Putin’s Long Game in Ukraine: The Kremlin Perspective

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Putin’s Long Game in Ukraine: The Kremlin Perspective

As the world anticipates Russia’s next move in Ukraine, one of Vladimir Putin’s top advisors has laid out how Moscow sees the future of its struggle against the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to announce a new phase in his war against Ukraine on May 9, a national holiday known as Victory Day because it marks the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. With Russian forces making slow progress in Ukraine, some analysts believe Putin will threaten military escalation and call for mass mobilization; others envision formal annexation of Ukrainian territory; still others, a declaration of victory with scaled-down aims.

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Whatever Putin announces in this speech, the choices that he and his senior advisors make concerning Russia’s global position in the long term—and the policies needed to sustain it—will be just as important, perhaps more so.

How does Putin’s inner circle view Russia’s position?

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Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Putin’s Security Council and considered by many to be his most influential advisor, explored Moscow’s options in a major interview last week with the primary government news outlet Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Patrushev had little to say about the war itself—beyond predicting “the disintegration of Ukraine into several states”—but he provided a clear portrait of the world beyond May 9, as seen from the Kremlin.

However the war unfolds, Putin’s inner circle assumes no letup in Russia’s broader confrontation with Europe and the United States. Western governments, Patrushev argues, will continue to aim for the “humiliation and destruction of Russia.” If anything, his interview suggests, the threat will grow: he predicts a “revival of Nazi ideas in Europe,” in part a result of the arrival of so many Ukrainian refugees. These “radicals,” he observes, “have already found a common language with European fans of Hitler.”

Patrushev’s assessment contains a familiar claim that the West is in sharp decline. “Neo-liberal values,” he judges, referring to what he sees as rampant consumerism and individualism, are undermining state institutions in Europe: “With such a doctrine, Europe and European civilization have no future.” Similarly, he insists that “the American global empire is in agony.” But there is no comfort for Russia in such a forecast, since the United States tries to solve its own problems “at the expense of the rest of the world,” he says.

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How does the Kremlin see its options going forward?

How will Russia respond to this international environment of unremitting economic sanctions, military campaigns, political hostility, and ideological subversion? For Patrushev, the answer is clear: the country needs new internal controls designed to insulate it against external contacts and influences. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) model for this tightening up is Soviet-style autarky, an attempt at national self-sufficiency that affects many areas, including trade and monetary policy, education, support for science, and regulation of the internet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends Orthodox Easter services at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in April 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends Orthodox Easter services at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in April 2022. Getty Images

The adjustments sketched out in Patrushev’s interview begin with a shift (made necessary by Western sanctions) away from European markets to those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  But they also involve a radical embrace of import substitution, a protectionist model that replaces imported goods with domestically produced ones to eliminate dependence on foreign partners. The high-tech goods that support a modern economy will have to be produced at home; food imports will be minimized. Political adjustments are needed as well, Patrushev emphasizes: to work, import substitution requires that everyone “follow the instructions of the head of state.” To protect the value of the ruble, and avoid the calamity of default, a new monetary system (with an important but unspecified role for gold) is also necessary.

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What other changes are possible?     

Economic restructuring is only the beginning of the changes Patrushev envisions. Successful development, he insists, depends on protecting an educational system that Russia’s enemies are determined to destroy. Introducing “progressive” models of education, he charges, is “as strategic a task for Westerners as bringing [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)] closer to our borders.” What Russia needs, it seems to Patrushev, is a system that produces both scientific advances and obedient citizens—who understand from early childhood “what we all live and work for as a single people.” It has to “develop logical thinking” without too much individualism, too much contact with the outside world, and too much reliance on digital connectivity. (The internet, he reminds readers, can be “a source of misinformation.”) Given these imperatives, where Patrushev ends up—with a nostalgic endorsement of “the Soviet school of education”—is hardly a surprise.   

Putinist ideology extols patriotic pride, and Patrushev sounds these notes repeatedly. Russia, he says, has chosen the path of “full protection of sovereignty, firm defense of national interests, cultural and spiritual identity, traditional values and historical memory.” His Rossiskaya Gazeta interview makes clear the goals the Kremlin has set for itself beyond Victory Day.

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