Intelligence analysts are aware of many barriers to accurate analysis. Capability is not intent. Attempts to logically examine the motives and actions of an actor are distorted by cultural differences. The danger of mirror imaging frustrates rational analysis. Forecasting a target’s likely next step is a casino game if his or her assumptions are inaccessible, illogical, or mistaken.
These prospective traps are acute with Vladimir Putin. His statements to the Russian people are frequently cynical lies. Promises to world leaders are tactical rather than genuine.
The principles on which Russian foreign policy now appear to rest are expansive, flexible, and very dangerous. The concept of extra-territorial protection for linguistic minorities awakens the worst nightmares of the last century. Accepting that former imperial boundaries justify the annexation of territory would multiply potential global conflict zones. How can we treat seriously the claim of a corrupt, ruthless authoritarian that he has a special mission for protecting the Orthodox branch of the Christian church?
President Putin has elaborated the tactic of ‘The Big Lie’ into an important strategy in maintaining the allegiance of the Russian people. For most outside Russia the operating principle seems to be one of ‘implausible deniability.’ His statements are obviously untrue, but part of an alternate knowledge universe to those who depend on state media, or for whom an excuse for prevarication is urgently required.
The analyst has ample evidence to describe what Putin is doing in the Ukraine, but how can anyone calculate what he might do? A leader draws strength from his associates and the population, and in some sense is held accountable by the people. What does the analyst conclude if that support is based on beliefs that are manipulated and wholly false? Is support based on a foundation of falsehoods durable? Can it withstand economic distress, or erase responsibility for providing missiles that can shoot down a civilian airliner?
What is the ultimate goal? Does Putin want to destabilize the Eastern Ukraine, or gain a land bridge to the Crimea through another invasion and annexation? Will he continue to send arms and men into the Ukraine to destabilize its government and exhaust its finances? Having given the Russian people a false consciousness of what is happening, can he ease international tensions without admitting that his previous statements were simply inventions.
Understanding the logic of Vladimir Putin is the first element in the analyst’s dilemma. There is hard evidence about what has happened. When the question moves from current actions to future intentions, we move from resolvable puzzles to the unfathomable mystery of future ambitions.
But trying to understand what Putin may do is only part of the analyst’s dilemma. We also face the challenge of fully understanding the implications of the new era he has launched. Russia is too large and too powerful to be seriously threatened by military force, but its economy is distorted by over-reliance on natural resources, by corruption, and by the lack of many essential elements of an open market economy. Investors, sensing a potential for even more economic instability, are withdrawing capital. Russia has lost its membership in the G-8 and may not be a welcome partner in the G-20. It is developing alternative relationships, particularly with China, but this will only partly compensate for grievously damaging the more productive ties with Europe and North America.
Even if Russia’s isolation is limited or temporary, how will President Putin build positive relationships with world leaders who now consider him a man who does not hesitate to violate treaties, invade a neighbouring country, present caricatures of the truth as fact, and make promises which are transparently insincere? What is the basis of diplomatic engagement if there is, justifiably, no trust?
President Putin is not the first world leader to lie to his own public, or to break his word to diplomatic partners. The distrust of others is not relevant if you don’t need them. Is sordid isolation an element of the Putin doctrine?
Ultimately the analyst ends up with a second mystery. We can see the strategic principles from which Putin is operating, but they don’t appear rational in the short term or promising in the long term.
If the strategic goal is an expanded Russia, and isolation and economic decline are acceptable costs, then the strategic equation is at least clear. Sympathize with the analyst who tries to describe why this would be an acceptable outcome for Russia.
Greg Fyffe, president of CASIS, was executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat from 2000 to 2008, and currently teaches intelligence and security and strategic thinking at the University of Ottawa. For more information about the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), including its 2015 Symposium, visit www.casis-acers.ca