Is it too late to do anything about Putin?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, many of us have been asking: Did we get Russian President Vladimir Putin wrong? How should we think about him now? And is it too late to anything about Putin?

Some have argued that Putin has changed. Others contend that, no, he is the same person, but until now most people have misunderstood who he really was. These reassessments are often clouded with moral judgments of one sort or another: Putin is an idiot; Putin is evil; Putin is unhinged.

I see things differently. I see Putin as an oligarch, one of an expanding group of economic and political actors that are shaping our increasingly uncertain world. And he is coming into his own now.

Let me explain.

Oligarchs are opportunists. They aim to create and exploit dynamic, unfolding situations that open more doors for them. What Putin has done for himself by invading Ukraine is to open doors, not least as a leader of the emerging post-rules international order.

Because they are opportunistic, effective oligarchs like Putin think like entrepreneurs. You can see the oligarchs’ five quintessential strategies at play in the Ukrainian invasion.

First, he has assessed the means at his disposal. Those means are the two instruments of power over which he exercises near complete control: the Russian military and his country’s oil and gas reserves. It seems likely that he will employ the former until it is no longer an advantage to do so. In addition, Russia’s oil and gas reserves gain in value during times of crisis like wartime, expanding further the value of these means. Unless the West stops importing Russian oil and gas, which seems unlikely.

Second, Putin has determined what he can afford to lose and is staying within that budget. While some have asserted that sanctions will have a significant impact on the Russian economy and its elites, others have noted the country’s substantial foreign currency reserves and experience in managing previous sanctions. Perhaps most importantly, Putin recognizes that he — and the Russian people — can withstand a great deal of pain and suffering. Here is the question: Will the Russian people remain patient with Putin as the world inflicts pain on them? Or will they tell him they can’t afford to bear further losses?

Third, oligarchs like Putin lean into surprise. Here, it is sad to say, the Ukrainian invasion is likely to be the gift that keeps on giving for Putin. Wars almost always create unexpected results. No one knows — including Putin — what his apparent initial plan will lead to. If Kyiv falls, what doors open for him, in Ukraine or beyond? What people like Putin do know is that those surprises are good things for them.

Fourth, Putin likes his “friends with benefits.” This invasion has already highlighted two: Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus, who functions as a junior partner, and China’s Xi Jinping, Putin’s senior partner. As with other oligarchs, Putin is likely to find these partnerships both mutually beneficial and temporary. And new friends will emerge, as they always do in war’s hothouse. Already, we can see in some of India’s initial reaction that its authoritarian leader, Modi, may be Putin’s next FWB.

Last, oligarchs like Putin prefer to fly under the radar. This is difficult to do in the current war situation. Putin has been on Russian television quite a lot in the past few days. Yet, he remains more inscrutable than ever. No one seems to be able to read him. He is not just under the radar; he is off the radar screen almost entirely.

So, given this understanding of Putin, is it too late to do anything about him? I don’t think so. There is still some time for creative statesmanship. Here are a few thoughts.

First, given that Putin is an opportunist, we need to reshape his opportunity set in ways that get him out of Ukraine and strengthen international security. We need to offer him better opportunities than the one he is currently taking in Ukraine. We need to offer him better ways to maintain his power and wealth, consistent again with the safety and security of Russia and its neighbors.

Oligarchs — even hated ones — can have productive afterlives. After leading America into the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover was a productive senior statesman for more than 30 years. A Putin friend — Silvio Berlusconi — has continued to orbit in the Italian political and economic systems. What we have to avoid, if we are serious about bringing this war to an end soon, is a path that Putin believes ends in powerlessness, penury, prison or poison.  

Next, we can surprise Putin in ways that reduce the relevance of the means at his disposal. To create surprises into which he cannot easily lean.

And, last, how can we reshape Putin’s affordable loss calculations so that the Ukrainian invasion looks like less of a sure thing? We can’t influence Russia’s resilience in the short term. But, perhaps, the vaunted Russian patience will fray. That may cause Putin to rethink what he has begun.

It is not too late. But we must refresh our thinking to reflect the new world in which people like Putin are ascending.

David Lingelbach is associate professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. 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. He has studied for more than a quarter century.   

Tags David Lingelbach Diplomacy International Ptuin Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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