Speculating on Motives – Is Putin Riding a Tiger?

I have worked with quite a few companies and persons in crisis conflict management situations, and one issue pops up every time. There is a strong urge to decide why the other side is acting the way they do. Most often, that decision is pure speculation and attributes some sort of bad intent.

The problem with this is that you get locked into a narrative of the conflict that may have little to do with reality. The truth is that in this type of situation, you cannot know the full narrative. Nor should you expect to. You can only test for it.

The recent kerfuffle with Russia over Ukraine, NATO et al is a good example. The media resounds with speculation why Mr. Putin is causing such a mess. It must be a secret plan to destroy NATO! No, it must be Russian anger over western betrayal. No, it must be an emotional problem. And on and on. The truth is that we do not know and we cannot know what is behind this. Nor is Mr. Putin likely to inform us.

What we do know is that so far, Mr. Putin has elevated achieving his policy objectives in Ukraine over other priorities, like saving the economy. We can infer, therefore, that Ukraine is important to him. It is not a side show. Why is it so important? Now things get murky.

There are three possibilities. It could be that he needs to gain something from Ukraine itself. That the disputed territory must be controlled for some reason associated with the land or the people there. Perhaps, but unlikely. It could be for foreign policy reasons. That Mr. Putin sees some geopolitical imperative involved in defeating NATO. That is possible, but it is difficult to explain why this geopolitical reality has suddenly emerged. So, I would argue that it is also unlikely. That leaves only one final possibility. that Mr. Putin has domestic political needs that require the Ukraine endeavor to continue. This is more likely.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is primarily a domestic Russian political problem. What could that problem be? We cannot be sure, but one thing is certain. Mr. Putin is focusing Russian media attention on the crisis. So it is likely that he is using Ukraine as an anchoring tool. To distract attention away from something else.

So what could that other negative be? Conventional wisdom is that it is poor economic performance. Putin wants to blame the west for that, and stoking up a crisis in Ukraine that brings sanctions etc. makes this argument more plausible. But just because this is plausible does not mean it is accurate. Before we decide that this is correct, we should consider what other potential reasons could be motivating him. There is at least one more.

Remember Mr. Berlusconi? It was argued that Berlusconi got into politics to get immunity from prosecution. Putin and his inner circle may have the reverse problem. They may need to stay in power to retain immunity from prosecution. And without a crisis at hand, there is less reason for them to stay in power. At least one observer has offered this to explain what motivates Putin in Ukraine — to keep the crisis going.

Here is the problem with either of the two above possible explanations. There is no simple end game. Putin has no way to stop the train and get off.

Think about it — there is no deal that the west can offer in Ukraine that will solve Mr. Putin’s problem. Why not? Because Putin needs the crisis to continue — not end.

So, what to make of it? The answer is simple — absent an extra-ordinary event, the west should be resolved to the probability that the Russia problem is not likely to find a solution any time soon. Moreover, it is likely to end badly, one way or another.

Is there any good news here? Yes.  In both of the above scenarios, Putin is acting out of rational self-interest. If he is self-interested, he will be less likely to act in a way that eliminates prospects for himself.  That means there is reason to believe he will pull back from brinkmanship at a certain point, for no other reason than self-preservation.

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