What Putin wants and what it means for the United States

“Putin gets what Putin wants,” was the bottom line of Professor Angela Stent’s analysis of the Russian leader and his geopolitics – at least in the territories surrounding Russia that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union. Speaking to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Wednesday, she said there was absolutely no chance the US would go to war with Russia over the Ukraine – “impossible because of the nuclear weapons involved” - and that Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that, so he simply took the Crimean peninsula because he regards it as part of Russia. “It is really important to him,” said Stent, and not that important to the US.

Stent, who is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and has been following Russian affairs for three decades, said the US has no easy options in dealing with Putin over Ukraine. "He once said to President Bush: 'You know, George, that Ukraine is not a country'". With this mindset of Putin, the US has very little leverage in the dispute. Stent said that to suggest that a perceived weakness on the part of US President Barack Obama caused Putin to move into Crimea was a complete misreading of the situation. Stent said that all the former Soviet republics are corrupt, are ruled by a strongman, and so are very susceptible to Russian influence. “We want the West to influence what will happen to the post-Soviet space, but there is a limit to our scope of influence”.

To understand Putin, Stent highlighted some aspects of his life history – he had a hardscrabble childhood and didn’t do well in school. “What saved him was taking up martial arts, which taught him discipline”. He applied to join the KGB at 16 – they told him to go away and come back – which he did after studying law, and ultimately was sent as a KGB lieutenant colonel to East Germany, from 1985-90. This meant he missed out on the relative political openness of the perestroika period under Gorbachev in Russia, and instead saw East Germany fall apart. Back in Russia he worked for the mayor of Saint Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who lost a reelection bid in 1996. “From this Putin learned: don’t have an election you cannot predict”.

Putin has a mania for control, and since coming to power in 1999 he likes to portray himself as the man who single-handedly saved Russia from the abyss. He crushes his domestic opponents, and even treats foreign visitors badly, keeping them waiting, sometimes for hours, before he deigns to see them. Stent told the story of how the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel – who has a lifelong phobia of dogs after a bad childhood experience – was put in an empty room to wait for Putin during a visit to Moscow. The door was opened and Putin’s dog came bounding in, headed straight for her – and a camera was positioned to take a picture of the fear on her face when she first saw the dog. “He likes to show his power in small ways”.

What is Putin’s long term plan? Economically, Stent says, Russia does not appear to have much of a plan, as it relies on exports of raw materials – oil, gas, timber – with little value added. When Medvedev was President from 2008-12 he tried to modernize Russia’s economy, but Putin resisted any changes. “When you travel to China and talk to them about Russia, they are extremely critical of how the Russians run their economy”. Russia has decaying infrastructure, and a constant brain drain as the smartest get out to work in Silicon Valley or London. On top of that the population is declining, average male life expectancy is around 60, and male mortality rates between 18-30 are similar to those in sub-Saharan Africa. What is more, 40% of the young men applying to join the army are not fit enough to be drafted. At the moment Russia solves its declining labor force problem by importing laborers – most of the construction workers on buildings in Moscow are from Central Asia. But, Stent said with a cautionary note, despite incredible hardships, “the historic story of Russia is that it will always survive”.

Which means that Russia will continue to be a country with which the US will have to find some way to co-exist – whether or not they share our democratic values. “The current [autocratic] system won’t last forever,” said Stent. “But changing it will be a very long process”.