Understanding Vladimir Putin's Strategic Thinking

Understanding Vladimir Putin's Strategic Thinking


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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Grand Strategy

Agnia Grigas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council; CFR's Stephen Sestanovich; and Julianne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, join Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy, to discuss Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria, its relations with Europe and the United States, and what to expect from Vladimir Putin next. The panelists consider both the domestic and international factors that shape Russia's foreign policy and the incentives driving Putin's strategic thinking.

DIUK: Well, good evening, everybody. We have a very broad subject to cover this evening: “Russia—What to Expect from Putin?” Subtitle: “Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria, its relations with Europe and the United States, and what to expect from President Putin next.” Very broad. But to help us understand all of this, we have an excellent group with us here today.

Julie Smith works on a wide range of foreign policy and defense issues, and is a senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Agnia Grigas is a specialist on energy and political risk in the post-Soviet region, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and with the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs. And we have her latest book outside. I don’t—available for purchase, or?

GRIGAS: (Nodding.)

DIUK: OK. (Laughter.)

And we have—(laughs)—we have with us also the Council’s very own Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, who also teaches at Columbia University.

So let’s start with the big picture. And I’m looking at Julie, who described herself as I’m the NATO geek—(laughter)—in the group. So in the past two weeks we’ve seen—we’ve seen Russian military jets swooping down awfully close to U.S. ships in the Baltic Sea. There’s been a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, an apparent ramping up of the troops in Syria after a supposed withdrawal. I think The Washington Post called it “zombie ceasefire,” which I actually quite liked. So what are we to make of Russia’s continuing military resurgence? And how will Putin respond to the upcoming NATO summit? Fill us in on some of these issues.

SMITH: Well, the summer—the summer—this summer is going to be very interesting from a Russia perspective, and its relationships both with the EU, with NATO, with Western countries like the United States. For one, we have the NATO summit, as you mentioned, coming up in early July in Warsaw. That’s not too far from Russia’s borders. And the theme of that summit is going to be deterrence. The alliance spent its last summit heavily focused on reassurance, trying to work with countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and finding ways to ensure that that they had the capabilities that they needed, and the assets and the assistance, to help them in the face of any potential crisis. Now the focus is very much on deterrence—what more can the alliance do in, for example, the Baltic States, in Central and Eastern Europe, to deter Russia from making any big move on NATO territory? So that’s one piece.

And I think the Russians will respond poorly, in part because of the heavy focus on deterrence, which includes emphasis on things like resilience but also NATO nuclear policy, which I think will get their attention. But I think the summit will also be a net negative in their eyes, or they’ll portray it as such, because the alliance is enlarging. And while our dear friends in Montenegro really don’t pose a threat to Moscow in any way, shape, or form, the Russians will portray it as another chapter in NATO’s encircling—encirclement of Russia, that this is another attempt for the West to push back and contain Russia. And so we’ll hear a lot of negative rhetoric.

On the flipside, June’s going to be interesting as well. I would just note that we’re going to be facing a situation where the EU is going to have to vote on sanctions and determine whether or not it wants to renew the sanctions package, the package that’s been in place because of what’s happened in Ukraine. And also, on June 23rd, our friends in London, or across the U.K. in fact, will be voting on whether or not to stay inside the European Union. And that’s important from a Russian perspective because they would love nothing more than to see a weak European Union. And the U.K. leaving the EU certainly would be a bad thing, in my mind, and would definitely weaken the European Union.

So just to lay out the summer agenda, entering kind of mid-June and running through mid-July there are going to be a handful of events that Russia will either view as very positive, for a country that would like to see a weakened transatlantic relationship or a weakened West, but also they’ll be complaining a lot because they won’t like some of the initiatives that they’ll see coming out of the summit.

DIUK: Well, actually, let’s take this back a little way, maybe two years, and bring in Ukraine. You know, speaking of what happened this summer, we just had the referendum in the Netherlands that went badly for Ukraine. But this—you know, the military resurgence was first noticed two years ago in Ukraine—the annexation of Crimea, the destabilization of Donbas. And I seem to remember one of the—one of the justifications then was the NATO issue.

But, Agnia, you were watching that very closely. So fill us in a little bit about Minsk II. Is that a set of agreements that could possibly work in any way? Or is there some sort of broader plan? Is Russia going to be satisfied with where they are right now?

GRIGAS: Well, I think just to view Ukraine in isolation is to miss a little bit of the big picture, and just to focus on the Ukrainian conflict. Because, as you noted, although that started in 2014, Russia’s policies towards the post-Soviet space—its efforts to regain influence, to try to maintain influence, and to try to regain territory—started much earlier, and actually that is the focus of my new book. So there I argue and I show the evidence that, in fact, this Russia’s what I call re-imperialization with an effort to try to—well, not only use NATO’s expansion as a pretext, but often trying to use the issue of the so-called Russian compatriots as a pretext, that has been driving Russia’s efforts to interfere in its neighboring countries.

Now, I’ll briefly—compatriots, if you are not familiar with the term, these are ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers that reside in the post-Soviet countries. And they can also even include non-ethnic Russian—non-ethnic Russians and non-Russian speakers, but other nationalities and other minorities. And they can number between 25 (million) to 150 million people, depending on how Russia chooses to define this so-called category of compatriots.

So I think this issue is a longstanding issue, and Russia will try to continuously say that it will try to protect its so-called compatriots in the territories outside of its federation. It has done so already in Moldova, really in the ’90s, although it was a slightly different context back then—it was the Soviet Union’s armed forces that were involved in the conflict. Then it happened again in Georgia in 2008. Many of the same policies are being pursued, you know, and the same claims being made in the Baltic States, in relation to Kazakhstan; even, strangely, in relation to countries like Belarus. So I think it doesn’t end with Minsk II. This is a much broader agenda of Moscow’s.

DIUK: So, Steve, what’s your take on Russia’s foreign policy right now?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think it’s important at this point to stand back a little bit and not just monitor each week’s or month’s events, as important as they are for creating a picture of whether Russian policy is succeeding or failing. In the past couple of years, Russia has asserted itself more successfully internationally than at any time in the past 25 years. And, at the same time, it has marginalized itself more dramatically than at any time in the past 25 years. So you have these same trends—Russia, you know, with a growing confrontation with NATO, that people are talking about as a new Cold War; I mean, that’s been the vocabulary over the past couple of years—but it doesn’t—Russians don’t see this as a stable situation. They’re trying to figure out what’s the—what’s the way that we kind of work our way out of this confrontation in which there’s a kind of degree of acceptance by the West, some ability to lower the temperature, some way of unwinding the conflict.

If you ask Russians, you know, is Putin’s foreign policy a success, well, they’ll say, well, Crimea’s fantastic. But if you ask what—you know, what’s the overall record, there’s a lot more uncertainty. And I would give you, as a bit of evidence for this, Putin’s handling of his call-in show a couple of weeks ago, which—

DIUK: I gather you watched it, so—

SESTANOVICH: I watch every year. I’m a big fan of it. And the dramatic theme of this one was foreign policy is not important. You know, they kept—he kept getting questions like, how do we take on the Americans? And he would say things like, you know, the important question is not how to take on the Americans, it’s now to address our domestic priorities. They said—another questioner said, who are we going to hit next? And he said, that isn’t the question; it’s how to improve our roads. You know, it’s not because this is his gut speaking. It’s because this is what he—focus groups tell him.

So I think there’s a kind of problem that is unresolved in Russian foreign policy and Russian politics. And we’ll come to this, I guess, but—

DIUK: Yeah. Well, I mean, there is a question as to how far foreign policy actually is an extension of—an instrument of domestic policy, but we will come back to that.


DIUK: But it does actually lead to another question, which I think Putin actually put his finger on when he was talking about, you know, mending the roads, which is that, yes, Russians are beginning to notice that their roads are not being mended. Can Russia sustain the foreign policy that it is conducting right now? I mean, the economy is deteriorating. Oil prices are down. The so-called modernization of Russia’s economic infrastructure has not really been a priority up until now. And Russia’s expenditure on its military grew last year to 4.2 percent of GDP, which is considerably more than it had before.

So, Agnia, I know that you follow some of these issues quite closely in terms of the economy. Where is—where is this leading us?

GRIGAS: Yeah, well, it’s interesting you say the—yes, military spending grew, but Russia’s GDP fell last year by almost 4 percent. So it’s the same almost 4 percent.

DIUK: So maybe the percentage is larger than—

GRIGAS: Yes. (Laughs.)

DIUK: I see.

GRIGAS: But, you know, can Putin really sustain this type of foreign policy is often the question. And really, in the long term, no. But I think in the short term it really doesn’t matter for him.

Now, looking back at some of the previous conflicts that I’ve mentioned—in Georgia and Moldova—those were kind of, you know, low-cost gains for Putin, because really there was no significant reaction from the West. And with Crimea and Ukraine, this was the first time Russia really had to pay for its actions with the sanctions. And these coordinated sanctions for over two years have had an impact on the Russian economy. I mean, certainly the ruble was trading at record lows just earlier this year. It was about 88 rubles to a dollar. Now it’s slightly improved. I mean, the inflation was soaring, double digits last year. Capital flight last year was 150 billion, although people say the official numbers were larger. This year, capital flight is about 50 billion and the—and the Russians have said, well, that, oh, well, this is almost normal levels, you know, that—(laughs)—we’re improving.

So all of these figures, you know, they’re not great indicators, and especially the negative economic growth for last year of nearly 4 percent and outlook—the negative outlook for next year. But what’s even more important here than just the impact of the sanctions has been the simultaneous impact of the low global energy prices, specifically low oil prices, that have dropped since 2014. And this is very interesting, because if you look back at 2008 and this—at the Russian-Georgian war of the summer and August, just a month before—in July—oil traded at record peaks, $147 per barrel. So just last year, it was almost at record lows, at just $27 per barrel. So dramatic contrast. Now, for Russia, this really matters because almost half of its budget comes from oil and gas revenues. More than 70 percent of its exports—export revenues come from oil and gas exports. So this all spells bad news.

And more importantly, I would also stress that it’s not just—you know, we know that there are cycles in the energy markets. The prices go up, they go down, similarly like the stock markets. But this is something more than that because I think that we are really also experiencing a transformation of the global energy markets. Specifically, the U.S. shale boom has left a huge impact. I mean, the U.S. now is the largest oil and gas producer in the world. It overtook Russia as the largest gas producer. Just this year, the first U.S. LNG cargoes left. So this global energy system is really changing, and this will hurt Russia even more long term. It has not even felt the full effects of this yet, but it will.

SMITH: I would just add to that—I think you’re absolutely right. Agree with everything you’ve said, particularly on how—what kind of impact, I think, the sanctions have had on the Russians.

But I would also note that it’s been very hard to maintain those sanctions, and it’s getting harder. I think when the European Union looks to renew the sanctions this summer, I think there’s a good chance we’ll be all right. And clearly, President Obama’s trip had multiple purposes in recent days. One of the purposes was to stress to the Europeans the importance of maintaining unity on the sanctions policy. So we will likely squeak by this summer, and hopefully be able to maintain that policy, and continue to tighten the squeeze a little bit.

But, going forward, it’s unclear. What we’re hearing from a number of our partners in Europe is how difficult it’s been for them to sustain the sanctions. And particularly given the fact that they are definitely feeling the weight of the migration crisis bearing down on them, the potential Brexit as we talked about earlier, plus some weak economies in general across the European continent, I think we’re going to be in a situation where at every turn this gets more and more difficult, particularly for a country like Italy. Last time we were faced with a renewal, at the end of last calendar year, the Italians were the ones that asked that the actual renewal be elevated to a higher bureaucratic level. It was supposed to be a fairly simple technical rollover, and the—we got through it, but the fact that the Italians paused and asked for a bigger debate at a higher level seemed to indicate that, increasingly, these countries are feeling the pressure. So, going forward, it will just take a little bit more effort, I think, to ensure that we can maintain that unity, assuming that we don’t see progress, for example, on Minsk.

SESTANOVICH: Report from the call-in show? (Laughter.)

DIUK: (Laughs.) Go ahead.

SESTANOVICH: Putin said—told the nation the sanctions are going to continue.

SMITH: That’s good he has the confidence. (Laughs, laughter.) I’m not sure all of Europe—

SESTANOVICH: And, you know, that’s expectations management, but he’s not making any promises that they’re going to get out from under through clever diplomacy or anything.

SMITH: Right, right.

SESTANOVICH: To the contrary, he figures, as far as the eye can see, we’re looking at sanctions.

And there’s a lot of grief that’s expressed about it. You know, there’s a woman who stood up and said, you know, food prices have gone up a hundred percent in the past year. Now, I think the numbers really aren’t a hundred percent, but that’s something—that’s a kind of anger that is felt.

The only people who like sanctions—you probably know this, Julie—are dairy farmers. (Laughter.) You know, the Russian cheese industry is booming, but—

DIUK: Yeah, no more French cheeses.

SESTANOVICH: —but other people are—but other people are mad. And the result is a kind of pressure on Putin to say we’re listening to new ideas, we want to have a strategy. He has finally managed to lure Mr. Kudrin back into a position of semi-responsibility. You know, for four—

DIUK: Now, Kudrin is a sort of liberal economic—was a liberal economic reformer.

SESTANOVICH: This is—and very—

DIUK: Tell us—tell us what the significance of that is.

SESTANOVICH: He was the finance minister, the most—world’s most respected finance minister; you know, a kind of leader among the liberal technocrats in Moscow who resigned after Medvedev was appointed president in 2008. And—no, I’m sorry, he resigned after—in 2011, when it was announced that Putin was—

DIUK: The switch was on, yes.

SESTANOVICH: —was coming back and was appointing Medvedev as prime minister.

But he has—Putin has been trying to get Kudrin back into the government ever since, and there is—and, you know, his friends always circulate the rumor, “we’re about to get Kudrin back,” you know. He’s every—“he really is with us.” But he’s consistently refused, and the most he was willing to agree to was to be the director of a Kremlin-funded think tank—and, in taking the position, he said, you know, no reform is going to work unless you have political reform. So it’s a—it’s a pretty stiff message from the economists, the business community, and from the public that these things go together, and they’re not working.

DIUK: So that brings us to domestic politics, which is—which is the root of how the economy will be—will be conducted, how then you can conduct foreign policy. But what do we have in terms of domestic politics? There supposedly are parliamentary elections coming up in September 2016.

SESTANOVICH: What do you mean supposedly?

DIUK: Well—(laughter)—supposed parliamentary elections.

SESTANOVICH: Oh, I see. (Laughs.)

DIUK: The elections will take place. But I remember someone said that elections are a very expensive, useless ritual in Russia now.

SESTANOVICH: That’s not how Putin sees this. (Laughter.)

DIUK: Will they give—what sort of a legitimacy will they lend? And fill us in a bit as to what the approach—what Putin’s approach to this is? Because clearly he seems to be in trouble with the economy. He needs to change something.

SESTANOVICH: Look, the first thing you have to remember is the last parliamentary elections triggered the most significant anti-government demonstrations that you’ve had since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And they have not gotten over that. They’ve sort of—they worry that this process can be mismanaged.

You have half of the seats in the Duma this time that are going to be elected in single-mandate districts, so there’s less confidence that you can rig the thing—exactly right. Putin has taken the further bizarre step of appointing Ella Pamfilova, who is the former human rights ombudsman, to be the head of the Central Election Commission, firing his old, crooked pal who had delivered the votes time and again for him. He said, no, that just isn’t going to cut it this time; we’ve got to have somebody who seems really clean. When she was appointed, people said, oh, you know, she is just going to play along with Putin, she’s sold out. The first thing she’s done is cancel the results of elections in the Moscow suburbs just in the past week, saying, you know, actually Navalny’s people were mistreated, and this won’t do. So you have a little bit of ferment here.

And the real problem for Putin is that he’s not on the ballot. He’s popular, and he could win. But this is an occasion where he has to see whether, not being on the ballot, he nevertheless still has coattails.

He made in the call-in show, if you’ll allow me one more reference to it, a kind of pitiful defense of United Russia as kind of a force for stability. But he also promised that there would be a dramatic increase in the number of other parties represented. He sounded—he endorsed all of the angry challenges to the—to the system, about how it’s corrupt, you really need to have—you need to uproot a lot of this. So this is a political season in which Putin is not sure about what the results are going to be.

Now, you can overstate this. I think Putin is pretty confident that he’s going to come out OK. But he knows that last time it didn’t go well, and he knows that there’s much more unhappiness than there was last time. And that’s a—you know, a mix that he doesn’t like.

DIUK: Well, we know that when opposition candidates are allowed to run, like Alexei Navalny, he—when he ran for mayor of Moscow, he did actually get a surprising 27 percent of the vote. But then there are opposition politicians who are shot dead in cold blood in front of the Kremlin as well, so we have—we have a broad spectrum. And the opposition right now is not organizing very well, but—not being given access to media—

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Look, at the same time that Putin is trying to show he’s a reasonable guy, he wants to have, you know, a fair process, he wants to hear a lot of different views, he’s open to new ideas, he’s also allowing the, you know, YouTube—well, no, actually, on television they showed the sex tape of Prime Minister Kasyanov. You know, it’s kind of unbelievable. There is a kind of harassment of the opposition at the same time that there is this posture of being completely open to free and fair elections, you’re absolutely right.

Navalny isn’t going to be on the ballot because he’s kept—he’s not allowed to run anywhere. People are—there’s going to be a lot of very rough play. But the ingredients of unexpected results are there. And when the Kremlin is nervous it does a lot, both on the negative and repressive side, and on the sort of encouraging, open, pluralist side to try to convince the public that actually, you know, things are moving in the right direction. I would watch this—I will watch it carefully. (Laughter.)

GRIGAS: Well, and then even if the results can be expected, right—even if they think that they have the results under control, they can’t predict the reaction from the public. And I think that’s the main concern, as you highlighted, because—precisely because of the protest movements earlier, in 2011.

SESTANOVICH: You know, it’s worth remembering what triggered those demonstrations. It was the announcement that, you know, United Russia had—

DIUK: Putin and Medvedev were going to—

SESTANOVICH: No, no, no, no, no. That—it was after the elections, with the announcement of the results that people thought were just too transparently fixed. You know, people said, well—United Russia had gotten, essentially, 50 percent when they thought—you know, a lot of very sophisticated Russian computer scientists were, you know, crunching the vote numbers and came up with the conclusion that in a lot of places it was 30 percent. And you had an explosion. So, yeah, there is a problem fixing it.

I will say—I want to plus the current issue of Foreign Affairs, which is absolutely—I see a copy right there on this empty seat in front. Will you pick that up and—

Q: It’s mine. (Laughter.)

SESTANOVICH: —hold is up for the whole group? This is really a sensational collection of articles that Foreign Affairs has put together. But one of them that I would especially recommend is by Masha Lipman, who says, actually, you know, complete vote-rigging is not an option. She thinks it’s that—the problem that the Kremlin faces is more complicated than that, and so their solution has to be more complicated.

DIUK: Well, just quickly, before we turn to our members here for their questions, the question at the beginning of the session was: what to expect from Putin? Very quickly, the next six months, what should we be expecting to see from Putin? What will be his most interesting move?

SMITH: I don’t think we’ve seen the end in Syria. I mean, despite having announced a withdrawal of 30-some combat aircraft, they’ve taken about, you know, half of them. We saw the insertion of heavy artillery in recent days around Aleppo. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen in Syria. I think we’ll probably, in the not-too-distant future, issue last rites on the ceasefire, and then all bets are off. Would Russia re-engage in Syria? We don’t know. I think it’s likely.

I also think we’ll see further acts of intimidation across Europe, particularly in the Baltic States, the Baltic Sea, against Sweden and Finland, against other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, more buzzing of ships like the Donald Cook.

So I think we’re in for quite a ride, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end on really any front. And who knows what else could open up in another area? I mean, if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last couple of years is he really cherishes the element of surprise. And so I’m not prepared to say, oh, we certainly would never see this or that, because we—honestly, we don’t know.

But I think Syria is something to watch. And particularly as we see—I hope I’m wrong, but I think what we see is this unraveling of the ceasefire.

I don’t know, maybe you have something more optimistic. (Laughs.)

SESTANOVICH: I would say, between now and the election, downplaying of foreign policy, you know? Putin wants to convey the message, and to pacify the public with this message, that he is looking after pocketbook issues for them and is trying to address their concern. It’s going to be a—you know, it’s—the theme of the election is it’s the economy, stupid. (Laughter.) You’ve heard that before.

DIUK: Sounds familiar, oh yes.


GRIGAS: Well, I’ll take a little bit of a longer horizon than six months. But I think, longer term—let’s say five, 10 years—I think, if Putin remains in power, he will remain continuously aggressive abroad and he will be increasingly oppressive at home. I think we’ve seen his continuous consolidation of power—power also over the media and civil society. I think Russia’s becoming an increasingly oppressive place. And even—I’d say even if Russia—if Putin leaves the Kremlin, I wouldn’t consider that everything’s going to change, and that we’re going to see completely different leadership or completely different policies.

In terms of the work that I’ve done with Russia’s compatriot policies, those policies have been already in place before Putin even came to power. They are greatly related to also just Russia’s historical imperial project. So I would expect a bit more of the same, but just maybe in—you know, in different—you know, in different envelopes or with different coloring.

DIUK: Interesting. Has he built a system that will outlive him, as is indicated by one of the articles in the Foreign Affairs—sorry, Foreign Policy—Foreign Affairs journal? Sorry. (Laughs.)

SESTANOVICH: That’s the name of it, yes. (Laughs.)

DIUK: Mentioning the competition there. But let’s move on and turn it over to our members.

Please, if you would—if you have a question, please identify yourselves and make it brief. And also, if you have a particular member of our group that you would like to address the question to, please say so. I think we have some mics, and we’ll have the gentleman in the front here first.

Q: Hi. Jason Rockett, Greenmantle.

I was wondering if you could possibly speak about one of Putin’s confidants, Vladislav Surkov, and what is his future. Everything he’s had his hand in, from Nashi to Minsk II, has always seemed kind of sexy, but has ultimately not really succeeded or failed. Is Putin going to keep him around? If so, to do what? What do you see him doing in the next one to five years?

DIUK: Surkov. Is that a Steve question?

SESTANOVICH: I—you know—

DIUK: This is a broad question about Putin’s advisers.


DIUK: Who are they? And do they rotate? Do we know who they are? Should we expect to see others? Surkov certainly has played an important role in the last couple of years, but is he on the outs, perhaps?

SESTANOVICH: It is said—I mean, I just—the Moscow rumor mill is notoriously unreliable. I think you have to bear in mind that as Putin approaches elections, he’s letting a lot of people advise him. He’s paying a lot of money to keep people happy. How much he’s given to Surkov I don’t know. I would say probably less than Surkov had hoped for last time around.

DIUK: Question at the front here.

Q: Hello. Ben Fernandes.

So it seems like Putin or Russia has continued to conduct operations in Syria, despite they said that they pulled out. What do you think that they’re trying to get out of that? And two specific things I’m curious is, I mean, I’ve heard that they want to possibly try to push on NATO by trying to create tension between Turkey and the United States; and, of course, there’s the whole idea of having a sea base on the Mediterranean. So I’m curious if those things, if you think it’s something else, or what do you think he’s really trying to get out of Syria?

SMITH: Well, I think originally when they went into Syria, they just fundamentally had two goals.

One, last summer, it was pretty clear that the Assad regime was not looking that great, and that they were getting increasingly nervous. And so I think they deliberately reached out and wanted assistance from Russia, and so the number-one-goal was save the regime.

The second goal was: maintain our military base and presence there.

And then, of course, the goal that they gave the rest of us was we’re there to fight ISIS. But as we could see, throughout most of their campaign with the exception of the last few weeks before the withdrawal, there wasn’t that much effort in real time towards or against ISIS. They were, in fact, helping the regime gain more territory, and they were quite successful in that. The frustration for the Russians is, you know, if you take “clear, hold,” they had the clear; the Syrians were not able to hold the territory. And so there was certainly a frustration there with the lack of capacity on the part of the Syrians, which may have, in fact, triggered part of the decision on the withdrawal.

In any case, so I think—looking back at those two objectives, I think they felt like—Putin felt like he could check those two boxes. He did save the regime, in many ways, and he certainly was able to maintain and expand in some ways the presence that they have there, which is very important for them in the region. And then they had kind of a very soft effort to enhance their intel-sharing relationship with the Iraqis.

But in terms of Turkey, I mean, that might have been, you know, a side benefit in the eyes of the Russians, in the eyes of Putin, to create more tension inside the NATO alliance, call into question the security guarantee, call into question the viability of the alliance in the face of a threat, and then portray the Turks as irrational, unpredictable, you know, throw your descriptive, you know, objective at it—or adjective at it.

But ultimately, I think going forward now the Russians will have to make a decision, and that is can they, in fact, work with Assad and the Iranians? Can they reach some agreement? I mean, to date, the Syrians have not been really delivering at the table on the political negotiation side in ways that I think Russia expected. The fact that the Syrians went forward with parliamentary elections, even though the parameters of the ceasefire deal said that that would come later in the process, I think was not seen as a positive step on the part of the Russians. And this is actually outlined also, I think, in the Foreign Affairs edition here, in another article on kind of the Syrian-Russian relationship.

So, yeah, looking forward, I think it’s likely that they may re-engage. For them, they’ll have to determine their objectives. What’s motivating them to do so? Is it their own military needs? Is it a drive to support Assad, to help them get a stronger hand? Is it kind of repositioning Russia vis-à-vis the Iranians? I mean, that relationship is not watertight either. And I think we should seize on that and do everything we can to drive a wedge there as well. But it’s complicated in the sense that they portray their mission in one sense and then—you know, to us, the West—and then the reality looks quite different, I think, in many ways.

GRIGAS: It’s also—well, it’s also—just a side note. It’s interesting how they portray it domestically. And I think that the Syrian campaign, like the Ukrainian campaign, was also an effort to create this, you know, great power posturing. And it was also interesting for me to see the rhetoric that was used in Syria by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch Kirill, who said that Russia here is on a holy war to protect Christians. So that’s kind of an expansion of Russia’s mission in the world. Before it was more just about protecting, you know, the so-called Russian compatriots, the ethnic Russians, and so on. Now it’s broader. So that was interesting. An expansion of ideology.

DIUK: We’ll go one row behind.

Q: Thank you, Nadia. John Sullivan with George Mason.

Quick question, but a more complicated one perhaps. When you get in trouble and you focus everything domestically, one thing that a person in Putin’s position can think of doing is changing his team, shaking it up. You’ve already mentioned bringing in Kudrin. What is the likelihood that Medvedev stays? And does he make other changes in his team to say, yes, we’ve heard your message and here’s the new team, and we’re going to fix it?

SESTANOVICH: People have been writing Medvedev’s obituary from the moment Putin returned to the presidency. And I have to think either he just hasn’t seen the right moment for sacrificing him, or he really wants to keep him around because he is the prime minister that Putin has total confidence in, somebody who cannot usurp his position. I will say—I said I’d made my last description of the call-in show—(laughter)—

SMITH: One more.

SESTANOVICH: What he said about Medvedev was kind of cool in the call-in show. It was, you know, the government is weak. We need to get them tightening up. We need to crack down on corruption. We need a whole series of measures. Surely he’s hearing from Kudrin that Medvedev is not able to deliver on any kind of reform package. So if he wants to show he gets it, he’s going to take a new approach after the parliamentary elections, you might say that—you know, that sacrificing Medvedev would be a good—a good approach there. Medvedev is his best bud. And I will be surprised the day that he gets fired.

If you ask people among—you know, in Moscow, the Moscow rumor mill that I’ve said is totally unreliable, they think there’s no chance that there’s going to be a significant new approach to economic issues until Putin is reelected. So if you’re not going to do that, then what’s the advantage of having—you know, of replacing Medvedev with somebody who’s going to insist—I mean, if you wanted to go with Kudrin, for example, that would be a real message. But if he’s not prepared to implement anything that Kudrin says, then you’re just going to have Kudrin quit after a year. And he doesn’t need that.

DIUK: Putin’s reelection is 2018?

SESTANOVICH: ’18, yeah.

DIUK: So we’re assuming Putin’s reelection in 2018, just to—

SESTANOVICH: I’m not assuming it, but I think he probably has it on his calendar. (Laughter.)

DIUK: Let’s take one more on his side. Maybe in the middle here.

Q: Walt Slocombe from the Atlantic Council.

What do you make of the buzzing incident? And if it happens again, what should the United States and NATO do?

DIUK: The planes were awfully close.

SMITH: Go ahead. I’ll jump in after you.

GRIGAS: Well, first of all, I don’t think that was something so new, because Russia has been violating, you know, the Baltic air space for years, even though they’re NATO members. Maybe what’s surprising that their boldness was, considering the events in Turkey, well, that the Russian airplane was actually shot down not so recently. But I see this as a type of continuation of intimidation that has been going on for years and will continue going on.

SMITH: We just had a NATO-Russia meeting, as you know, NATO-Russia council a couple of days ago last week. And the hope was that by turning the lights back on and reengaging in that dialogue, which has been shut down for the better part of the last two years, we would find a venue where we could talk about these near-miss incidents and reestablish the rules of engagement. But unfortunately, despite the fact that the meeting went over by some length, there was no agreement and no consensus on how NATO could serve a purpose in extending a hand to Russia on this single subject. I mean, they also talked about Afghanistan a little bit, but essentially the meeting was designed to focus on exactly this.

And if you’re not going to make progress there, we’ve also tried in bilateral channels to work U.S.-Russia, particularly through mil-to-mil engagement or through DOD to their MOD. And that hasn’t created huge amounts of progress. But this is one of the more pressing needs in the relationship. I mean, there are a number of countries, particularly in Europe, that are stating we need more engagement with Russia. In some ways, they want to have the more engagement because they know that the deterrence focus of the summit is going to create more friction.

But in other ways, I think the most important focus of engaging this—at this point, is to avoid these types of incidents. We’ve had too many near misses with commercial airliner, with military ships, as we just saw, but also many incidents in the Baltic airspace, the Baltic sea. We had a just—we could go on and on—a number of incidents that really could have ended badly. So at this point, we have to—to the extent that we’re going to engage with these guys in any channel, this should be top of the pops.

Not necessarily sending a signal that we’re done isolating Russia and that we’re going to forget about Ukraine or we’re going to go light on sanctions, but to really get at the heart of how do we ensure that we avoid an incident where suddenly, because Russia has the transponder turned off on some aircraft and it collides with a commercial airliner, we have a huge tragedy on our hands. So this—I don’t know if we’ll make progress. I was hoping this might be the one subject where NATO could really make some progress. But given how unproductive that engagement was last week, I just don’t know where we go from here.

DIUK: Let’s switch to this side.

SESTANOVICH: Can I just add one thing?

Q: What should we do if it happens again?


Q: What should we do if it happens again?


DIUK: Go ahead, Steve.

SESTANOVICH: You know, Julie’s absolutely right that the—you know, the line that everybody in NATO has been taking is that we need strength and dialogue. I mean, every speech that Sandy Vershbow has given for the past couple of months has said that. And they’re good speeches—(laughter)—because, you know, they want to be able to give some cover to the NATO members that are less comfortable with the strength part of the policy.

I have asked military people: What are the different ways of responding to this? You know, are there sort of rules of engagement, just standard operating procedures of different kinds—you know, some that are maybe a little edgier than others, maybe? I mean, what are the choices? And I haven’t gotten an interesting response. But it seems to me, that’s what one ought to be asking now, is—you know, is there something about this that—is there a way of responding to it that would actually make the Russians begin to say, wait, you know, this is—this is going to be dangerous in exactly the way that Julie says. And I don’t know the answer to that.

SMITH: So—oh, sorry. Go ahead.

GRIGAS: No, but Turkey has responded already, right? They shot down the plane. And that didn’t seem to—(laughter)—really stop it.

SESTANOVICH: Well, it’s a good point. But you know, here’s what I would say to that.

GRIGAS: No, but I’m saying—

SESTANOVICH: Putin said: We know how to respond. We’re going to get you. And you know what? They didn’t.

SMITH: Can I just say—I mean, so, in the immediate—the good news is we film everything. And this was a remarkably incidence where we did not allow the bureaucratic chains to weigh down our ability to get out the facts immediately. And the fact that that video was up and out, and the speed with which it—that’s important. So that’s step one. That’s not going to stop them. But establishing facts on the ground has been kind of a weakness on our side. And I think that was very well-handled in my mind. So that’s, again, not going to solve the problem but it’s a good, I’ll take it, step number one.

Step number two, in the long term as we think through this, assuming they’re not going to stop and we’re going to see more incidents, I mean, thinking through what do you do asymmetrically? So you want to ensure that the guys on the ship don’t shoot down the Russian plane, right? That I think we’re in agreement that would be a bad idea. And yet, you want to figure out how to apply pressure. Do thinking about what do you do somewhere else that creates a problem for them. And you can do that in lots of ways, but thinking about something away from the immediate act of what just transpired—you know, maybe it’s for the next administration, I don’t know, or folks inside this administration. But to think through how do you apply pressure in another realm I think is worth thinking about. I assume somebody’s thinking about that, I hope so, somewhere inside the U.S. team. But thinking more creatively in those terms might be a good way to go about it.

DIUK: Well, we are on the record, so hopefully someone will be watching this and taking your point.

SMITH: We’ll see.

DIUK: We have the lady at the back there.

Q: Hi. Claire Casey, Garten Rothkopf.

I’m curious, I’ve heard Russian opposition figures in Washington say that Putin’s strong suit is not economic policy, that he’s not great in that area. Given that the stresses have really just exposed major structural issues in the economy, industrial policy reforms seem often to be working at cross purposes. What can he deliver in an economy that’s just about the economy, stupid—or the election that’s just about the economy, stupid? Can he really deliver for the Russian people and change things in the long term?

SESTANOVICH: Putin’s problem is not that he hasn’t taken econ 101, you know? (Laughter.) It’s that the—it’s just as Kudrin says, these issues are not just structural economic questions, they are structural political questions, you know? What the—read the Foreign Affairs articles. They say it all. You know, the issues are corruption, rule of law, you know, state power in the economy, privatizing state corporations.

But you do that, and the political ramifications are huge. And Putin has not really wanted to step up to this. I think that’s the big—you know, this is why the liberal technocrats wring their hands. They’ve got all of the, you know, reform plans in the drawer ready to pull out at any time in user-friendly form. The real issue is can Putin swallow the political implications of doing what they recommend? And their conclusion has been not now, not this year, not next year, not the year after. Maybe after that. (Laughter.)

GRIGAS: Well, also, to add on that, I think this election about—election being about economics is rhetorically election about economics. And I’m not sure to what extent there will be real changes, because if you look—

SESTANOVICH: Oh, that’s for sure, yeah.

GRIGAS: And also if you look over Putin’s regime, for example, the numbers to compare from 2003 to 2013, the percentage of oil and gas in Russia’s budget revenue’s dramatically increased, almost doubled. So despite all talk throughout Putin’s regime, and during a period of high oil prices, of diversifying the economy, diversifying away from oil and gas, from reforms, that never happened. And I think because in Putin’s mind, his real core interest is not the Russian economy. It’s remaining in power. It’s consolidating his power. Its enriching himself and his associates. And as well as working on this great Russia model—you know, great Russia. So I think, you know, the economics will take a, you know, backseat to that.

DIUK: A question from Anya there.

Q: Anya Schmemann, Council on Foreign Relations.

So Putin may want the Russian people to think that he’s going to be focusing on economics, but the reality is he probably won’t be able to deliver, because his bucket of goodies is running low. And the tried and true Russian playbook is when you want to distract the Russian population, you engineer some sort of foreign policy crisis, you—you know, you engage in activities abroad, and you bring home a victory. And so—and this is mostly to Steve—why wouldn’t Putin do some sort of foreign policy—something dramatic in foreign policy in the next couple months to ensure that the election goes his way?

DIUK: Remember, things happen in August.

SMITH: The election—our election.

SESTANOVICH: I don’t think—I don’t think one should just rule that out and say, oh, Putin could never do that because you’re right. Foreign policy calculations are based on—often on how they’ll play out at home. I’m interested that right now Putin’s message to people in preparing the run-up to the election is: I’m not trying to flimflam you with foreign policy victories. I get what your real concerns are. The concerns are, essentially, abuse of power, a corrupt and intolerably rigged system. So I would expect that to be the theme. But if you tell me in September that something—some little target of opportunity has emerged, I won’t be stunned.

DIUK: At the back there.

Q: Hi. Jeremy Young with Al Jazeera’s investigative unit.

I have a question that’s a little bit lighter. I know Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and they’re also slated to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. And I was just was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how those events fit into Putin’s foreign policy strategy, and also whether the allegations of corruption, systemic doping, bribery, other human rights violations—whether that puts a dent into his strategy for hosting those events, and whether that impacts his overall success.

SESTANOVICH: They don’t like the suggestion that they’ve heard from time to time that maybe the World Cup shouldn’t be held in Russia. That does not go over well. On the other hand, the response to the doping issue has been kind of interesting. It’s, we’ve really got to look into this. I mean, this is Putin’s answer to an awful lot of things these days. We’ve got to look into it. I’m on that one. You know, on his call-in show—(laughter)—there somebody had a, you know, grievous complaint about construction fraud, and ripped off, you know, all his people lost all their money. And Putin said, can you give me the name of the construction company and the address? (Laughter.) So he’s really—that’s his mode these days. I’m on it. But it’s true of the doping issue.

Q: They had to be—for example, for the World Cup, that they rented computers that they used to work to gain the bid, and then the computers were erased and then sent back to the company that they—there was no—they kept no evidence of any of the communications throughout that process. I mean, they’ll be no repercussions for any of that. Do you think there’ll be repercussions for the, you know, WADA report which basically said that the country was responsible for systemic doping and that the Russian lab destroyed evidence. I mean, are we not going to see any ramifications on a global scale for any of these, you know, various potential serious violations?

GRIGAS: Well, it’s difficult to come up with global ramifications, right, or responses to, you know, war, like the Russia-Georgian War of 2008, the annexation of Crimea. So you know, it might be tough to hold Russia accountable. I’m just throwing that out there.

SESTANOVICH: I’ll give you a semi-serious answer, actually. Putin’s whole system is sometimes portrayed as one where he just gives the order to do all these terrible things. You know, get on the doping right now. And, you know, kill so-and-so in the Washington hotel. And you know, do this and do that that’s terrible. My image of it is a little different. It’s that there are a lot of people out there who know that they can do these things, and Putin will cover their tracks. He will not allow prosecutions of them. He may actually be unhappy—I think, almost surely—is unhappy with the whole doping story, and probably is telling people, we’ve really got to fix this because we can’t be excluded from international sports.

But is he going to let anybody pay the price for it? Is anybody going to go to jail, lose their job, you know, lose their livelihood? That’s possible always, but that’s contrary to Putin’s playbook. Putin’s playbook is, we smooth it over. You know, the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky, we cover up for them, even though Putin and his buddies gained nothing from that. The system is one in which you cover up, even when the crimes are ones you had nothing to do with and they don’t benefit you, and actually harm you.

DIUK: I think we have time for one last question, which will be the lady in the front row.

Q: Hi. Wendy Frieman.

Can we switch for just a minute from Russian elections to American elections? I’m just curious who he would like to see elected, or not? (Laughter.)

SMITH: Go ahead, Steve.

SESTANOVICH: You should read this brilliant piece by Tim Snyder in the New York Review of Books. It’s called either Trump’s Putin Fantasy or Putin’s Trump Fantasy, or whichever it is. (Laughter.) It is full of zingers. It is so funny and so insightful. But he basically says Putin would love to deal with Trump, because Trump is essentially a weak figure whom he would be able to manipulate successfully. There’s a little bit of Putin mindreading in that that I can’t vouch for and I’m kind of uncomfortable with. I think if Putin wants a kind of accommodation, some way out of this period of confrontation, he may actually be happier with somebody who’s a consensus politician here, whose actions won’t be quite so controversial. He doesn’t want an accommodation to be something that’s discredited and repudiated. He wants a president who can deliver.

DIUK: Any further thoughts about U.S. policy the Russia, Putin’s views on any of the other candidates?

SMITH: Well, he—no, the Russians, they obviously know Secretary Clinton. And they have had some rough times. I mean, after their elections and the protests they blamed—personally they accused Hillary Clinton of meddling in the election. And things got pretty tense. And so I think they—I don’t—it’s so hard to calculate. I think they would maybe assume that she would carry on with current policy, but maybe open and review things like, you know, possibly arming Ukrainians might be back on the table. She may end up in the same spot as President Obama, but I think she would open up the door on some of the debates, and look at things. We’re not going to have a permanent U.S. presence in Europe after this summit this summer, but maybe under a future president—


SMITH: We are not, no. No permanent presence—U.S. presence in Central and Eastern Europe.

SESTANOVICH: In Eastern Europe.

GRIGAS: Military presence.

SMITH: Yes, military.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, but the Russians aren’t—they don’t—they know what heel to toe means. They know it’s persistent.

SMITH: It’s persistent, but I think we get their attention also—

SESTANOVICH: That means—that means permanent for them.

SMITH: Building something in Poland we definitely get their attention. We’re not quite there.


SMITH: Anyways, who knows? But I think there is some assumption that she would revisit some of the debates we’ve already had, and maybe tighten the screws even more. I don’t know. But it’s just so hard to get—I mean, who knows? Maybe he does believe there’d be some concession with Trump. I don’t know. Hard to say.

DIUK: Well, I think on that we have to come back to the question that started this, what to expect from Putin? And I don’t know that we’re any the wiser after this session. (Laughter.)


DIUK: We’re where we started. We raised a lot of other additional questions. But thank you so much for a very rich discussion. It’s given us a lot to think about. I appreciate the members who came and posed questions, and listening to this fabulous session. And please do read the issue of Foreign Affairs. It will stimulate your thoughts even more. And join me in thanking our group here this evening. (Applause.)