What to Do About the Putin Problem?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an International Women's Day celebration in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday,
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an International Women's Day celebration in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 8, 2015. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

It's quickly become a favorite guessing game among pundits here in America and abroad: What is Vladimir Putin up to?

It's been more than a year since the Russian president authorized aggressive military action that led to the annexation of Crimea and the amassing of tens of thousands of Russian troops near the border of Ukraine. In doing so, he escalated a crisis that was as alarming and confounding as any of the post-Cold War period. And though he stopped short of ordering a full-on invasion of Ukraine, that country, which is threatened by economic blight and rampant corruption, remains in a precarious state.

Certainly, Putin finds himself in a less dominant position than he did a year ago, when he brought East-West relations to the brink of major chaos. He's dealing with increased pressures at home, including a shrinking economy that is under considerable stress due to a drop in oil prices and sanctions that the international community, including the U.S., levied against Russia in the wake of the country's seizing of Crimea. Additionally, like Ukraine, Russia faces a tide of corruption that its poorly functioning institutions of government seem ill equipped to stem.

And yet Putin persists. He seeks to restore order in Russia and despite the country's declining power, has designs on resurrecting the old Russian empire. The events of last spring showed him to be calculating and opportunistic and a leader focused on playing the long game. Indeed, he has a weak hand, but he plays it well.

He remains fearful that Ukraine will align itself with the West, but he steadfastly believes that the country belongs to Russia or, at the least, should be part of the Russian orbit. It's a view that has significant support among the people of eastern Ukraine who tend to look toward Russia for help.

Putin wants to expand Russian influence and will look for opportunities to do so wherever and whenever they arise. It works in his favor that he possesses a fairly good gauge of U.S. limits, including what we will and won't do once he makes a move. He takes Crimea, correctly calculating that we wouldn't deploy troops in the republic's defense. He stirs up a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, once again concluding that we weren't likely to send in military support. He refuses to stand by his agreements, banking on the fact that Russia can withstand any repercussions for its unreliability from the international community.

Some pundits have called Putin an expansionist, which may or may not be an accurate description. He hasn't lived up to this description in the Hitler sense of moving troops aggressively across borders, but he certainly seizes opportunities that come his way. He takes risks, as he remains extremely sensitive to political conditions on his border and holds stubbornly to what he considers Russia's vital interests.

While Putin's next move is anyone's guess, the problems he poses remains. So what do we do about him? Almost all of the politicians and pundits call for a tough approach against him, but no one seems to know what that approach looks like beyond stringent sanctions, which are problematic and difficult to enforce. Indeed, it's amusing to read and hear what's said about Putin. At various times he's been called "erratic," "reckless," "dangerous," "unstable," and "anti-American." German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that he lives "in another world," while he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry debate who is the real "liar" about Syria.

Like almost everyone, I find Putin's policies objectionable, and I think he's potentially dangerous. I'm certainly not sympathetic to him, nor do I admire him. But I think he's shrewd. I also think we have largely underestimated him as a leader and his hostility toward the West.

I've also been discouraged by the number of American policymakers who have called for sending arms to Ukraine, as if military aid alone will solve a challenging crisis that reflects the unusual Russia-Ukraine relationship. This is where the pundits are completely off. Fixing Ukraine is not just about furnishing arms. We have to ensure that the Ukrainians can effectively use and absorb those arms, and that's a huge question when one considers the country's drastically poor record in terms of developing an effective military.

Examining the Putin problem and the crisis in Ukraine in a purely military sense is wholly inefficient. Here, we have to address the bigger questions: What does Ukraine need to build a free and prosperous country? How can we lift up the Ukrainian people who have suffered for so long? And how can we ensure the country's long-term stability?

Simply handing over money to Ukraine is also not sufficient. Its economy is a mess. Instead, we must ensure that the corruption that plagues the country is ousted, that any financial aid we provide isn't misspent, and that a reasonably competent Ukraine government emerges.

Finally, we can't go at solving the challenging Ukrainian crisis and the Putin problem alone. This remains a watershed moment in East-West relations. We must work together with our allies in shoring up Ukraine and pushing back against Putin's overt and opportunistic agenda to restore Russian influence to the detriment of a people who should have the right to determine their fate freely, peacefully and democratically.

Until that time, we can be sure that a man who has been difficult to define and predict will continue to confound us.


Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.