatism. And if NATO actually accepts any of his demands, this would be gravy.
Risks of Militarized Response
In this light, we should think twice about militarized responses that could backfire. If NATO responds to Russian troop movements by moving its own troops closer to Ukraine, as now looks likely, this would make it easier for hardliners to sell Russia’s public on the idea that it is the United States, not Russia, escalating the conflict: Russia’s troops, they would say, are moving only within Russia itself and its “Union State” partner Belarus, while US troops are far from home where they do not belong.
Moreover, such NATO troop movements could enable Putin to have his cake and eat it too. Russians have been supportive of aggressive military action outside its borders, primarily when it has been easily portrayed as responding to major instability and threats of violence. This is how the 2008 August War with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the 2015 intervention in Syria were framed.
Since few policymakers in either the United States or Russia believe NATO would actually go to war over Russian actions in Ukraine, it is hard to see how moving troops closer to—but not into—Ukraine would actually force Russia to reconsider if Putin is indeed bent on invading.
It would be ironic if an effort to deter Russia actually made it more thinkable for Putin to choose the most belligerent option and harder for him to take the off-ramp.
Anticipating Putin’s Actions
In anticipating Putin’s actions, then, we should not assume he has backed himself into a corner, and much less that he has no choice but to fight. Having long sold himself to Russia’s public as the cool head of reason in international affairs, and with massive media resources at his disposal in Russia, he would have little to lose by avoiding conflict and potentially something to gain if even he does not come back with a modest deal, though for him a deal would clearly be better.
None of this means he actually will back down or compromise. It only means that he can. Let’s not foreclose that option even as we do what we can reasonably do to deter aggression, however likely the latter may seem.
Henry E. Hale is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and co-director of PONARS Eurasia.
Adam C. Lenton (@LentonAC) is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University.