Putin’s Predictabilities

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

For all his caginess, dissimulation, and opportunism, Vladimir Putin is more or less predictable.

Putin’s aims? The Russian president’s two-decade dilemma has been how to reclaim the prestige and power of the former Soviet Union—but with only 75 percent of his country’s former territory and 140 million fewer people.

When does he strike?

First, Putin moves on neighboring former Soviet republics when the world price of oil is high, and his coffers are full. So he went into Georgia in 2008 and into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 when he thought he had the financial wherewithal and public support to do so.  

But when the world is awash in oil, prices dip, and the United States reigns as the largest gas and oil producer, he hesitates. So he remained static between 2017 and 2020. 

Second, when the United States increases the defense budget and deters its enemies, Putin also pauses. In contrast, when America “resets” or appeases, he is emboldened.  

In 2008, the United States was battered by sky-high oil prices and bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then between2009 and 2016, President Obama went on an apology tour, cut defense spending, boasted of a new “Russian reset,” contextualized Iranian and North Korean aggression, and begged Putin to behave until Obama was reelected in 2012—in exchange for dismantling U.S. missile defense programs in Eastern Europe. Obama then invited Russia into the Middle East after a 40-year absence. 

As a result, during all those years Putin formally invaded Georgia, Eastern Ukraine, and Crimea. But between 2017 and 2020, Putin was quieter.

In 2018, the Trump Administration killed attacking Russian mercenaries in Syria. It got out of an unfavorable missile deal with Russia in 2019. It sold offensive weapons to Ukraine. It maintained sanctions on Russian oligarchs. And it greatly increased defense spending.  

No surprise that Putin then did not threaten his neighbors with military mobilizations on their borders.  

Third, when NATO is in disarray, Putin also turns aggressive. 

The United States and NATO began bickering over Iraq and Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008. By 2009-2010, the Obama Administration was complaining that NATO members were “free riders” for not meeting their promised 2 percent annual budget investments in military readiness.

Germany and Turkey became more belligerent and more anti-American.

In contrast, by 2020, an unpopular and tough-talking Trump had nevertheless jawboned a petulant alliance into investing an aggregate $100 billion more in defense. More countries met their promised defense spending goals.  

Trump had sanctioned the Putin-Merkel Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would bind Germany to fickle Russian energy deliveries. 

Again, Putin stayed mostly still.  

Fourth, when a U.S. president talks trash and yet proves anemic, Putin loses his cool at such empty bombast and turns aggressive.  

Obama repeatedly ridiculed Putin with putdowns of the Russian country and people: “Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”  

Yet Obama was afraid even to sell defensive weapons to Ukraine to combat Russian aggression and had implored Putin to give him “space.”

Similarly, Joe Biden constantly attacks Putin in personal terms, labeling him a “bully” and “killer.” Yet when Putin brazenly allowed Russian-affiliated hackers to attack U.S. companies and agencies, Biden urged Putin to please ask the hackers at least to make 16 critical American “entities” off-limits.

When Biden slashed U.S. oil and gas production, prices skyrocketed. Biden then begged the “killer” to please pump more of his “dirty” fuel to help American commuters. 

In contrast, Trump expressed guarded willingness to work with Putin, especially in realist terms of triangulating to check Chinese aggression. 

But such diplomatic and measured talk was juxtaposed with tough deterrence. Putin never knew quite what Trump might do in any given crisis, other than that it would be unpredictable, in U.S. interests, and possibly deadly. 

Again, the result was that Putin did not mobilize for invasion between 2017 and 2020 as he is doing now—and did prior to 2017.

What do we learn about Putin’s opportunistic foreign policy?

Pumping lots of oil and lowering the world price of it makes Putin worry about insolvency rather than invasion and ensure the West is less dependent on him.

When the United States appeases Putin and is wracked by internal dissension and social turmoil, Putin pounces. 

Prod NATO to bolster their defenses and Germany to stop enriching Putin—and then Russia is circumspect rather than recklessly aggressive. 

Speaking softly while carrying a club rather than loudly with a twig better persuades Putin not to try something dangerous.  

To the degree America embraces all four of the strategies above, Putin will likely not attack anyone.  

If we at least embrace one or two of the above protocols, he may still stay put.

But if we ignore all of these time-proven antidotes, then we can almost guarantee that Putin will either mobilize against or actually invade a former Soviet republic.

Biden has managed to violate all four principles. Is it then any surprise that a predictably opportunistic dictator has massed hundreds of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders?

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29 thoughts on “Putin's Predictabilities”

  1. continued: Ukraine is an important industrialized country:
    1st in Europe in ammonia production
    Europe’s 2nd’s and the world’s 4th largest natural gas pipeline system
    3rd largest in Europe and 8th largest in the world in terms of installed capacity of nuclear power plants
    3rd place in Europe and 11th in the world in terms of rail network length (21,700 km)
    3rd place in the world (after the U.S. and France) in production of locators and locating equipment
    3rd largest iron exporter in the world
    4th largest exporter of turbines for nuclear power plants in the world
    4th world’s largest manufacturer of rocket launchers
    4th place in the world in clay exports
    4th place in the world in titanium exports
    8th place in the world in exports of ores and concentrates
    9th place in the world in exports of defence industry products
    10th largest steel producer in the world (32.4 million tons)
    Ukraine matters. That is why its independence is important to the rest of the world. These resources are why Russia is chomping at the bits to take it. I don’t expect this to be printed but found it interesting in the big scheme of things. Thanks for your valuable insights and I really enjoy your podcasts. It’s good to know that there are still some of us left who are not of the “Bi-coastal elite” persuasion!

  2. Good morning from big fan of yours in the People’s Republic of Canada

    You are a great historian. I read your columns and books because so much of the news/information accessible today is written from the perspective of a ” yesterday’s news” reporter with little or no historical context.

    I am not saying this article and your conclusions are incorrect ( like other examples of journalists attempting to do history, you know i am talking about you NHJ) i am saying there is a historical overlay of close to 1,000 years of Russian/Ukrainian interaction that should inform readers and I would greatly appreciate hearing it from you.

    Lastly, in my opinion, Ukraine is as much of a 2 state solution as is Israel/Palestine.

  3. It should surprise no one that Putin has invaded. The stars have aligned in his favor. High oil prices & a weak leader in the US. He knows the gig is up when Biden’s term is over. It’s really the only time he can make his moves. I am almost certain that China will do the same. We need to stay out of this & prepare for China’s move on Taiwan. I wonder almost daily now if the US & the world can survive 3 more years of the Biden administration.

  4. Biden was bought off before he became President. His weakness and capitulation is what Putin paid for in his bribes through Hunter Biden. Biden is holding up his end of the bribe by his wrist slap to Putin.

  5. Putin may be more or less predictable but he is getting more delusional. The typical Russian paranoia has been enhanced by Putin’s delusional thinking and rambling addresses over the past few days, such as claiming he will “de-Nazify” Ukraine. The hair should be standing up on the back of the neck of Poland.

    1. Indeed:
      East became comunist in 1922 and the west in 1945
      I mean: there is a generational (grandparents born before WW2 to grandchildren post 1991) transfer of culture in the west. A sense of roots that is not possible in the east (1922 to 1991 brainwash)

      Then the landmass grab from Poland:
      Check Lviv’ cemetery and half tombs have polish names. The city was Austro-Hungarian empire. Lviv natives ended up in Silecia, and explains Poland support for Ukraine.

      I don’t know much about ukraine but I believe in Devolution: they have case for divorce.

      Pd: I believe Putin could have easily taken Donbas bc local support.
      His strategy looks chaotic.. erratic and improvised.

      he might end up stab in the back by another Russian mob

  6. OK. Safe to say a majority of folks agree with all these points. So now what?
    I don’t believe for a moment that a Midway-like miracle is coming this November because there are no more men like Chester Nimitz or Douglas MacArthur around. The American bench is completely empty. But even assuming, strictly for the sake of argument, that the Republicans do sweep House and Senate, past performance of these characters strains belief that it would make any difference especially with us mired for two more long years in the current regime.
    It sure looks like the enemy’s policy of “cutting off the head of the snake” was a winning move — for them!

  7. On that analysis, and given the last 24 hours of activity in Ukraine, how do you see the future for other former Warsaw Pact countries? How will NATO (obviously including the US) react to any incursion on an Eastern European NATO member?

    Thanks

  8. Is Putin’s age encouraging his aggressiveness as he seeks to leave a decisive legacy? Are his recent statements a “Putin Doctrine” that he means to leave for successors?

  9. William Brunhofer

    What is Putin’s in going back into Ukraine for the 2nd time since Obama? Is it just a land grab or to eliminate the Globalists’ like, Gates, Clinton, Biden, Obama, et al, use of the country to launder money and provide other resources for their Globalist plans?

  10. William Brunhofer

    What is Putin’s aim in going back into Ukraine for the 2nd time since Obama? Is it just a land grab or to eliminate the Globalists’ like, Gates, Clinton, Biden, Obama, et al, use of the country to launder money and provide other resources for their Globalist plans?

  11. Putin has other problems …… 70 years old, he has little time left for grandiose activity.
    When Navalny survived from his last attack and was released from hospital, a protest was
    mounted. A question from a journalist to a young man, “Aren’t you scared of repercussions?”
    brought a most unusual answer, a first …… “there are more of us than of them”.
    This is what has to be drubbed into Putin’s sub-conscience. It is the proverbial schoolyard tactic
    to the schoolyard bully ….. HIS country as the schoolyard, starting right away.

  12. Thanks for your wise and knowledgeable commentary. I’m always amazed at the depth of your knowledge and the speed at which you can put out an article.
    Patrick from Raymond, WA.

  13. Trump negotiated with Putin and the Saudi’s to cut oil production in the spring of 2020. Naturally when the economies across the world opened back up, demand for oil rose thus the price increased dramatically. American oil companies need the price of oil to be over $60 per barrel to be solvent. Since 2016 over 260 American oil producers filed for Chapter 11. Obviously with oil near $100 per barrel the rate of bankruptcies has declined. America is better off going full throttle on alternative energy so we are not prone to energy shocks presented with an oil dependent economy.

  14. I just made a comment and it appears there is an attempt to censor me. You must be disputing the fact that the US oil companies are filing for bankruptcies and/or Trump did not negotiate a cut to oil production with Russia and the Saudis in 2020. As a historian employed at the Hoover Institute it would be interesting for you to cite your claims.

    https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/02/trump-calls-on-russia-and-saudi-arabia-to-cut-oil-production-161368

    Here is the evidence of oil company bankruptcies since 2015.

    https://www.haynesboone.com/-/media/project/haynesboone/haynesboone/pdfs/energy_bankruptcy_reports/oil_patch_bankruptcy_monitor.pdf?rev=61c2606a5be547598c8d716d1a795c39&hash=97ECA4B149560404B19497FA37CB2B50

    Looking forward to seeing my comments published.

  15. Nailed it. But some think that had we arranged some alliance with Russia other than NATO post 1991 it may have taken the log our of their eye.
    Wonder if that would have made any difference.

  16. Vidyaapti Gautam

    Putin is bad and a rank opportunist. Right. No disagreements there. But how good is the United States that despite defeating the USSR and watching it disintegrate into pieces, it would still not let Russia live in peace and with a semblance of security. Fomenting Color Revolutions and Regime Change in its neighbourhood leading to the foisting of regimes hostile to Russia in those countries, expanding NATO in wave after wave of enlargement right upto the borders of Russia despite promises to the contrary, making Russia the monster in the US domestic politics (a Russian under every bed) leaving no room for normality to be restored; how does this all inspire confidence in any country. If America can still adhere to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, why is it wrong when Russia resists Color Revolutions and Regime Change operations in its neighbourhood or does not want NATO on its borders.

    1. I agree with your observations. And Biden bragged about holding up US aid to Ukraine in order for them to do his bidding. As a boomer, who practiced duck and cover in school, it seems easy to cast Russia as commies and therefore always enemies and us always good. The way the pandemic was handled has made me more skeptical of the narratives. I think Russia has a good point on the idea of NATO expansion. How would we like China in Canada?

  17. Nicely laid out – Well done! Add – NS-2 a triple-threat: reduces possibility of Ukraina using its pipeline against European clients; gives Russia political blackmail power over EU; sets up control of Baltic Sea as a Russian Lake (which affects NATO)! ALSO – Letting Kaliningrad remain a Russian military base has set up the Baltic States for invasion, at will, without overt large troop movements to alert NATO (some 30,000 troops reportedly already at Lithuanian border); between Russian troops in Byelorus and both ground and Naval resources in Kaliningrad, Poland should be uneasy!
    NOTE – FYI: I was born in Lithuania in 1943, fled with my parents when Russians returned in 1944, came to US in 1949, raised on tales of father’s experiences in Russia & Ukraina during the “Revolution” as well as both parents’ life thru the 1st Soviet occupation, the mass deportations of 1941, the German occupation, fleeing West thru the final stages of WWII, & refugee camps. There was also a family connection to the Lithuanian Freedom Army, plus my dad’s activism (from WWII Resistance movements to anti-communist activity in the USA). I ended up studying poli-sci & history at Barnard/Columbia & tried to keep up with developments, especially in the LTSR & USSR, ever since. This is by way of an explanation for any “bias” that may seem to appear. LMG

  18. Victor:

    You have an extraordinary mind and an adept ability to cut through the bloviations of the chattering class, and plainly describe the landscape as it is. One cannot consider the events in Ukraine without considering the agreement just signed between Russia and China two weeks ago. The feckless leadership in all quarters of this administration have breathed life into tyrants whose aims to overtake the U.S. and the west have now converged. I write about it here: https://the-pipeline.org/new-sino-russian-pact-threatens-u-s/

  19. For over 20 years I was a Russian Linguist both on the ground and airborne in the USAF. Believe it or not, WW3 has actually already started to occur. I say this because, as someone on Fox said, “Putin has no reverse gear.”
    He can NOT look bad ( in his eyes) to his people (though they disagree a lot), nor can he look bad to his military (I used to know what they thought, but that was a long time ago).
    I listen to VDH because he is the most astute when it comes from the world, geopolitics, and history.
    Thanks for the forum…..
    Pat Mower

  20. America and the expansionary West are now full-steam ahead on a path regarding Ukraine that ends very badly. Assuming sanctions are effective and Russia is forced to retreat, Ukraine will then become a de facto member of NATO and the EU. We will then have an obligation to defend them, while virtually guaranteeing constant conflict in the region. We will need to give them constant aid and deal with their corruption and civil war (which is certain to get worse). Also, we will have pushed Russia towards China. This will prove to be a disaster. Allowing Ukraine to remain neutral, independent, and free would have been much wiser. When will we learn?

  21. Russia and Putin have no moral or historical right to control over Ukraine. That’s like arguing that Germany has a right to the lebensraum surrounding it that it once oppressed. Stalin’s Russia inflicted a holocaust on Ukraine called the Holodomor that systematically starved up to 10 million to death. Not only was their grain stolen and sent to Russia but also their seed grain so they could not replant. There was cannibalism of the dead by skeletal people desperate to survive. The ensuing years under USSR repression were also no picnic. Ukrainians do not want to be dragged back under rule by Putin’s Russian police state.

    Americans who take Putin’s line that Russians are justifiably threatened by NATO’s spread have got the wrong end of the horse. It is Russia alone that is breaking treaties and slopping over borders and the natural response is for threatened and invaded countries to seek membership in NATO solely for defensive purposes. There is zero western interest in invading Russia and Putin’s comical pretence that HE’S the maiden in distress instead of the constant aggressor should not be bought by any thinking American. Better Putin should heed Xi’s interest in his sparsely populated and poorly defended eastern flank with its wide spaces for China’s burgeoning billion and the natural resources China craves for its world domination project.

    Putin’s stolen wealth from his own people and his untrammelled power have caused a bad case of Napoleon syndrome.

  22. John Kevin Swint

    If Germany’s gas pipeline were to “have a fatal accident” tomorrow, they’d have all summer to crank up their coal plants and atomic reactors, and Vlad loses both extortion advantage and income. How long until the oligarchs grow impatient and deliver Vlad a “fatal accident” of his own?

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