ISSUE 1-2021
Роман Темников
Владимир Воронов Марян Бруновски
Анастасия Тихомирова
Любовь Шишелина
Игорь Яковенко

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Pavel Venzera | Researcher in Politics, the Czech Republic | Issue 1, 2021

Ever since the annexation of Crimea a portrait of Vladimir Putin as a genial strategist permanently outwitting his Western counter partners keeps reappearing, mostly in Russian news media but occasionally in free Western media as well.

This notion is a source of pride for many Russians, who appreciate the ability of their President to outplay the West. The impression of the Russian nation bouncing back from perceived humiliation following the end of the Cold war is fueled by Russian propaganda. Moreover, Russians live in an illusion that the war in Ukraine and Syria as well as the confrontation with the West has re-established their country as a superpower.

However, Putin’s charm is not limited to Russians. His foreign admirers recruit from people who consider their own national political representatives to be helpless face to face with Putin and therefore they would prefer to make a deal with him and to allow Russia to get what it requires.

Putin was at least able to surprise the West, particularly at the beginning of his adventure in Ukraine, which enabled him to create the image of a genial strategist. It is important and useful to analyze why such an opinion emerged and which circumstances contributed to Putin´s victory in the first phase of his game. In order to do so, let´s start with a brief overview of his historical background that affects his behavior.     

Putin´s world of history

As Putin says he often reads books about Russian history. As his announcements reveal the purpose of this reading is to find substantiation for his actions and leads to justifications like the following - I am occupying Crimea because our historians said and say that it is Holy land for my nation thus I have right to take it.[1] Our classics said that we are one fraternal nation with Ukrainians therefore I have right to force them to stay with us, although, they do not want to. There are also other historians and other classics having opposite opinion but it does not matter because I have my classics.

There is the kind of statements that correspond with the way Marxism-Leninism used to interpret history. Putin revived outdated interpretations of historical events and returned honor to humiliated heroes, some of which became his role models. All of us, who believed that new Petr the Great emerged in 2000, should have read more about Ivan the Terrible and Josif Stalin. The leaders, who gathered Russian lands, isolated Russia, exterminated internal enemy and ruled with help of opritchina.

Putin´s interpretation of history also mixes various streams of Russian nationalism and some elements of Orthodoxy. It is difficult to say whether he believes in his own words or just knowingly misuses history, yet the effect is the same: We are dealing with a person, who impersonates an explosive mixture of various bad attributes of Russian history. 

During the centuries, regardless of the person in charge -tsars, general secretaries or presidents- the ideologies changed, strongly influencing one another, but the core of Russian politics remained almost the same. The linking substance is called gathering of Russian lands. Particularly this process helped and helps Russian rulers to rule and to be popular. Putin is aware of this and therefore he is acting in accordance with this knowledge. He experienced a concrete result of this phenomenon when his falling popularity began to rise steeply after the annexation of Crimea.

Speaking of history, it is interesting that during the Crimea campaign he did not hesitate to use several of the most repulsive ideas that occurred in history: Czechoslovakia 1938 (a favorite slogan of Sudeten Germans Heim ins Reich), Poland 1939 (provocations of neighbor that forced peaceable aggressor to use military strength), Hungary 1956 (we do not have any other soldiers in the country) and Czechoslovakia 1968 (alteration of request for help). For that matter it is of significance when somebody is willing to act in the sense of these cases and is not afraid of appropriate analogical reactions to follow.

In this context it is also necessary to focus our attention on rather alarming moment. Putin has woken up and has been cultivating nationalism that was drowsing in Russians. This nationalism, sometimes passing into hysteria, is a good servant but a bad master; moreover, it needs to be continuously nourished. This insatiable monster is for now satisfied with Crimea but sooner or later it will have to get another portion or it will devour its master. It means that Putin cannot put an end to his actions and he will have to find another playground. So the Russian neighbours should be more than alert.

Putin also uses other old proven methods, such as building up of a feeling of besieged fortress, creation of isolated society suspicious of foreigners or awareness of the necessity to fight with internal enemy. These methods were exceptionally described by George Kennan half century ago and it is not necessary to describe them once again since they have remained almost unchanged.

A collection of various proven methods as well as various atavisms dormant in Russian society was used by Putin to gradually develop an important internal support for confrontation with the West. With his back covered he dared to act confidently and vigorously. However, it were not solely internal reasons that gave him a head start, particularly at the beginning of his escapades.   

Surprise for the West  

Identifying the secret of his initial successes is not too hard today. It is based on several relatively not so complicated facts:

  1.  neither the EU nor NATO did assume that Russia would be impudent enough to shaken the security system built since the end of WWII in so radical manner. Despite the case of Georgia 2008, annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine were surprising for the West.
    On the other hand a bit later it was Putin who was surprised by firm reaction. While planning the Crimean adventure he did not realize that he crossed the red line and the West would be forced to react in a different way than six years ago.
    Thus he outwitted the West at the beginning but he has been gradually losing initiative and has begun losing the Ukrainian game. Eventually he outwitted first of all himself in this case. 
  2. As a good pupil of Marxism-Leninism classics he probably remembers famous words from Manifesto of the Communist Party: the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. He could only adopt this sentence to conditions of contemporary world. He understands that the West could lose much more than Russia in a potential conflict. Knowing that the West was not going to wage the war he could start fighting. This assumption brought to him only initial success. The West has not been ready to fight with him but it found other levers how to hit him seriously without use of weapons.    
  3. Aggressive actions were accompanied by even more aggressive propaganda which also surprised the West. Performance of Russian spin doctors, supported by almost unlimited financial resources, topped all that we experienced even during the Cold War. Rivals then did not handle each other with kid gloves but there were some limits. We could hardly publicly hear from Soviet side sentences such as Russia will easily turn the US into radioactive ash. Today it is possible.
    It took some time but in the end majority of people living in the West managed to elaborate defensive mechanisms, older generation, particularly in former communist countries, only refreshed them, and Russian propaganda has been gradually losing its influence abroad. In this context the most important thing was to identify a demonstrative methods and lies of spin doctors.
    It seems that Russian propaganda will weaken in the near future because of shortage of financial resources from state.
  4. The element of surprise enabled Putin to impose his own game on the West, which made the Western politics of the first months defensive and reactive. It was Putin who set agenda and the West managed to react only belatedly.
    The situation has gradually changed. Partially thanks to activities of the West (sanctions, preservation of unity of the EU, coordinated action of the EU and USA) and partially thanks to some unexpected processes (improving condition of Ukrainian army, reaction of Belarus to sanctions introduced by Russia,  President Lukashenko´s attempts to restore relations with the West, weakening economic co-operation with China, reaction to launch of missiles from Caspian Sea) Putin has gotten an agenda and is pressured to also react and not only to create problems.  
  5. Putin also surprised his Western counter partners by the strength of his destructiveness and negativity. However destructive and negative tuning of Putin politics was evident also earlier. Russia has been focused on creation of instability in neighbouring countries for a long time, especially there where democratic movements were winning or heading to the power, yet in Ukrainian case Putin moved up a gear.

Putin has jeopardized the very foundations of the post-war world order, he has contested international law, the distortion of facts has been made the base of Russian politics and he has supported very disreputable politicians, parties and movements oriented, as he himself, on disorder and destruction in their countries. One could say the same about Putin´s friends among which can be found last dictators from North Korea, Syria or Venezuela.  Even when his words sound positively he brings destruction.

The requirement to federalize Ukraine can serve as an example of above mentioned ambiguity.  Putin knows very well that federalization of Ukraine in its current state would mean nothing less than its disintegration.[2]  

The search for explanation of his behavior would probably reveal some problems in his psyche[3] however there is another main reason to be suspected, during the 15 years of Putin reign he was not able to improve the state of Russia. So in order to preserve his power he is forced to keep neighbouring countries on the same or lower level to avoid bad example for his nation. At the same time creating conflicts with neighbours, whose defeat is guaranteed, strengthen his position in his homeland.

However, with greater or lesser difficulties the West more or less managed to stop the Russian autocrat. In Syria now, he has made a new attempt to change situation and seize the initiative once again but results are not too impressive. If the purpose of this action was to become a partner of Western countries in Syria then his attempt failed completely. As a result of several incidents with Russian fighters he managed to reach situation when the U.S.A. and Turkey were forced to consult with him regarding the coordination of actions but any deeper cooperation is not considered.

If his aim was to divert attention from situation in Ukraine, he may accomplish that temporarily but his ability to affect western approach to Ukraine in general is limited at most.

If he just wants to maintain Asad´s regime, he can succeed for a certain time but the fact that he stands again, because of different attitude towards Asad´s regime, in opposition to the majority of the Western countries, does not make his situation any easier.

Russian propaganda can advertise his accomplishments, real or unreal, but negatives prevail. For example the fact that Russia got new serious opponents in Islamic world should not be underestimated. Particularly Saudi Arabia has some effective measures  to embitter Putin´s life. Moreover, embroilment of the territory of Caspian Sea during Russian military operation in Syria frightened Russian neighbours in Caspian region. Putin breached the first part of 8th article of Teheran declaration (2007) stating that “The parties state that the Caspian Sea should be used only for peaceful purposes,”[4]  which made his partners once again realize what an  unpredictable partner he is.

Time of surprises is heading to its end and the possibility that new time is coming can´t be ruled out. That means hopefully the time when Putin will struggle for his survival because losses will begin to outweigh gains is coming.     

Gains and losses

Putin´s popularity reached the top when Russia managed to occupy Crimea without any losses. Distorted Ukraine was not able to put up a slightest resistance and it meant Krym nash (Crimea is ours). However, starting with this moment the problems emerged. The main aim to establish so called Novorossiya failed and only two separatist enclaves are left.

They cannot live without a permanent support of Russia but Moscow does not intend to help them to become entirely independent. Putin needs them to be as independent as possible while they are still part of the Ukraine so that they can turn into burdens which Ukraine will not be able to handle.

However, he has trouble to enforce this solution. Therefore it will be necessary to continue to support the separatists and risk other problems with the West. Regardless of how this will end, one outcome is granted: Russia lost Ukraine for a very long period; and this fact can have very serious consequences for it.

Without Ukrainian anchor Russia becomes rather Asian than European country. This fact has brought Russia closer to China and it can cause serious problems in the future. Beijing is a very complex partner but Putin decided to play the game with it to demonstrate to the nation that Kitay s nami (China is with us) which may have a certain positive psychological impact on Russians, who are traditionally keeping look at their big neighbour.

Putin tries to agree with Beijing, therefore he signed billion contracts to make an impression that axis Moscow-Beijing was established; but the relationship is much more complicated and its characteristic as Bad romance looks very apposite.

China, as well as other Putin´s partners, is very well aware of his complicated situation and if he wants to have friends he must pay for it. When Putin negotiated with Turkey the gas deal to demonstrate that he did not need the South stream, he had to reduce the price of the gas but Turkey wanted more and contract has not been signed yet. Gas deal with China is rather fuzzy and price of the gas remained a mystery; thus also probably nothing to boast about.

China is not interested in strong Russia in long-term perspective and conclusion of various extremely expensive projects, such as construction of pipeline or high-speed railway linking Moscow and Beijing, can be taken as a rather ingenious plan to financially ruin Russia and make it more dependent on Chinese financial resources.

Another information that seems interesting is that China wants to rent Russian land in the Far East.  No doubt that proposed deal goes far beyond a purely agricultural enterprise but isolated Kremlin has not too many possibilities to attract investments to the country and Beijing knows it very well.

There is an interesting paradox. Most of Russians think that their country is stronger now but reality does not look so attractive. Particularly when spoilt relation with European countries and the U.S.A.  and disturbed neighbours are taken into consideration . Each of them is looking for a way to eliminate influence of Russia.

When preparing his moves, Putin also did not assume that he would help to strengthen internal cohesion of the EU; he rather believed in a reverse process. Until today he is certain that he will manage to distort the EU unity but his attempts (Greece, Hungary) failed. He tries not only to separate individual EU countries he would also like to cut the transatlantic bond. Both the EU cohesion as well as transatlantic bond are facing number of problems but as a man fond of history Putin should know that common threat has very effective unifying potential. 

He also did not intend to demonstrate to member states the importance which NATO has for their security. Members of the Alliance also became aware of that it is necessary to increase military capability of the NATO as well as military expenditures. As a consequence of Putin’s adventures Russia will face even stronger NATO and military bases in neighbouring countries.

Putin also miscalculated possible impact of his thoughtless steps on the most important sphere for Russia, i.e., sphere of energy. For a number of European countries Russia ceased to be a reliable partner in this area and they strive to decrease their dependence on it. These attempts are successful thanks to low prices of energy resources and willingness of aforementioned countries to invest in their energy security. Russia will face not only low prices but also declining demand.

Supplies from Saudi Arabia, new LNG terminals in Baltic region as well as diversification of resources make the most vulnerable EU countries more independent of Russian supplies. Some of them (V4 countries) were even able to help Ukraine to solve its problem with gas supplies and Gazprom was forced to make important concessions. Current price for Ukraine range around $250 per 1000 cubic meters. Previous year the price was about $100 higher. It is not any expression of Russian mercifulness it is simply the result of Putin's ill-considered policy that forced European countries to accelerate changes of their energy policies.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine had destructive effect on Russia´s image, which was not very good to begin with.  A lot of Russians refrain from their regular trips abroad because they worry about the attitude there or are simply ashamed of their country. Not to mention their difficult economic situation which is also result of politics of their sophisticated leader. Economic troubles, which Russians have experienced, have not touched credibility of the President yet. Old principle good tsar, bad boyars is still in play; fridge has been defeated by TV.  

This trust in the president has also its limit. If Putin does not manage current crisis, it is probable that sooner or later a question: was it all worth it? will emerge. Previous crackdown against people at Bolotnaya square hints that Putin will not hesitate to use force to preserve his power; but the question can be asked by his cronies. Such situation would be much more dangerous for him.

These people, since gaining the power, joined Putin in plundering the country.[5] They have transferred money abroad, their wives cannot live without Western shops and their children choose to study at universities of spoilt West instead of in Russia. All of them need Western medicine and number of other things which they do not have at their homeland. Confrontation with the West causes them significant losses, and its possible escalation poses a threat of losing this comfort. There is only one solution to this threat: to remove reason…

All that glitters…

If a politician shall be really a genial strategist he, at least, must think several moves ahead, he should envisage reactions of other players and he should also have some elaborated exit strategy. There is no evidence that Putin in Ukrainian case have fulfilled any and the less all of these tasks.  Instead he only relied on power and element of surprise accompanied by a perversion of facts and propaganda à la Goebbels. Particularly his permanent cynical lying[6] has made Western politicians angry and precluded finding of solution.  

The biggest mistake Putin made during Ukrainian case was when he misapprehend situation in Ukraine. He did not sense the atmosphere in the society correctly; he misunderstood main reasons why Yanukovych was expelled, why dominant part of Ukrainians, even in Eastern Ukraine, could not welcome him as a liberator.

During the period of independence Ukraine went through a very different development than Russia. The country was very often in state of chaos, balancing on the edge of collapse but grassroots of civil society and will to freedom gradually became an integral part of Ukrainian everydayness. These circumstances have made Ukraine incompatible with Putin´s Russia and due to this incompatibility Ukrainians refused to follow Russian model of development, even though, it cost them heavy losses.

When Putin started aggression against Ukraine[7] he failed to understand these substantial facts and took into consideration only Ukraine´s limited military capacities and  unstable situation in the country. It was unforgivable strategic mistake because after annexation of Crimea valorous fight of Ukrainian volunteers and afterward Ukrainian army followed by Western sanctions fundamentally thwarted Putin´s plans.    

Annexation of Crimea was successfully finalized but first problem emerged when reaction of international community was much harsher than in case of Georgia 2008. It was evident that Putin did not expect it.

The attempt to divert attention from Crimea with help of separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts failed when Ukrainian army and volunteers in summer 2014 almost suppressed separatist uprising, which was initiated by Moscow. In order to preserve the separatists as a mean of pressure on Kyiv, it was unavoidable to support them not only with weapons but also with Russian soldiers. Direct and open involvement in Ukrainian affairs accelerated the conflict with the West.  

Russian poor economy took a serious hit when the sanctions were introduced; the effect was multiplied by sanctions which Moscow introduced against Western goods. The hope that economic losses would provoke problems in European countries was not fulfilled and these sanctions have meant bigger problem for Russia itself than for the West.

Tactics of refusing Russian involvement in the conflict in Ukraine was not successful either and Moscow was made directly responsible for fulfillment of Minsk agreements. Under threat of another round of sanctions Putin is looking for some acceptable solution but he has not been able to find it yet. Some first steps were made - Russian megaphones have taken pause concerning Ukrainian affairs and Russian soldiers have gradually left separatist territories but it is not enough.

Are the above mentioned actions moves of genial strategists? Incorporation of Crimea in Russia can be viewed as a material result of Putin sophisticated politics. Russia will once overcome current problems, it´s relations with the West will eventually improve and Crimea will stay part of Russia. Maybe they are, yet Crimean issue will always be negative issue standing between Russia and the West agenda and it is also useful to remember the case of Baltic States. It took time but they became independent again.          

In the case of Ukraine Putin did not act as a strategist he acted as an offended man whose plans were destroyed. Fear of color revolutions and independent pro-Western Ukraine launched his Ukrainian adventure. He wanted to demonstrate to domestic audience that he would not allow something similar to happen in Russia and to the West that Russian neighbourhood is his domain.

Nowadays his acts can remind us of the title of Italian movie The Investigation is closed: Forget it. However, nobody is ready to do so and his new adventures in Syria can make only small difference. Moreover, his juggling with terms as historical right to the territory, right for self-determination as well as misuse of the referendum in Crimea and separatist regions could be sooner or later used as an argument by separatists in some Russian regions. Putin opened Pandora box without considering possible consequences in the future and it may have very negative consequences for Russia because there are several federal subjects having centrifugal potential.

Maybe, the biggest damage caused by Putin is not too visible nowadays but it will play a crucial role in the near future. Politics realized by Putin and his cronies has gradually excluded Russia from the company of democratic and prosperous countries. Contemporary Russia is led away from modern society towards social and economic decay.  Problems as dramatic as economic fall, inability to boost national economy, horrible corruption, incompetent clerks holding high positions, liquidation of science, oppression of civil society, etc., are covered by ultra-nationalism and propaganda speaking about exclusive position and mission of Russia in the history of humankind.

In the reality Russia has been becoming more and more isolated country with very dark perspectives. It ceased to be a partner; it turned into dangerous trouble-maker. The last summit of G 20 in Brisbane demonstrated a real picture of the position of Russia in contemporary world. This picture was so unpleasant that Putin decided to flee.          

What Putin understands

Russian military operation in Georgia 2008 was euphemistically called peace enforcement; today in Syria we can observe Putin´s operation which could be marked as co-operation enforcement. The question is what will come next? What is Putin going to do if this plan blows up? Knowing that his nation can for a long time prefer circuses to bread he could start some new escapade.

In this case preservation of existing unity and a resolution to introduce other sanctions if necessary is for the West condition sine qua non. Strong transatlantic bond must be developed as well.

It is also important to strengthen trust of all NATO member countries, particularly these that are Russian neighbours, that their independence and security is fully guaranteed by the Alliance.

Russia traditionally understands only the strength which means that the increase of military capabilities of the NATO is vital.

However, the European Union has done a lot in the sphere of energy security, it is necessary to continue in this effort to deprive this Russian baton of his power.

Improvement of the situation in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and other countries can prove to be also an useful instrument. Prosperous neighbours are Putin´s nightmare because he cannot offer the same to his nation and he needs to avoid possible unpleasant question: why they can and we not? Thus it is of high importance to keep on developing the relations with mentioned countries and help them out on their complicated way towards democracy.

The European Union must solve number of serious internal problems now but it should not let this necessity to lead to the loss of interest in Eastern Partnership which is a good instrument to nurture relationship with Russian neighbours who are observing with astonishment and concerns behaviour of their elder sister.

It is also crucial to put an end to practice when Putin sets agenda and the West only reacts to it. It is necessary to bring up own issues to which he will be forced to react. Such approach will limit his capacity to create new and new problems.    

Russian president is not too big strategist he has just been using simple patterns well-known from Russian and Soviet times. His success depends on the amount of space that he gets for his activities, and on willingness of surrounding world to put up with them or to respond firmly in timely manner.   Once he is shown his place he will respect rules more thoroughly. It will be better not only for surrounding world but first of all for Russia.      

[1]    His argumentation is really notable:  „…we saw[sic!] the historical reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia. It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus. In addition to ethnic similarity, a common language, common elements of their material culture, a common territory, even though its borders were not marked then, and a nascent common economy and government, Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation. All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.“Available at [Downloaded on 24 October 2015]

[2]    Illustrative sample of the positive formulation with the negative content in fact Putin also demonstrates when he speaks about so called our partners. He does not understandably take Western politicians as partners he does not like them but he continues to call them our partners. Maybe, he wants to show that he permanently offers his hand to restore former partnership which his  – not understanding real substance of matter- destroyed. Putin´s stance towards his partners even became subject of satirical sketch by Dmitriy Bykov and Mikhail Yefremov. The cry I love you svolochi hit the bull's eye.

[3]    One need not be a psychologist to understand that there is something wrong. His constant stylization in various forms of superman is not indicative of a balanced personality. Particularly variant Putin like a hockey-player provoked not only caustic comments but also big confusion because if he is serious situation can be worse than one could assume.

[4]    MOUSAVI, Seyyed Rasoul, The  Future  of  the  Caspian  Sea  after  Tehran Summit. The Iranian Journal of International Affairs Vol. XXI, No.1-2: .27-42, Winter-Spring 2008-0. Available at  [Downloaded on 25 October 2015]

[5]    Dawisha, Karen. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? New York: Simon & Schuster., 2014. 445 pp. ISBN-10: 1476795193. See the detailed review by Anna Appelbaum.

[6]    He lies really without a trace of blush. There is, e.g., his answer to a question if Russian soldiers taking part in military operations in Ukraine: „It is never easy to lose of course and is always a misfortune for the losing side, especially when you lose to people who were yesterday working down in the mines or driving tractors. But life is life and it has to continue. I don’t think we should get too obsessed about these things.“  Press statement following Russian-Hungarian talks and answers to journalists’ questions, Budapest 17 February 2015. Avaible at  [Downloaded on 25 October 2015] Face to face so high losses of human lives such answer is an example of disgusting cynicism.

[7]  Analysis of Russian army movements in Ukraine is documented in work Czuperski, Maksymilian. Herbst, John. Higgins, Eliot. Polyakova, Alina. Wilson, Damon. HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Putin’s War in Ukraine. Washington: Atlantic Council. 34p. ISBN: 978-1-61977-    996-9. Available English, Russian and Ukrainian at  [Downloaded on 25 October 2015]


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