Vladimir Putin remains an enigma to the West, despite its media focus on him and on his policies. In a crucial interview, Israel’s former ambassador to Russia and the Ukraine Zvi Magen lays out what drives Putin, what his bigger strategy is, where it’s working and where it isn’t — Ukraine being a brilliant example of both Putin’s success and his failure. Magen also gives the grim odds on an ouster for the man who would restore Russia’s national greatness and endanger world order, numbers that should interest any observer of global affairs.
Octavian Report: How do you see the crisis in the Ukraine playing out from here?
Zvi Magen: The crisis is not exactly a war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s more a conflict between Russia and the West, mainly the United States -- albeit one taking place on Ukrainian soil. It’s more a political conflict, an economic conflict. Russia started the crisis because of the social turmoil in Ukraine and the accompanying revolutionary changes in Ukraine’s political status. That’s why Putin decided to involve Russia -- not for military reasons but because of the political situation. Now, they have made gains in the eastern part of Ukraine on one hand, but on the other hand they took a very serious blow in the shape of economic sanctions. And to be frank it’s a serious challenge for Russia, all the more so because the sanctions are wisely organized. They do not target the whole economic system of Russia, they are more exactly aimed -- namely, at high-ranking people within Russia who are involved in the economy. As a result of the situation, there is a conflict inside Russia and, so far as I understand the American strategy here, the main idea was and maybe still is to bring some instability or to change the system. This is the real situation, the real war, so to speak, going on around Ukraine.
The main problem confronting Russia now is how to end those sanctions, not how to win the war in Ukraine -- that’s not their intention. We’re seeing infighting within the Russian system. I can recognize at least two groups fighting each other, maybe more. Their main interest is to find a way to extricate themselves from this situation. No one in the West, in NATO, in the United States is going to -- for the time being -- stop the sanctions. That’s why Russia is looking for leverage: to change the situation.
That’s why we hear the threats against Ukraine and other former Soviet Union countries. Also in the Middle East, because Russia’s activity in the Middle East is connected to its global project of standing against the West. They see this as taking place along one huge front starting with Ukraine and continuing to the Baltic states, for example, or Moldova, or the Caucasus. Their goal is to stop the process of their former satellites actually joining the larger Western system. They believe that the West intends to exploit and destroy the Russian system, that they have to protect themselves, and that the frontiers in this fight are the states of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is one of them. Remember that in 2008, the Russians started a war against Georgia for the same reasons, because of the movement of Georgia to the West and more specifically towards NATO accession. This is the main concept of Putin’s doctrine: that all of those counties should remain under Russian auspices.
OR: Is Russia from your perspective, then, on the offensive or on the defensive?
Magen: It’s a defensive policy, strategically speaking: they are using it to defend, as I said, their sphere of interest. This includes Ukraine and other countries once within their orbit. They are forced to do it, as they see it -- they believe that they are under attack. There’s a key difference between the Georgian and Ukrainian adventures, however: in Georgia, Russia attacked and won a quick victory. In Ukraine, it’s gone a bit differently. Ukraine is not Georgia, it's a larger country and a relatively strong one. There was never the real possibility that Russia would conquer all of Ukraine or defeat its army -- it's too big for them. They used force to try to push the Ukrainians into a corner, as a lever to bring them back into Russia’s orbit, and they didn't succeed. Ukraine is out of Russia's orbit now. Ukraine is its own country. This is the problem. The fact that Crimea is in their hands, the fact that they are involved in some regions in the eastern part of Ukraine -- this is done for tactical reasons, to create potential leverage, to create a crisis. The Russians are very good at creating crises and then providing crisis management. To Moscow, this policy looks like a successful one.
On the other hand, you can never know what the continuation of Putin's policy will be, how far he is prepared to move. He has the army, he has the money. He is relatively weak, all the same, and he is playing cards -- poker -- and I have the feeling that at least the American side understands that situation and is ready to continue the game. Putin does not have a lot of new leverage to use against the West, but what he does have he is using correctly. Creating the threat, creating pressure, and offering solutions.
OR: Is that why we're seeing him sell arms to the Iranians? Or why he seems to be making political and economic overtures to the Greeks?
Magen: All of these efforts have the same common denominator -- they are all avenues to leverage. He's trying to split the unity of Europe, he's trying to create threats in the northern part of the Baltics. He tries to be involved in the Middle East, in all Middle Eastern crises, and he is relatively successful in doing so. He succeeded only last year in renewing his relationship with a lot of countries that were against Russian policy only a few years ago, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Of course, Iran is a separate story -- the Iranian situation let Putin join the Western side, at least for the negotiation process. My feeling there is that he is trying to sell his achievements to the West to secure an end to sanctions.
OR: Does that mean we're unlikely to see him precipitate some kind of crisis in the Baltics or to confront NATO more aggressively?
Zvi Magen served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia from 1998 to 1999 and as its ambassador to the Ukraine from 1993 to 1997.