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What does Putin want?

International efforts to get Vladimir Putin to negotiate or at least fear the consequences of invading Ukraine have failed. Clearly, Putin doesn’t yet have what he wants.

Russian howitzers are loaded onto train cars at a station outside Taganrog, Russia, near the border with Ukraine, on Feb. 22.THE NEW YORK TIMES/NYT

On Monday night, President Vladimir Putin of Russia addressed the Russian people and prepared them for war. Hours later, he ordered troops to move into Eastern Ukraine, in what the White House characterized as the beginning of an invasion.

Russia can no longer stand by while the American-controlled government of Volodymyr Zelensky pulls Ukraine into NATO, he said. “Ukraine,” Putin stated in his broadcast to the nation, “will serve as a forward springboard for a strike” against Russia.

International efforts to get Putin to negotiate or at least fear the consequences of invasion have failed. Clearly, Putin doesn’t yet have what he wants. What does he want?


Security. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 precipitated the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. East European countries that had been members of the Warsaw Pact — the Soviet answer to NATO — wanted insurance that they wouldn’t be threatened by Russia in the future. Fourteen countries joined NATO, moving the border of the alliance 600 miles closer to Russia.

Russia didn’t like this, but for many years couldn’t object, beset as it was by an economic crisis and a weak state. When Putin came to power in 2000, he set about restoring the Russian state, first at home and then abroad. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia to emphasize that soliciting NATO and European Union membership for a country on its borders was a red line that couldn’t be crossed.

Ukraine joining NATO would mean that the border between Russia and Russia’s declared enemy, NATO, would be another 600 miles closer, and there would no longer be a buffer between NATO and Russia. For a country that has always seen itself as “encircled by enemies,” this is unacceptable. In the view of the Kremlin, security depends on having friendly states around it.


The irony, of course, is that Ukraine was reasonably friendly with Russia before 2014. Russia is its largest trading partner and the countries share aspects of their history and language. Since Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatists in the East in 2014, fewer Ukrainians see Russia as a benevolent neighbor. Good neighbors don’t hand out 700,000 Russian passports to Ukrainians in case they need a pretext to “protect” them later.

Respect. The Kremlin believes that it is one of the three great powers of the world, along with China and the United States. But it has not been treated as such, despite its impressive nuclear arsenal and its contributions to global civilization. Efforts to get American attention by acting as a spoiler in Syria or harboring cybercriminals have not generated respect. Threatening to attack one of the biggest countries in Europe? Now Putin has our attention. Is attention the same as respect? The parade of Western leaders meeting Putin at his very long table suggests that he is being treated seriously, but this is not enough to keep him from going to war.

Domestic Stability. Could Putin be hoping to get a popularity boost by going to war with Ukraine as he did after annexing Crimea in 2014? Then, his popularity jumped about 20 percent to over 80 percent. Those ratings held for about three years until massive anti-corruption protests brought them back down to the earlier level. Now polls suggest that half the population thinks that street demonstrations are again possible, despite the crackdown on media, political opposition, and educational institutions.


People who left the separatist-held territories of eastern Ukraine following Russian claims about an attack by Ukraine watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's televised address in their hotel room in Taganrog, Russia, on Feb. 21.SERGEY PONOMAREV/NYT

A government that can’t count on legitimacy from free and fair elections needs other sources of popular support. Could Putin be counting on “Making Russia Great Again” to solidify his popular support? Maybe. It’s hard to know exactly what Russians are thinking, especially since, as of last week, most believed the West was just being hysterical over military exercises. Invading your “brother Slavs” and killing a large number of people is unlikely to be seen in the same light as the bloodless annexation of Crimea. And given that the Kremlin has only this past weekend started mobilizing Russians in support of a war (“to fight Western aggression”), it doesn’t look like Putin is making decisions to boost his popularity.

Legacy. In 2016 Moscow unveiled a 56-foot statue of Prince Vladimir, whose military conquests united the provinces of Kyiv and Novgorod into the precursor of the Russian state a thousand years ago. At the dedication ceremony for this monument, Putin said — no doubt enjoying the reference to his namesake — “Prince Vladimir has gone down forever in history as the unifier and defender of Russian lands, as a visionary politician.”

In his 22 years as president, Putin has done much to “lift Russia from her knees,” as the Russian expression goes. The state reasserted its control over the country’s more than 80 regions, the economy has grown steadily (if more sluggishly as of late); Russian foreign policy is now taken into account by the West, and there is a genuine sense of national pride. The one thing Putin hasn’t yet managed to do is fix the mistake made when former presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were “tricked” into letting NATO move closer and closer to Russia’s borders.


Putin would like Russians to call him the defender of Russian lands in a thousand years, and he may well believe bringing Ukraine back under Russian control — directly or indirectly — would ensure that he too would be seen as Vladimir the Great.

Perhaps Putin believes that his high-risk/high-reward strategy will pay off. Or perhaps he doesn’t see it as high risk because, as he stated on Monday, the West is going to blackmail Russia with sanctions no matter what it does. The one thing we do know is that we cannot give Putin what he wants.

Alexandra Vacroux is executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.