It would be enough if the world had to deal with one Vladimir Putin. But we are not so lucky. Even the most consistent of Kremlin watchers is never sure what version of Putin is going to appear in the next moment. This is one of the things that has made engagement with Russia so difficult in recent decades. Just when one thinks they can predict him, Putin seems to shed his skin, becoming a person with quite different strategies, and even long-term goals.
Here it is helpful to schematize three different versions of Putin that different analysts think they might be dealing with in the war in Ukraine: the gamesman, the nostalgic Cold Warrior, and the savior of the Holy Rus.
While Putin is often pictured as a chess player in international relations, a more apt analogy may be to the sport in which Putin holds a black belt: Judo. Just as the judoka (judo practitioner) seeks victory by attaining maximum effect with minimal effort, Putin has repeatedly maneuvered Russia to have an impact on the world disproportionate to its power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Westerners expected a deflated Russia to become a satellite in the broader global order. Putin has not only resisted this, but has developed Russian strategy to extend, if not cause, major rifts within Western, liberal order itself.
This Putin is patient, cold, and calculating. Developing Russia’s capabilities in the Internet age, he made the country a threat in the extremely hard to pin down area of cyber-attacks. Drawing on careful study of his enemies and his own background in misinformation, he led Russia in sowing partisan discord throughout the EU and United States, contributing significantly to the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. At the same time, he insinuated Russia into Europe as a primary source for heating gas. Bobbing and weaving, this Putin has managed to have his cake and eat it to: both disassembling Western liberalism and profiting from it.
This Putin, however, is difficult to square with recent events in Ukraine. This Putin should be expected to expand Russian power slowly and strategically, throwing his opponents off balance as he did in the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. We should not expect an all-out invasion of the Ukraine which lacks immediate rational justification and runs counter to Russia’s immediate interests. An all-out invasion of Ukraine undoes much of what Russia had been aiming at in its anti-Western campaign. It reminds the West of the need for alliances, unifies the West via the presentation of a common enemy, and leads even Western capitals that are dependent on Russia for gas to look to break ties with the former superpower. If one wishes to maintain this image of Putin, one must posit some unforeseen move in his game, or some major miscalculation on the part of just about every careful observer at this point.
But if Putin is not a careful gamesman, then who is he? Another suggestion is that Putin is a nostalgic Cold Warrior, pining for the old days of the USSR. Here, Putin is driven not so much by conservative rational calculation as by the image of a reunified Soviet republic.
There is no doubt that Putin is deeply concerned about Russian pride. And Putin has openly stated his goal to establish Russia as a regional power in a multipolar world. The problem for this Putin is that the end of the Cold War seemed to produce a unipolar world, where order radiated out from the Western, liberal bloc of America and Western Europe. NATO is the most visible manifestation of Western power, and it has begun to expand further and further into Russia’s region. The good news, for this Putin, is that the rise of Chinese power and the schisms in the Western bloc have opened a new space for an assertive Russia that can take back some of its Cold War losses.
On this reading of Putin, the reason for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is to stop NATO expansion into the former Eastern bloc. Of course, if this reading is right, there is not much reason to think that Putin would stop there. Why not continue to push militarily for conquest of other former Soviet Republics like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, or even Poland? If these are Putin’s goals, then he should be expected to drive directly into the heart of post-Cold War Europe.
But there are problems with this reading of Putin as well. While NATO had pursued discussions with Ukraine, there was no plan to add Ukraine to NATO any time soon. Indeed, most of NATO had resisted incorporating Ukraine exactly because it didn’t want to raise the prospect of conflict with Russia. So, what drives Putin’s aggression now?
Here we come to the third Putin, Putin as savior of the Holy Rus. Perhaps because of Communist Russia’s official rejection of religion, or perhaps because of the limits of Western religious imagination, it is not usually appreciated in the West the extent to which nationalism and Orthodox Christianity have been linked in Russian history. Russians often think of themselves as the true inheritors of the Holy Roman Empire. Moscow, it is said, is the “third Rome.” In the fourth century AD, the Christian Emperor Constantine moved the capital of Rome to Constantinople and from there oversaw the continuation of Roman culture in the Byzantine Empire. Russia sees itself as inheriting this legacy when the Byzantines fell.*
The Holy Rus was supposed to be heaven on earth, or, more specifically, heaven in Eurasia. It was the vouchsafe of Christian culture and value for the world. It comprised territories today recognized as Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Moscow has de facto power over Belarus today because its president Alexander Lukashenko is so dependent on Russian power. What Moscow does not control is the traditional capital of the Rus: Kyiv, Ukraine.
The idea of the Holy Rus has been further embarrassed in recent years as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted autocephalous status, independent of the Russian Orthodox Church, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. This schism was cemented between 2018 and 2019, to the grave displeasure of both the Russian church and state.
More than the expansion of NATO, the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church fits the timeline as a precipitating event for Russia’s current invasion. And there is no doubt that Putin has conceived of himself as a guarantor of the Orthodox Church, a position that the Russian Orthodox Church has been anxious to grant him.
If this last is the Putin we are dealing with, it makes sense of the lack of cold rational calculation regarding the invasion of Ukraine. It also suggests that that Putin is more motivated to conquer Ukraine than he is to take back other former soviet territories. Ukraine occupies a special place in the Holy Rus. If this is correct, there is reason for Western powers to avoid holding back sanctions to deter future, merely potential aggression beyond Ukraine. Ukraine may be the place where those wishing to stymie Russia should make a stand.
Of course, each of the above pictures are ideal types. None of them adequately captures the whole of Putin’s rhetoric or accounts for all his actions. It would be easier if we only had to deal with one Putin. But we don’t have that luxury. We need to be ready to resist and limit whichever Putin shows up, whenever he shows up, wherever he shows up.
*Thanks to Tobias Winright who has helped me understand better the third image of Putin presented here.