The Cipher Brief: Putin’s Ukraine Gambit: Why Now and What’s Next

February 23, 2022

by:Kenneth Dekleva

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Following a masterful combination of long-term strategy, gray zone tactics, hybrid warfare, and management of the information space, Russia’s President Putin has at last slipped up, and invaded sovereign Ukrainian territory.  Why he would do so, facing a robust alliance of American, Canadian, Japanese, and European allies, and even Chinese displeasure, after essentially achieving many of his strategic goals, raises many questions.  Putin’s Russia is likely to face withering sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and increasingly, the status of a pariah state.  Legitimate questions are why now, and what next?

Disruptive adversaries, such as Putin, are often masters at brinksmanship.  Well-trained by the KGB, Putin is a strategic and ruthless, yet rational actor.  While Putin has been fighting the ‘new’ Cold War with 21st-century tools and doctrine, utilizing a formidable array of gray zone and whole of government approaches, President Biden has ably shored up and strengthened alliances such as NATO and the EU, along with threats of severe political and economic sanctions.  While sanctions have to date done nothing to thwart Putin’s aggression, Putin has possibly over-estimated Biden’s perceived political weakness, as well as liabilities on the part of the EU, UK, and NATO.  And he has very clearly underestimated American resolve.

Why now?  Putin – with his exquisite sensitivity to such matters, KGB training as a case officer, and vast diplomatic and political expertise, could easily have waited until after the November 2022 [US] midterm elections, when Biden would possibly be more politically weakened, should the GOP re-take both houses of Congress.  France might have had a new President by then.  Putin’s invasion of Ukraine thus suggests an unusual rush to judgment, as though he’s a man in a big hurry.  This bespeaks not strength, but possible weakness and a surprising lack of patience on his part.

Perhaps age factors into this, and Putin is 69.  The work of the late Dr. Jerrold Post – who founded and led the CIA’s ‘Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior’ – suggests that aging leaders, faced with competing pressures of political ambition, legacy, and their own mortality, sometimes make rash decisions, buoyed by cognitive rigidity, a lack of integrative complexity, and in Putin’s case, further isolation, even among his leadership elite, as documented in Hubert Seipel’s 2014 documentary, “Ich, Putin.”  His stunning public humiliation of his SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin earlier this week is notable for its show of control and power, culminating in Putin’s lengthy, near-paranoid diatribe against the West.  But Putin’s narrowing inner circle – National Security Council Director Nikolai Patrushev, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu – also suggests a more ominous KGB/FSB ‘groupthink’ at work here, in that Putin would discredit or de-legitimize possible conclusions from his own highly-vaunted foreign intelligence and diplomatic services regarding potential political/economic risks with respect to an invasion of Ukraine.

Or perhaps medical factors might play a role.  While rumors of Putin being in poor health abound, with tabloids reporting that he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease – I see no evidence for such a conclusion, after reviewing countless videos including Putin’s masterful 2019 judo videos – other suggestions have included prostate cancer.  If true, this begs the question of possible medication, radiation, and/or surgical treatments, and their impact upon emotional health, cognition, and side effects.  A putative cancer diagnosis, even one easily-managed by the Kremlin’s expert physicians, could also account for Putin’s physical isolation, an increased awareness of his own mortality, and concerns regarding COVID, due to a heightened risk of immunosuppression.  Maybe Putin’s long conference table indeed has its purpose.

What next?  President Biden has emphasized American, allied, and NATO resolve during the current crisis, and both America and its allies have mounted a credible, robust response in terms of combatting Russian disinformation and propaganda.  But the real winner in this conflict may be China and its leader Xi, coming off a successful Winter Olympics, and presenting itself (borrowing from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent speech at the Munich Security Conference) – paraphrasing Robert Zoellick’s words – as a reasonable superpower, one counseling patience, diplomacy, and respect for sovereign nations’ rights and borders, while America and Russia fight an atavistic, 20th-century Cold War.

“What is to be done?”  This phrase echoes Lenin, and would seem to apply to Putin’s Russia, a great and proud nation currently bedeviled by its – and Putin’s – atavistic sense of history, revanchism, pride, and post-1991 humiliation.  And so Biden and his allies have acted, and will continue to act.  But now, as in a hostage negotiation, they must also wait, for time is in their hands, more so than Putin’s.  In difficult hostage negotiations, expert negotiators emphasize the key role of empathy.  Empathy does not imply assent, but it can lead to deeper understanding and paradoxical approaches to successful negotiation outcomes, even with adversaries such as Putin.  And Putin, like Russia, remains – in Churchill’s words – “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.