Putin's Endgame

An Interview with Zvi Magen

Magen: He hasn't claimed that intention and, more importantly, he has no ability to bring to bear more military pressure than he already has put in play. Because it's completely unacceptable, unbelievable even, to see Russians sending their army to conquer Ukraine or to do something bigger than Putin has already done in the eastern part of the country. It’s out of question that he would do something against the Baltics -- all of the key countries there are part of NATO, and the fifth chapter of the NATO agreement means that if a NATO state is under attack then all of NATO will render military aid. He is, again, using all this as leverage. There is no war on the horizon.

OR: Do you think that he would shut off the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe as leverage?

Magen: He could, yes. He has the ability. He has enough, let’s say, paths and ability to try. I'm not sure about the final effectiveness of it. But he is looking for any possible lever, any possible way, to change the situation, to create a kind of atmosphere of conflict. Even now Europe is not united behind the common idea of fighting or stopping the Russians. There are different attitudes to this question. The truly hysterical reaction in Europe is now coming from Eastern European countries, former Soviet states, the Baltics, the Poles, and the Czechs. Of course, they are familiar with Russians and they are -- justifiably -- afraid; they would like to accept more backing from Europe or from NATO. But in Germany and France and even in England you will find a different atmosphere. Especially in Germany and France, which are both looking for the ways to calm down the situation and to find a path to an agreement. Russia would like to get there too, to some understanding, but without paying the price the West wants. That being, of course, Russia taking the military, economic, and political pressure off of Ukraine, to let Ukraine and other nations in the region fully leave the Russian orbit.

This would create a completely different strategic situation from Russia’s point of view, of course. To counter this, they are trying to achieve some effective federalization, let’s call it, of Ukraine, to split it into different regions under some common auspices. Of course, as they do this, Ukrainians are trying to move closer to the West. Again, the main problem for Russia now is the sanctions. They are effective and they are serving as a force multiplier for Russia’s domestic problems. All you can see now is turmoil on a global level because of threats and leverages and the creation of artificial conflicts. But the loser of the situation I already named.

OR: Is the oil price putting real pressure on Putin right now?

Magen: Yes. Moreover, Russians believe the oil price collapse is a form of Western pressure, that the crisis in the oil price was created artificially by a joint move of the United States working with the Saudis. This is very, very painful for them. It hits the main economic base of Russia -- oil and natural gas.

OR: Do you think we'll see a resolution to the Ukraine crisis this year?

Magen: I believe yes. The Russians are in a corner. To be on the safe side, let me say it depends on the American position. Americans control the situation now. But I believe that the Russians will offer something relatively accepting of the price delineated above, that they will find some common solution with the Ukrainians and the West -- a Minsk III agreement, so to speak -- and that will happen in the next few months.

OR: Vladimir Putin has become a major figure in the West, despite remaining something of an enigma. What are your thoughts about what drives him, what he's trying to accomplish, and how stable his position is in Russia?

Magen: Putin is a tough and clever guy, on one hand. But he is relatively weak: Russia’s domestic stability is shaky; moreover we’re seeing competition for power among different factions within Russia. I'm not sure about his ability to continue in this situation in the long term. One of the reasons I believe that the conflict will finish this year is because of his weakened internal position. Because of the economic situation, Putin and many former partners, i.e. big players in business, are splintered. So look for pressure from the system that dominates business in Russia, oil and gas and energy, to push to stop the Ukrainian affair. They would like to achieve some agreement.

On the other hand, the military and the industry that supports the military would like to continue. They have no interest in ending the conflict. There are different camps in the system. There's tension among them and Putin is in the middle. He is playing the game. Maybe he’ll win. For the time being, however, it seems that he is not a winner -- but that he survives. This is the situation with Putin: he is not a dictator or conqueror looking for war or for long conflict. He wants to survive this crisis. And I'm not sure he will.

OR: What do you think the chances are that Putin is forced out?

Magen: Fifty-fifty.

OR: Would a more militant group come in? Or do you think we would see an opening-up of Russia?

Magen: It seems that the military group has become stronger over the last few months. Keep your eye on Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister of Russia. My impression is that he is the head of this military group, he is of course Minister because of it, and he has -- with the exception of the army -- real loyalty among the different groups in Russia. The general atmosphere in Russia is relatively unstable. Remember that who suffers the most from the economic sanctions is not the whole population, but mainly the tycoons and the oligarchs. That's why Shoigu has the chance to at least press or to push Putin to continue the conflict. It's an unstable situation. I believe that NATO and the Americans are familiar with this assessment.