Watch What Putin Does, Not What He Says
Nothing in the Russian president’s UN speech suggested he was about to bomb Syria or withdraw from Ukraine. But that’s what he did.
A Kremlin guard opens a door for Russian President Vladimir Putin as he enters a meeting in October.
The thing about Vladimir Putin is, it really doesn’t matter what he says.
When the Russian president took to the tribune at the UN General Assembly earlier this week, he did so amid rampant expectations that he would say something extraordinary—something capable of either ending his standoff with the West, or else sending it to new heights.
Nothing in what he said on that UN podium suggested that he was about to bomb Syria, or that he was about to pull his guns back from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. But that’s what he did.
Experts will debate what Putin is really after in Syria, pointing, perhaps, to the fact that in his battle against ISIS he’s bombing territory that ISIS doesn’t hold. Once they figure out what he’s up to, Western leaders can decide whether they can, or should, try to stop him.
But while we don’t yet understand Putin’s plan in Syria, we do know what he’s after in Ukraine: a permanently frozen conflict that leaves the Ukrainian government in Kiev eternally less than sovereign, depriving a country of 45 million people of any real purchase on its own political or economic future.
We know this from paying attention not to what Putin says, but to what he does.
War in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, then, was the price Putin—together with the people of Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Russia—would have to pay for a new source of leverage.
The problem is, the Ukrainian government is the only party that wants to reach a real peace settlement. For the separatists in eastern Ukraine, a settlement means losing power and, perhaps, their freedom. For the Russians, a settlement means losing leverage.
Now—right when the focus is on Syria, right when Ukraine has slipped off the radar screen—is when Western leaders will have to decide not what Putin is after, but what the West is after.
And this is where the pensions come in. Putin’s foreign adventures get a lot of attention, but they shouldn’t obscure the fact that he is, first and foremost, a Russian politician.
Propaganda and patriotic fervor will suffice to make the guns-for-butter trade-off work for a while, but if Putin is to stay in power he needs to show people that things will get better.