Making Sense of Putin's Disastrous Foreign Adventures

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education on January 21. The most important goals for the Kremlin are domestic ones, the author writes, but Putin has long run out of the domestic means for reaching those objectives. Sergei Ilnitsky/Reuters

This article first appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

Measuring the success of Russia's largest and most recent "cross-border" projects—Ukraine and Syria—is extremely difficult. What could be considered Russia's ultimate goals there?

We often assume that Russia has fixed, clearly defined goals and then judge Moscow's progress accordingly. In theory, the Kremlin is aiming at a stabilized, safely pro-Russian Ukraine and a pre-2011 Syria, complete with Bashar al-Assad's fully restored government and with no militant opposition or the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) on the horizon. If achieved, both of these goals would lead Russia back into history's superpower hall of fame.

If we use these (or similar, less ambitious) goals as a yardstick, we would inevitably arrive at disastrous conclusions.

Only modest gains have been made on the ground in Syria. Russia is still not accepted as a full partner by the West. Moscow is embroiled in Cold War-style confrontation with a previously friendly Turkey and has to brace itself for an extended war effort in the Middle East.

"[Vladimir] Putin's 'crafty' Syrian chess move has left him with a lot more dead Russians; newly at odds with Turkey and Iran; weakened in Ukraine; acting as the defense lawyer for Assad—a mass murderer of Sunni Muslims, the same Sunni Muslims as Putin has in Russia; and with no real advances against ISIS," Tom Friedman of The New York Times writes in an imaginary dialogue with a Putin apologist.

The Ukraine settlement may be seen as fragile and politically unprofitable. "With no more quick and easy Crimea-style operations on the horizon, the Kremlin finds itself stuck in a psychologically unsatisfactory holding pattern," writes former U.S. diplomat Kirk Bennett. "Waiting for oil and gas prices to recover, for the West to fragment and for Ukraine to implode."

Meanwhile, the economic costs of Russia's escapades in Ukraine and Syria are huge and growing. Russia's isolation from the West is becoming more entrenched, relations with China are cooling, and Russia is suffering economically.

No end is in sight to the slowdown caused by a combination of adverse oil prices, Western sanctions and a failure to attract investment. Oil prices are down 60 percent from their peak in June 2014, and the downward pressure is only accelerating.

OPEC is continuing to defend its market share by any means necessary: The price of oil went down 14 percent in a week since the cartel indicated it would no longer cap its members' levels of production.

"[Oil below $40] is possible," Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in December. "Oil may reach $30. Low prices may dominate the entire coming year," Siluanov is saying now. Today's ruble would buy you, roughly, 50 to 70 percent of what it would a year ago.

The Russians should be very upset, and yet the majority of my countrymen seem to be comfortable with what's going on. Putin remains popular. Many of the staunchest Putin critics are now his allies, precisely because he has given them that sense of a resurging Russia.

"We bared our teeth; we made them respect us; we made them pay attention; they don't like us, but let them at least fear us." These are typical phrases that arise in focus group discussions of the current state of affairs, says Denis Volkov, sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent pollster.

Many Russians feel better about their lives despite the deteriorating economic conditions. In 2015, despite a decline on every economic count, Russia has gone up from 68th to 58th place in the Legatum Institute's Prosperity Index. (The index measures overall prosperity as a combination of material wealth and subjective impressions of well-being.)

"In many countries, objective and subjective data track one another: when conditions are good, citizens perceive them to be good (and vice versa)," Peter Pomerantsev and Nathan Gamester of the Legatum Institute write in explaining their data. "But sometimes, it is the gap between perceptions and reality that tells the most interesting story."

To my mind, what's happening is not bad planning and missed targets. These are shifting plans and moving targets. The most important goals, the ones the Kremlin really cares about, are the domestic ones. But Putin has long run out of the domestic means to reach those goals. That's why he decided to go beyond Russia's borders.

Foreign policy objectives are not ends in themselves. That is why Russia's actions in Ukraine or in Syria may be seen as failures. These actions are not meant to be successful in a straightforward sense; they are a means to maintaining regime security.

The goals are negative, rather than positive. Action is taken to prevent something from happening, not to make something happen.

Putin went after Crimea and on into Ukraine because he felt he could not afford not to. Putin went into Syria because he felt he could not afford to stay isolated. Isolation would be deadly for his political system, which is tied to the West via thousands of business and personal bonds.

During its two-month campaign in the Middle East, Moscow has shifted its focus a few times already: The target has been moving with the political wind. Turkey was needed in one situation but became a means to scoring immediate goals in another situation. Russia's economic outlook does not even enter this picture. Russians' incomes and well-being (material, not symbolic) are expendable.

The Russian politician thrives on conflict, not on achieving policy objectives or specific military targets (just as your typical Russian high-ranking official thrives on expenditure rather than revenue). Targets are movable.

No one will judge Putin domestically for aiming at the Syrian city of Homs instead of Raqqa, or for sending the ruble down 60 percent instead of 20 percent—as long as his regime is in place. He will always be right as long as he controls regime security. He will be wrong on every count as soon as he loses control.

This is how he himself must be thinking. Otherwise, he would not be pulling frantically on the control levers and constantly changing his direction.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center and editor at large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author,