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Putinís Balancing Act

Interviewee: Kimberly M. Marten, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Barnard College; Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 3, 2014

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President Vladimir Putin is in many ways a "great balancer," trying to maintain the support of various factions in Russia, explains long-time Russia expert Kimberly Marten. On the one hand, he cannot risk a "major Ukrainian war" that would draw new international sanctions and further dent Russia's economy. On the other, "he has to deal with Russian ethnic nationalists who are begging for blood" in Ukraine, she says. Marten points out that both Putin and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine are skilled negotiators who have worked together in the past, and she holds out hope that they might be able to work out something "that satisfies everybody sufficiently so that there can be some kind of an end to the fighting and some kind of economic deal."

Russian president Vladimir Putin approaches a rostrum to deliver a speech at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, July 1, 2014.(Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters)

After the newly-elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, called on his forces to end a week-long cease-fire and attack pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia compared himself with a great figure from the past in a speech to Russian diplomats in Moscow. What's going on with President Putin?

In many ways, Putin has to appeal to different audiences. He's had a history of being the great balancer, of trying to keep all the various factions that surround the Kremlin behind him so that he maintains his authority and the ability to give out resources to his supporters; and he maintains popular support. Part of the reason his speeches are getting more and more complex is that he's trying to balance various audiences who are demanding things from him.

Does he want a Ukrainian war?

On the one hand, he doesn't really want to commit more economic resources to a major Ukrainian war. He knows that it would not be successful and would be extraordinarily costly. It's already clear that the annexation of Crimea is going to put a big dent in the Russian budget at a time when the economy is already in decline. So that's one audience that he has to please and show that he's not actually going to take aggressive actions that would put Russian resources at risk.

But at the same time, he has to deal with Russian ethnic nationalists who are begging for blood. This is the opportunity they've been waiting for. There's a history of ethnic conflict throughout Russia that has been getting worse in recent times. Last October, there was a major riot between Central Asians and Russians just outside of Moscow. The police seemed to be supporting the Russian side in that riot. So this is sort of another group that he has to be very concerned about.

We have a tendency in the West sometimes to think about Putin as if he is an individual in absolute control of the country, but that's not the way that Russia has ever worked. There has never been absolute control even inside Moscow; there have always been various competing factions, and the further away you get from Moscow, the harder it is for the authorities in Moscow to maintain control. And so he's in sort of a tough position where he has to balance all of these various people, and at the same time, try to avoid having more international sanctions come down on his head.

I don't know how much publicity it got in Russia, but Poroshenko signed a trade agreement very quietly with the European Union. Georgia and Moldova did as well. Russia was opposed to this, right?

Russia formed what's called the Eurasian Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus that was supposed to be a counterpart to the European Union. And the Eurasian Union is really about something that limits trade rather than something that is a free trade agreement. And so the European Union, as an expansion of free trade, is threatening the Eurasian Union because it gives countries the opportunity to have goods without duties, or with lower duties, to be freely exchanged, rather than encouraging them to send their goods to one particular locale.

What's really interesting is that Kazakhstan and Belarus have publicly said that they are not going along with Russia's desire to punish Ukraine and the other states for having signed these trade agreements with the European Union. And so, in addition to maybe helping the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian economies, this is something that really threatens Putin's economic control over the surrounding states in his region.

What's the natural gas situation?

Russia has cut Ukraine off, and my understanding is that at the moment, it is not all that important because there's not that much natural gas used in the summertime, and Ukraine has sufficient stocks to keep it going through October. And so that gives them months and months to negotiate the final agreement.

Some of the states that are on the European Union pipelines have agreed, at least in principle, to do reverse flows into Ukraine. Russia really doesn't want that happen because it would mean sending gas to the European Union at a lesser price than it could presumably charge Ukraine.

And so far, it looks like Ukrainian security forces have been doing a pretty good job of ensuring that the Russian gas going through Ukrainian territory into Europe is continuing. Poroshenko is doing the best job he can of saying to the Europeans, "Ukraine is a customer that you can trust. We are going to allow the Russian gas to go through even though we're not given the benefit of it."

And so it's all going to come down to whether the European Union is going to allow those reverse gas flows—if it's going to be able to negotiate something with Gazprom and the Russians that will keep Ukraine in the loop somehow or another. But it's relatively uncertain right now what the end result is going to be.

In conclusion, talk about Putin's personal relationship with Poroshenko. They go back quite a bit, don't they?

One thing to keep in mind about Poroshenko is that he's fantastic at making deals. He's always been pro-Europe, but he has been working with Putin for the past decade in one form or another. He got his start in politics by working with somebody in Putin's network. Under the [former Ukrainian president Victor] Yanukovych regime, he was responsible for negotiating defense industry issues and other economic issues, and military issues that affected Russia, and so he had interactions with Putin.

Poroshenko, like Putin, is also being faced with the need to negotiate with his own ethnic nationalists in western Ukraine who don't want any deal with Russia. And so what we're seeing right now are two people who are good at dealing—both of whom have to figure out a way to manage all of these various pressures on them, domestically and internationally, to come to some sort of an agreement.

And the whole question is going to be: Are they able to reach an agreement that satisfies everybody sufficiently so that there can be some kind of an end to the fighting and some kind of economic deal, or are the ethnic nationalists in either or both countries going to win and send us into something that ends up becoming a much more brutal war?

So what we really need is a Putin-Poroshenko summit?

Yes, we really do.

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