What Motivates Putin?

Russia is losing the fight in Ukraine, according to Western observers. However, that is only a Western viewpoint.

According to mainstream American strategic thinking, the last thing Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted was to unite NATO, entice Finland and Sweden to join, and force Germany to rearmament. However, regardless of what occurs on the battlefield, Putin may still have several options for victory.

It will be a success for Putin if he can get Ukraine to promise not to join NATO or the EU. It's also a triumph if he obtains Ukrainian neutrality. It's also a gain if he wrecks havoc and flees, allowing the West to deplete its resources by spending tens, if not hundreds of billions, on Ukraine's restoration. Even if he does not gain a single inch of additional Ukrainian land, if he can use the conflict to hunt out domestic opponents, bolster his internal security service, choke the remaining remnants of a free press, and increase his approval ratings at the same time, that is a significant victory.

And if Western sanctions ease, Western solidarity erodes, and Russian exports resume, his bold gamble may have paid off even better than he anticipated. He could be stronger at home and more feared abroad in that situation, which is precisely what he wants.

Joshua Rovner of American University argues in an article for "War on the Rocks" that Putin is an ineffective strategist since he has destroyed the Russian economy and set the Western world against him. That is, if you look at his behavior through the eyes of a Westerner. Anwar Sadat was chastised for launching a war against Israel in 1973, a conflict he was very guaranteed to lose and did, in fact, lose horribly. But, in Sadat's opinion, success did not have to be achieved by fighting Israel. He restored Arab prestige, which had been gravely wounded during the 1967 Six-Day War, simply by striking first and catching Israel off guard. He strengthened his hand at home as a result of the practice. Egyptians regarded him with awe and reverence. His calculations were difficult for Israelis and Westerners to grasp, which is why the strike took everyone off surprise.

We frequently mistake our adversaries for a simple reason: we place too much emphasis on the enemy's goals when judging their conduct, yet what we really need to figure out is what motivates them. To put it another way, if an adversary wants to do something, drivers must explain why they want to do it.

It's easy to project our own thoughts onto others, expecting they'll think and act the same way we do—a phenomenon known as mirror image. However, comprehending Putin necessitates going outside of our own worldview and attempting to see the world through his eyes. To do so, we must rethink our preconceptions about what motivates him to behave.

In the case of Putin, Western critics frequently regard his acts as strategies, whereas they may truly be reflections of his basic motivations. Daring, for example, is frequently thought of as a strategy, but it may also be a motivator. Putin tends to view daring as a sign of boldness, strong leadership, and a desire to put Russian interests first, based on his past actions (that is, Russian interests as he sees them). However, from a Western viewpoint, Putin's previous forceful measures may have appeared to be more like calculated opportunism. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, for example, he might easily have moved soldiers into the country's capital, Tbilisi. Instead, he restricted himself to conquering areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which border Russia.

His annexation of Crimea in 2014 was not the result of a well-planned attack, but rather a reaction to Ukraine's Maidan movement, which saw the country's pro-Russian president deposed and stripped Putin of power in Kyiv. He saw the opportunity to accomplish an irridentist goal and seized it. After successful operations in eastern Ukraine in 2015, Russian soldiers might have advanced further west, but Putin did not. Aggressive? Clearly. However, each of these measures appeared to be careful. Putin may have been perceived as a gradualist by Western observers, not a man who would go too far.

His actions showed that Putin would not start the present conflict until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, if we go further into his fundamental drives and examine underneath his prior actions, we may find that daring is at the center of them.

Putin may be motivated not just by a desire to be viewed as a bold opponent, but also by a desire to be perceived as a cruel foe. In true KGB form, he has used nerve agents and injected radioactive compounds into his opponents. Cruelty of this nature is unnecessary. It is both expensive and difficult to carry out. A single bullet would be enough. We must consider the idea that he finds delight in committing heinous murders. The crimes perpetrated by Russian forces, certainly with his approval, are grisly proof of the Russian leader's preferred behavior.

If just a few troops were involved in the war crimes, they may be regarded unusual. However, the scope of the crimes, which range from rapes to torture to the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, definitely reflect a strategy, or at the very least a pattern, that could only be continued with Putin's approval. Putin is well aware that such acts are unnecessary, and that they may even boost the Ukrainian opposition. They could, however, make him happy. Again, cruelty isn't just a method; in his case, it's more of a driver: a driving force; a strong desire to act in a specific way.

Brutality and audacity may serve an even deeper motivation for him: self-promotion and nation-building. His objective of restoring Russian dominance allows him to utilize diplomatic measures to achieve it, but he is not afraid to use force if nonviolent moves fail. Putin has three main goals, according to Nataliya Bugayova of the Institute for the Study of War: "the maintenance of his rule, the end of American hegemony, and the restoration of Russia as a worldwide force." But they're all working toward the same goal: restoring Russia's greatness. Both consolidating his control and weakening America are methods to that objective.

The purpose stems from his primary motivation of self-promotion, which he achieves by deception when feasible, severe violence when required, and even pleasure when appropriate. These attributes may be among the most important underlying impulses motivating Russia's new ruler, and they are qualities that many onlookers may have ignored in assessing his intentions. We could be better able to predict Putin's likely future movements if we understand his motivations.

Putin's motivations may have led him to a perfectly fair course of action, but it is not one that a democratic leader would follow. Putin may succeed in self-aggrandizement, probable national aggrandizement (at least in his and many Russians' views), as well as showcasing his boldness and cruelty, even if Russian soldiers are eventually compelled to withdraw from all of Ukraine. Putin's strategic thinking is not illogical nor stupid; it is just unfamiliar to the majority of us. However, if we want to overcome him, we must learn to think like someone who holds his abhorrent views.

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