Commentary: What Comes Next for Putin at Home and in Ukraine?: An Assessment One Year After the Start of His Special Military Operation

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center right), Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation General Sergei Shoigu (bottom left) and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Federation Naval Force or Russian Navy Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov (top). In preceding posts on the Russian Federation’s special military operation in Ukraine, greatcharlie sought to dive a bit deeper on each occasion into Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind. The aim was to better understand how Putin–the one who started the Ukraine War–thinks and offer not just insight on decisions he has made but foresight on decisions he might make in the near future. Given how the situation has progressed in Ukraine so negatively for Putin and the Russian Federation, he will need to reach some conclusions on the outcome of what he has started while he can still have a real say in events. This essay offers some new ideas and insights that may assist readers in developing their own lines of thought on how to best proceed with regard to Putin and relations with the Russian Federation.

In its attempts to parse the subject of the Russian Federation’s Spetsial’noy Voyennoy Operatsii (Special Military Operation) in preceding posts, greatcharlie regularly sought to dive a bit deeper into the mind of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. The objective was to better understand how Putin thinks and additionally offer not just insight on decisions he has made but foresight on decisions he might make in the near future. The purpose of this essay is to offer some new ideas and insights that may assist readers, hopefully to include some practitioners in the field of foreign and national security policy analysis and decisionmaking, to develop new lines of thought on how to proceed concerning Putin and relations with the Russian Federation. 

Noticeably, some analysts who publish essays have appeared fixated emotionally upon the idea of Putin being a beast and it has colored their analyses. They have been unwilling to ascribe any premium qualities to any aspects of his leadership even when an objective examination would surely warrant such. Students among greatcharlie’s readership must guard against mimicking such analyses. This commentary may disappoint some because at points here and there, greatcharlie has noted ways in which Putin has displayed better than average qualities. The goal here is to take an objective look at the individual and his record, not prepare a popular piece. Aude sapere. (Dare to know.)

At first glance, one would likely discern the same aggregation of elements and the characteristics similar to those of many other leaders of authoritarian regimes throughout history.  As this is 2023, one might reasonably have hoped to find something better, believing mankind had advanced beyond such base impulses. Still, with Putin there is more. From what gathered by greatcharlie, in the mind of Putin, what some might reluctantly call genius seems to coexist with madness. (The invasion of Ukraine was certainly an act of daylight madness, and has brought greatcharlie to this position. Surely, his appalling choice was impelled by something far greater than some abhorrent eccentricity. ) Some of his harshest critics might go as far as to conclude some form of hallucinatory insanity appears to be married with megalomania with regard to his case. This is stated without the intention of identifying everything he has done of recent as unbalanced and no effort should be exerted on finding correct reasoning and wisdom in his decisions.

In The Republic, Plato quotes Socrates as saying “Be as you wish to seem.” The record of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin indicaties that he has displayed a logic superior to those who surround him, unquestionably a superior knowledge of the Russian Federation’s political environs, and an greater expertise in the workings of the Russian Federation’s system, that has allowed him to make it work for him. To help describe Putin, greatcharlie feels compelled to quote an apposite phrase from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” (1917): “All other men are specialists, his specialism is omniscience.” His power in the Russian Federation practically knows no bounds. To that extent, one can confidently call him an autocrat.

A self-declared, dyed in the wool, Russian patriot, Putin would never in his addresses harp on the dilapidated state of his country and poor material in terms of personnel with which he had to work when President Boris Yeltsin essentially left the Russian Federation. Murders, mysterious deaths, disappearances, embezzlement and all other forms of corruption were commonplace then and for some while afterward. Putin used what could arguably be called his charisma to create an illusion of advancement by highlighting occasional economic achievements, technological breakthroughs, and international successes and used those bright spots to distract watching eyes as best as possible away from a political system under his iron grip, an authoritarian security network, social band-aids that were usually inadequate or ineffectively implemented, and endless propaganda, among other things. It has helped him carry the country to this point without collapse. Fluctuat nec mergitur. (It is tossed by waves but does not sink.) 

Three decades ago Putin was as far away from being Russian Federation President as one could imagine and that he had never expressed any interest in being such publicly or within his private circle, yet he took the responsibility head-on from day one and has maintained his balance in spite of the near limitless pressures and stressors that have beset him. Perchance his mentality is the only type that could ever survive service in such a position for so long in the environment the Russian Federation has provided.

Ethno-religious nationalist and ultranationalist precepts as well as criminal thoughts that colored Putin’s thinking both girded and impelled his actions at home. On the world stage, Putin’s thinking has orbited around the same political “ideals” and thinking. Those extreme ideas. He proved that he could wield an iron fist in Chechnya and demonstrated the willingness to project Russian Federation military power in former Soviet republics–all of which have been sovereign countries for over three decades and together he has dubbed the Russian Federation’s “near abroad”–and as far beyond his country’s borders as the Middle East and Africa. However, Putin’s aforementioned hardline political ideals and thinking have been most apposite for the West due to the manner in which they have couched his persistent desire to retaliate against the West over ways he perceives it has wronged his country. Perhaps now he is more so directed at destroying it than ever before. For quite some time, Putin has been tormented by what many in the West would call groundless suspicions about US, EU, and NATO motives in countries within the Russian Federation’s periphery, its near abroad.

To that extent, in his speeches Putin has regularly expressed a hodge-podge of thoughts manifesting his belief that the US is an opponent, the Russian Federation stands vulnerable to the US “tricks”, and that former Soviet republics and Eastern bloc countries still have obligations to Moscow. It will likely take some time for historians to fully decipher it all. A good example of such expressions is the February 24, 2022 address he gave just before the special military operation was launched. A positively ominous suggestion that Putin and his acolytes have repeatedly made for over a decade is that the US seeks to conquer Russia for its abundant resources. The Western newsmedia has given scant attention to a singular document prepared in 2013 by Russian Army General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of General’nyy shtab Vooruzhonnykh sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii (General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation General Staff) that manifested thinking in the Russian Federation on the US intentions. The document was discussed in greatcharlie’s November 16, 2016 post entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?”. 

Far more than an ordinary military assessment on NATO expansion, the document, known initially as the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, declared that future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” The basis of that assessment was that the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believed outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, could possibly invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and resources. Putin accepted the threat assessment of the Russian Federation General Staff which essentially paralleled his own thinking, and signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The notion that Russian Federation borders were being threatened by the US and NATO and that defensive measures needed to be taken has nearly controlled Russian military thinking since the plan was developed. Such paranoid delusion should have been addressed diplomatically. Instead, more pressure was poured on especially with Western activity in the Baltic States–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania–and Ukraine. It would be interesting to know whether assessments were done in Western governments on how Putin would react to these moves and whether those assessments, if they advised caution, were taken seriously. One might suggest that Putin’s suspicions about the US and NATO surely factored into his decision to invade Ukraine.

If one would choose to call it bad luck, Putin has certainly had more than his share of disappointments in recent years. He has surely come to the realization concerning the weakness of his country’s conventional military, economic, diplomatic, and political power in the world particularly as a result of the outcome of the Ukraine special military operation. The Russian Federation’s limited conventional war in Ukraine which has resulted in no clear achievements to match the dreadful cost in Russian troops and materiel as well as astronomical expenditures has simply been a net negative in practical terms and politically. 

Putin views the support that the West, as well as many other countries around the world have  provided Ukraine, as aggressive, provocative, and unacceptable. Along with many of his top advisers, particularly Russian Federation Vice President Dmitry Medvedev, he has responded by making repeated threats to the effect that the Russian Federation is ready to use nuclear weapons. To give weight to such promises, Putin has ordered redeployments of nuclear devices, multiple drills of Russia’s force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and cut off communications with the US regarding the movement of those weapons and drills with them.

The West has made it clear to Moscow that it would not entertain his accusations or be terrorized by his threats. Still, there does appear to be a bit extra to Putin’s actions on this occasion than simply strengthening his position for diplomacy or politically at home. As with the invasion of Ukraine, his moves in that direction could easily become something more than a bluff.

Acta non verba. (Deeds not words!) On the matter of assistance from other countries who are the Russian Federation friends and partners, there has been a lot of talk but hardly any action to make a real difference in Ukraine. Putin did not make it this far relying on help from others. He is smarter than that. He got into his situation alone and he knows very well that he alone must find the way out of it, if he can. More important to Putin concerning his friends and partners would be knowing with some certainty that none of them have betrayed him or have plans to do so. Eventually, Putin will need to reach a hard decision on the outcome he wants for the big picture while he still can have some say.

Putin could potentially go on leading the Russian Federation for a time after some hypothetical peace deal was reached. While in power though, Putin would surely appear seriously hobbled by any outcome of the special military operation that would be less than a clear victory for the Russian Federation. No matter how he might arrange things so that he could remain in office, he would be seen as just hanging on to power as opposed to being thoroughly in charge as he has been. Once the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin on March 17, 2023 over war crimes committed in Ukraine, he could scarcely travel anywhere without facing the real threat of arrest or at least an attempt to detain him. It is difficult to see how anyone would believe he would be open to talk with a leader of any country supportive of that arrest warrant. He most likely viewed that move as a declaration of war by external powers set against him.

Omnia prius experiri, quam armis, sapientem decet. (It becomes a wise man to try all methods before having recourse to arms.) It is likely that some readers may disagree with this segment of greatcharlie’s assessment, but issuing an arrest warrant for Putin was a step that practically ensured his refusal to negotiate with Kyiv unless he has attained some considerable advantage in Ukraine and his negotiating position would be very strong. That situation will unlikely arise if the Ukrainians have a say in the matter; and, they do! In the interest of promoting good interstate relations, diplomacy, and peace and security under such trying circumstances, discretion in taking such actions–at least refraining from declaring a party essential to establishing peace as criminal–would be the best choice, the better part of valor. Putin’s accountability and culpability for war crimes committed in Ukraine by Russian Federation forces was something which could have been dealt with later. The priority now is ending the war if possible. At this point, diplomacy with the Russian Federation on Ukraine has figuratively been knocked off the rails. There is no well-defined, well-trodden path to take toward diplomacy given the circumstance created. Everything is up in the air so to speak.

Postea noli rogare quod inpetrare nolueris. (Don’t ask for what you’ll wish you hadn’t got.) It is difficult to see exactly what end was hoped for when the decision was made to indict Putin. There was likely some ego stroke scored as a result of sticking it to Putin, but not much more was accomplished than that. It is far too late to suggest Western leaders come to their senses on the matter. The opportunity very likely lost was both enormous and crucial. (Note: All of that said, there remains the possibility that Putin would still accept a king’s ransom and something akin to immunity worldwide concerning his arrest warrant just to halt military operations in Ukraine and withdraw Russian Federation forces from the country in a limited way,. Numerous pitfalls would be associated with the payment option.)

Intimations formed from facts have led greatcharlie to postulate that Putin was very likely hoping to get a peace deal that was not perfect but at least not draconian in its terms through diplomacy with a new administration in Washington. However, the prospects for that, at least the time of this writing, appear to have changed dramatically for the worse. If he cannot get a peace deal, defeat would become a real possibility for his country if significant international support for Ukraine’s war effort continues.

As for the Russian Federation, it would no longer be looked upon as anything to be reckoned with. The somewhat shiny veneer of a superpower, an image of Moscow from the days of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Cold War in which the follow-on national government in Moscow rejoiced, was promoted and well-polished by Putin for years. Although he successfully managed to present the Russian Federation in that way to the world in the past, he would no longer be in a position to do that with any impact following a hypothetical defeat. For certain, Putin would still make the case that Moscow achieved its goals in this scenario, but most likely few in the world, not even his friends in Belarus, China or North Korea, would accept that. The loss of the Russian Federation’s image of greatness, as he for so long sought to project it, would be the thing that would gravely wound him psychologically and perhaps physically.

The thought that he might face the same, suffice it to say “karmic fate” of Nlazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, Libya’s Muammar el-Quadafy, or the other leaders of authoritarian regimes is doubtlessly anathema to Putin. He most likely believes the West is trying to drive him in that direction. However, unlike those leaders who have ignominiously fallen to democratic forces or invading armies, Putin would not need to run into a bunker, left only with his reasons, and await his fate. He can still act, and act ferociously. Putin does not have to dream hopelessly of developing wonder weapons in time to strike back at his foes with vengeance. As alluded to earlier, he controls a massive arsenal of thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs, many of which are quite advanced technologically. In August 2022, the issue of Putin’s potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine initially gained traction in the newsmedia. The issue is now discussed far less. In greatcharlie’s August 31, 2022 post entitled “Would the Ejection of Russian Forces from Ukraine Lead to a  Thermonuclear Response by Moscow?: Some Meditations on Putin’s Likely Thinking”, the matter is discussed in some detail.

Omnia iam fient fieri quae posse negabam. (All the things which I denied could happen are now happening.) Attacking the West with thermonuclear weapons would be the ultimate form of punitive action. To be frank, there would be a considerable imbalance with regard to infrastructure and environmental destruction, institutions and businesses ruined, and lives lost. Perhaps greatcharlie may be oversimplifying the matter by stating in a thermonuclear exchange, the Western world has far more to lose, in terms of an exciting future of endless positive possibilities than the Russian Federation. The ability to destroy that bright future, would surely outweigh concerns over the destructive capacity of the retaliatory capability some Western countries possess. Perchance it would even be the case in such an instance that the people of the Russian Federation would not know Putin launched against the West first. Conceivably, the Kremlin could make certain before the attack that in its aftermath the messaging would be that their country was viciously attacked by the US and its nuclear armed allies. (Despite how off-kilter as it may sound, a Russian Federation devastated by a thermonuclear attack would ironically be a safer country for Putin to rule. He expectedly would still be in control of all the levers of power–the security services, the armed forces, and the country’s financial resources. There would also be a lot to keep everyone who would survive in the country very busy. It is unlikely that the Russian people at that time would be interested in anything that anyone in the West would have to say.)

Putin would very likely feel an odd sense of satisfaction even with a Cadmean victory resulting from a thermonuclear exchange with the West. This time he could be somewhat more assured that he would get the results he wanted. He would get the sense of satisfaction he very likely had hoped to feel when he launched the special military operation against Ukraine. (This is where the part about madness takes on greater meaning.)

Just as Russian Army generals and colonels were ready and willing to advance their troops into the tragedy that is the Ukraine War–some generals and colonels went as far as to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, the commanders of the Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya Rossiyskoy Federatsii (Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation, literally Strategic Purpose Rocketry Troops) which control land-based ICBMs, the strategic bombers and other nuclear capable airframes of the Voenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii (Russian Air Force), and satellites of the Voyska Vozdushno-kosmicheskoy Oborony (Russian Aerospace Defense Forces) would go into action. In addition, commanders of the strategic submarines of the Voyenno-morskoy Flot (Russian Naval Force) in both the Northern Fleet and the Pacific Fleet would execute their missions. Indeed, commanders who are in control of the Russian Federation’s strategic nuclear triad would act without question in the manner prescribed by political authorities. It would be a mistake for anyone to believe otherwise. Surely, there are more than enough members of the Russian Federation Armed Forces hurting over the nightmare that has befallen their comrades in Ukraine. They more than likely want to dish out some “payback” against those countries that they likely perceive–based on what they surely have been told–created circumstances there, and many can deliver payback in the extreme. Libens-Volens-Potens. (Ready-Willing-Potent.)

As noted, a Cadmean victory or at best a Pyrrhic victory would be the most that he could possibly hope to attain in Ukraine at this point. Ever aggressive, Putin perhaps even now has trouble reigning in his ardor to destroy those “who put him and the Russian Federation in their current bad position” even if it is the last thing he does. Such was the choice of the Russian folklore hero Ural-batyr against the Devs. (That would certainly have meaning for the Rodnovers in his circle and throughout the Russian Federation. SEE greatcharlie’s aforementioned August 31, 2022 post for more on that story.) If the Western leaders truly believe Putin will not set off a thermonuclear exchange despite already facing challenges in Ukraine that could certainly lead to his demise, then it would make sense for them to accelerate its timing by pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of their support for Ukraine’s victory. It would seem most are still uncertain about what he will do. (Retaliatory thermonuclear strikes would surely be the thing to get Putin into a bunker.)

In the chain of insights regarding Putin discussed here, each link rings true.. As stated prior, Putin most likely knows that he will need to reach some conclusions on the outcome of what he has started while he can still have a real say in events. Sufficient evidence exists to postulate that he feels a bit boxed in and reasonably so. Most human beings do not like the feeling of being boxed in and will react aggressively to extricate themselves from the situation even if the odds are against success. As expressed earlier, placidity should hardly be expected of Putin. Thereby, Putin’s response to his situation and that of the Russian Federation, as with nearly every other response he has offered so far, is unlikely to be positive and will most likely be final. Saepe ne utile quidem est scire quid futurum sit. (Often it is not even advantageous to know what will be.)