Conversation: Understanding Putin's Logic

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Robert Kaplan: Hello. I'm Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, private global intelligence firm in Austin, Texas. And I'm sitting here with Lauren Goodrich, the senior Eurasia analyst for Stratfor. And what Lauren and I are going to discuss today is what makes Putin tick. Everyone is so enraged at Russian President Vladimir Putin — that he's going back to the 19th century, to Old Europe; he's a backward-looking man, not a forward-looking man. Let me just say that if you're Vladimir Putin and you sit in the Kremlin, you govern a state that encompasses almost half the longitudes of the earth but which has less people living in it than Bangladesh. And you're an insecure land power. You have very few natural borders like great rivers or great mountain ranges defending your country. You know that you've been invaded from the west not just by Napoleon and Hitler but by Swedes, Lithuanians and Poles in the course of your history. So carving out a buffer state in Central/Eastern Europe, or in the Caucasus, is a natural thing for Russian leaders. In other words, we may be enraged by what President Putin has done in Ukraine, but there is a Russian territorial logic to it that goes back in history. And Lauren, you want to take this into some detail — what he's done in the past and what he's doing to kind of fortify Russia.

Lauren Goodrich: From Russia's perspective, everything Putin is doing is logical. And it's something that each strong, real Russian leader that has led Russia into strength and some sort of preservation for whatever period of time they can has done. We saw it with Ivan the Terrible, we saw it with Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin. And now we're seeing it with Putin in that they have this logic in understanding how Russia works internally and how to keep it strong internally, and then going abroad and projecting abroad to create the buffer state you mentioned. And then projecting even further in order to keep the rest of the world outside of even the Russian territorial states. So what Putin is doing is something that so many Russian leaders have done throughout history. It's nothing new and it's nothing crazy from the Russian perspective.

Robert: OK, and even by Russian historical standards there have been way too — a large number of czars and Soviet commissars who have been far crueler than he has been. All right, now take me into the specifics, Lauren, of what Putin has been doing and is now starting to do to prepare Russia economically, politically, for maybe a new era or mini-era of confrontation with the West.

Lauren: The way I have seen Putin behave — and I've been watching him since he first came in, even in the St. Petersburg days — Putin has pretty much three distinct phases in how he acts. The very first phase started in pretty much '98-'99 as he was just coming in to FSB chief underneath Boris Yeltsin, and that was to rebuild Russia. And so we had the rebuilding of Russia with the consolidation of the country politically, socially, economically; the state seizing assets and rebuilding a strong — internally — Russia. Then the second phase is, OK, let's project power abroad and move into the buffer states, in order to create a strong Russia outside, in the periphery, in order to have that buffer from the West; in order to protect the Russian borderlands. Now we're — I feel like we're in the third phase. Russia had a relatively successful run in the past few years in the border states and now the rest of the world is reacting. So Russia has to protect itself internally once again and in the buffer states and kind of isolate itself from all its vulnerabilities to the international system.

Robert: All right, and what are those vulnerabilities, and what is Putin doing to isolate Russia or to protect Russia?

Lauren: What we're seeing currently is that Putin is trying to isolate the country financially. Russia's lucky that it has very high oil prices at this moment so it can continue to build up its oil funds and have a nice chunk of change to sit on. It's isolating its banking system so, we've seen with the sanctions that have gone in, they really haven’t hit Russia very hard — they're fairly weak sanctions — and in the meantime, those banks that are vulnerable to the international system, we're seeing Putin move billions of dollars out of Europe, out of the dollarized system, and back into Russia in order to protect Russia financially and its banking system. But we're also seeing Russia think beyond the economics and beyond the financials and thinking socially. Russia's making a lot of very large moves in protecting them via the Internet and cutting off the social links of the Russian people in the international system through the Internet in order to keep the Russian people isolated so they don't — in Putin's eyes — fall trap to the Western thinking towards him.

Robert: So this is classic semi-isolation, if you will. Isolate a population politically, socially but also economically, so as to lessen the economic pain but also keep the population in line at the same time. I suppose we can also say that he's been taking a significant active moves in terms of selling natural gas through pipelines to China, to Japan. In other words, he sees the European energy market is plateaued out — it's not going to get any bigger in current years, and so the new frontier for Russian energy exports is Asia, where nobody's going to give him moral lessons about what he's been doing in Ukraine.

Lauren: Very much so. Russian energy has diversified greatly in recent years to where oil used to only be — 1-4 percent of oil exports went to Asia, now we're almost at 20 percent of oil exports are going to Asia. We have Russia — Vladimir Putin is heading to China next month, and then we have discussions going on with the Japanese on natural gas pipelines. So there's a very active policy in diversifying the pipelines so they're not so dependent on the West, who continually is hammering Putin on human rights and issues on Ukraine and issues on Crimea, so Russia can have a more diversified foreign policy.

Robert: Yes. Well, thank you so much, Lauren. I think what we've come to is that Russia has a president with significant geopolitical savvy, and he's going to be a formidable adversary for the West at least in the near future. I'm Robert Kaplan. Thank you so much.

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