Why Putin is acting like a man who has run out of time
Vladimir Putin has deployed his troops to the border with Ukraine, delivered impossible demands on Europe and appears ready to launch a new offensive to establish his domination over Kyiv.
Putin is said to feel a “historical mission” to reverse Ukraine’s drift towards the west, despite his own role in creating a rift by annexing Crimea and fuelling a war in Ukraine’s south-east. But his current fast pace raises questions of why he appears to feel the moment to act is now, as if he is running out of time.
From Putin’s perspective, he may look to recent events in Ukraine and believe it’s all downhill from here. His attempt to force Ukraine to reintegrate the eastern Donbas region, a poison pill that could give him a veto over the country’s geopolitical path, has failed as the Minsk agreements that would have steered it come close to collapse. His proxies may control a sliver of Ukraine’s south-east but the rest of the country has drifted further from his control.
At the same time, Putin is alarmed by growing military cooperation between Ukraine and the west, including military assistance and prospective arms sales from the UK, joint military drills with Nato countries, deliveries of US Javelin anti-tank missiles, and purchases of Turkish drones. He argues that the country is de facto becoming an “unofficial” member of Nato, an “anti-Russia” that he claims could one day host western troops or even missiles.
“They came to the conclusion that trends weren’t heading in their direction, that they were heading toward geopolitical defeat,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. The Kremlin’s early plan of “waiting it out”, for Ukrainians to lose patience with their new government and for the west to lose interest in Ukraine, was no longer viable. The Kremlin “decided that the status quo was intolerable and it needed to be changed”.
To do that, Putin has said he is open to negotiations and has demanded a new treaty with Nato to roll back its expansion by removing troops and infrastructure from countries that joined after 1997, a non-starter in much of eastern Europe. At the same time, Putin has made it clear he is impatient to obtain his “security guarantees” immediately and has treated his potential negotiating partners with open disdain.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, who ran for office on a peace platform, has come “under the influence of radical elements,” Putin said on Thursday. Negotiations with his government have basically ceased.
Last month Russian diplomats leaked their communications with their French and German counterparts, essentially scuttling chances for further negotiations with European powers.
That leaves Joe Biden, a politician whom Putin may grant more respect but has made clear he does not trust. Even his promises, Putin says, may as well be written in sand.
“You and I know well that even they, legal guarantees, cannot be trusted because the United States easily withdraws from all international agreements it loses interest in for one reason or another while explaining it somehow or giving no explanations whatsoever,” he told his top commanders on Tuesday.
That leaves Putin the option of military force, a contingency that he appears ready to use. The Russian president appears consumed with the Ukraine question – this summer he published a 6,000-word essay on the topic under his own name – and Russian analysts have proposed that solving his dilemma could determine his own timeline as Russia’s leader.
“It appears that what he manages to achieve in Ukraine will be the deciding factor in whether or not Putin stays on after 2024,” wrote Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, this month.
While it is difficult to imagine Putin stepping down after 24 years in power, it is also possible that his desire to regain Ukraine as a “brotherly” nation could be one factor compelling him to stay on into the future.
“If victory hasn’t yet been achieved, perhaps it’s not the time to step down,” wrote Baunov.