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How does this prisoner swap help Putin?

The recent news of a prisoner exchange was welcome for American basketball player Brittney Griner, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout and their families. But the swap isn’t really about them, is it? It’s about Russia, the United States — and the emerging international order.

What does this swap do for Russian President Vladimir Putin? Why now? Does the swap make him stronger or weaker? And what does the swap tell us about what Putin’s next moves might be? We will confine our comments to him, whom we know better than the other actors in this drama, as oligarch researchers.

In talking about prisoner swaps and Putin, it is easy to fall into the trope that this is all just a repeat of the Cold War. More “Bridge of Spies” material for a future movie. Smarter analyses recognize that Putin is aware of the post-Cold War history of successful hostage and prisoner swaps by various Russian actors (including himself), beginning with the First Chechen War. These swaps have continued during the war with Ukraine, including the September 2022 exchange of 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) for 55 Russian POWs along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and Putin ally.

While this perspective has merit, we don’t think that it captures everything that is going on in Putin’s mind these days. Remember, Putin is an oligarch — and that makes him, first and foremost, an opportunist. We continue to believe that his moves all contain the possibility of new windows being opened for him. What new windows just got opened?

First, we don’t believe the swap is an opening gambit toward Putin negotiating a peace agreement. However, it may have the related purpose of demonstrating to the world that Putin is, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s words, someone that the world can do business with. It also demonstrates that Putin is engaged, not isolated; he is not about to flee abroad.

Second, Bout himself may have some value to Putin as an expert on sanctions busting. We can all rest assured that Bout’s network remains active, and that has some value to Putin as Russia seeks to sell its oil internationally in the period ahead.

But, third, what Putin has really done with the swap is to reshuffle the deck yet again. To take the focus off Ukraine. To ping the system and see how the United States reacts. In sum, to generate some information and also sow some more uncertainty, which opens up more opportunities for him. For example, this swap may strain further the U.S. relationship with Germany, which may have refused to participate in this swap by handing over former Russian colonel Vadim Krasikov, who assassinated a Georgian Chechen in Berlin in 2019 on orders from Putin. In this way, Putin is behaving just like the political oligarch he is. He is a chaos monkey.

And why do the swap now? Given that the military dimension of Russia’s war with Ukraine has not been going terribly well for Putin recently, non-military measures like the prisoner exchange will likely become more important as we move into the Ukrainian winter. For example, the attacks on Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure are another such measure — and now this swap. We expect more unexpected non-military measures by Putin in the months ahead. No doubt, Western analysts are trying to game these out, and what the reaction should be. But we still expect Putin to stay a step ahead.

Is Putin better off for this swap? Our sense is that Griner-for-Bout means more to the United States than it does to Putin. Putin probably does expect to benefit from the moralizing, self-referential tone of the Western conversation about the swap. That tone continues to “out” the U.S. and some of its allies with the coalition that Putin and others are building. This thinking may explain why he is willing to pursue additional exchanges. Such exchanges are more important for their revelatory atmospherics than they are for their substance.

Finally, what does this prisoner swap tell us about Putin and where he might go next? Despite Russian military setbacks and recent speculation that Russia might break up, we’re not seeing any evidence that Putin is feeling himself to be in a weakened position of late. His latest approval rating is at 79 percent, near historic highs, and the Russian economy seems to be in a stronger position than many had expected.

This suggests to us that Putin might expand the range of strategic opportunities he may want to pursue next. First, since the swap, he has already suggested again that he may introduce a nuclear first-use policy. Second, as an oligarch, Putin has used a “friends with benefits” strategy to couple with and decouple from many strategic partners over his career. He may begin looking to develop or strengthen some new partnerships, particularly with countries that have shown support for his war. Recent speculation has emerged that he and his circle may be establishing an escape plan to Venezuela if his war fails. Other partnerships might emerge with countries who abstained from the various UN resolutions against the Ukraine war, in particular African countries with historic relationships with Russia or the Soviet Union. This is only a partial list of the opportunities Putin may be considering.

From the beginning of this war, we have been arguing that it would open up new opportunities for an oligarch like Putin. He remains a master oligarch, and his time is, in our estimation, far from over. Whether it’s prisoner swaps or some as-yet unimagined action, count on Putin to keep switching it up. That’s what works for him.

David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore and author. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin.

Valentina Rodríguez Guerra is an author and oligarch researcher.

Together they are writing a book about oligarchs.

Tags Biden Brittney Griner Politics Prisoner swap Putin Russia Ukraine Viktor Bout Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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