Putin’s Invasion Of Ukraine Reveals Leader ‘Disconnected In Many Senses From Reality,’ Expert Says

Putin’s Invasion Of Ukraine Reveals Leader ‘Disconnected In Many Senses From Reality,’ Expert Says

DURHAM, N.C. -- Though he teased a military assault for weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin still surprised many with his decision to invade Ukraine Thursday. And his behavior in the days leading up to the invasion suggested an erratic, unpredictable leader whose next moves won’t be entirely clear, two Duke scholars said Thursday.

Speaking to media in a virtual media briefing, two scholars with vast expertise on Russia and the former Soviet Union discussed the nascent war, the role of sanctions, what the U.S. will do in response, and other critical issues. (Watch the briefing on YouTube.)

Here are excerpts:

ON PUTIN’S UNPREDICTABILITY LEADING UP TO INVASION

Simon Miles, assistant professor of public policy, expert on Russia and the Soviet Union

“Before the very lengthy historical speech President Putin gave a couple days ago about Ukraine not having a tradition of statehood – just lie after lie – I was one of the people who didn’t think he could balance the risk/reward equation. The man that I saw giving that speech -- and also in that very long, bizarre, grievance-filled speech -- and also a deeply odd convening of his national security council in which he basically publicly humiliated his foreign policy aides … that man was a very different Vladimir Putin than what we’ve seen before.”

“We’ve never seen a version of him who was that disconnected in many senses from reality. The people around him … are supposed to be foaming at the mouth for this. They’re supposed to be the ultra-hawks who can’t wait to start this war, who are really enthusiastic. It was very clear the key players … were trying to melt into their chairs. None of these people want a part of this. Putin seems to know this and not care.”

“So this is a very different side of Putin than we’ve seen. There are a few factors that are shaping this. Frankly, extensive COVID isolation – or fear of COVID isolation - is one of them. Recent arrests of some Russia-linked Ukrainian oligarchs has been another.”

“Right now we’re seeing a Russian leader who is making strategic decisions in an extremely emotive, extremely grievance-fueled way. It’s worth noting the extent to which this is not popular in Russia.”

“There’s a disconnect between Putin and the Russian public. There’s a disconnect between Putin and in what any other country would be his core leadership team, which has now been kind of reduced to a gaggle of yes men and one yes woman. And that’s dangerous. There’s no other way to say it.”

“His comments in the declaration of war very early this morning about what he would do if the United States or any other party were to become directly involved – which was a very thinly-veiled nuclear threat – need to be taken very seriously given his present state of mind.”

 

ON THE U.S. RESPONSE

Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, former senior adviser, U.S. State Department

“We’re beyond the semantics right now. This isn’t an incursion …. it’s a war.”

“The United States has no intention of sending military forces into Ukraine …. you don’t fight a war where you’re so outnumbered and it’s right on the border of your adversary. Indeed throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union maintained a conventional military advantage over NATO that was compensated, checked if you will, by nuclear deterrence.”

“There has been significant military aid to the Ukrainians. Over $200 million in additional aid from the United States in recent weeks and months beyond what we’ve been giving before. Also some from allies, from Poland, some of the Baltic countries, the Brits and the Germans as well. And I think the goal there … (is) thinking a bit long term about a resistance over time.”

“Intelligence has been a very interesting element. … We got out in front with a whole bunch of information. Some of it may have been from a mole. Some of it may have been electronic, that the Russians were going to mount a false flag operation. This was an effort to control the narrative. If Putin had done that and then you said it was a false flag, it’s harder to make that case and frame it.”

“Diplomacy. Bringing the alliance together. NATO was originally formed to deal with a Soviet threat. The Trump years were pretty awful for NATO. But … I was in the Obama administration State Department and relations inside NATO weren’t perfect then either. NATO had its tensions and stuff. Bringing the alliance together has taken an enormous amount of diplomatic effort.”

 

ON HOW THE RUSSIAN INVASION RESEMBLES RECENT MILITARY MOBILIZATION IN KAZAKHSTAN DURING RIOTS THERE

Simon Miles

“The carbon copy is the specific landing of a major, battalion-sized-plus airborne element complete with a sizable complement of armored vehicles. That is, militarily, really hard to do. It’s very hard to do right. It’s something the Russians exercise on a regular basis.”

“This is very much a tool the Russians have worked really hard to hone. We’ve seen the Ukrainians have had some success in downing Russian aircraft. Very recently really close to the northern borders of Kyiv one attack helicopter was downed.”

“What we’re seeing here is a lot of what the Russians have built their military to do, playing out not on the exercise field.”

“Going back to Kazakhstan … Russia’s active, early involvement was about the same anxieties Vladimir Putin feels about Ukraine today. That was to ensure Kazakhstan remained within the Russian sphere of influence and also to prevent the Kazakh people from exercising control over or having a say in their form of government, as of course the events in Kazakhstan were triggered over a massive spike in gas prices there. That is a driver of how he sees Ukraine, just as it is of various other countries.”

“The Russian military demonstrated a capacity in Kazakhstan for power projection at speed, which I think a lot of people didn’t think they’d be able to do. We’ve been seeing a lot of this capacity developed since the initiation of major reforms in the Russian military in 2008. We saw it on display in Syria. We saw it on display in Kazakhstan and now we’re seeing it on a much larger scale playing out in Ukraine.”

 

ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SANCTIONS

Bruce Jentleson

“They can (work) but they shouldn’t be oversold. A lot of the discussion of sanctions has been, ‘Oh my goodness, look at all the tools we have.’ ”

“It’s just like military force in the sense that you have to war-game. There’s an offense and a defense. Putin, for example, has accumulated $640 billion in hard currency reserves. That buys him a certain amount of insulation. In the sense of sanctions being a major part of the deterrent, we’ve seen that didn’t work.”

“Where they can work is combined with other elements. Ensuring that the sanctions impose costs. Holding the alliance together. The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline that everybody focuses on, this is a pipeline that hasn’t started pumping yet. And all that’s happened is that the permitting to turn it on has been stopped, delayed. It can be turned on at any point down the road.”

“Oil is at $100 a barrel now so we’re feeling some consequences now economically. But the Europeans get an enormous amount of their oil and gas from the Russians, and so the costs to them over time is greater. So I think you impose the costs you can.”

“Destabilization is a lot easier than stabilization, and since 2014 that’s what Putin has done. He has destabilized Ukraine.”

“Invading … he’s going to be in charge of stabilization now. The Soviets went through that in Afghanistan … and that’s one of the things that brought down the Soviet Union.”

 

ON HOW THIS WILL AFFECT AMERICANS

Bruce Jentleson

“Definitely gas prices. Those are quite susceptible. Energy prices are not only about supply and demand, they’re about confidence levels.”

“And don’t look at your stock portfolios for a while. It’s been going down.”

“There will probably be some hacking. We will hack back. We will feel effects. They will be less than Europeans feel and surely less than the Ukrainians. But the world is interconnected in that way. People need to understand that and the president has been trying to make that case.”

 

ON NATO MEMBERS’ DIVIDE

Simon Miles

“Throughout this entire process that culminated this morning, we’ve seen a pretty clear divide between NATO’s more eastern and more western members. Political leaders in countries like Lithuania and Poland, I think, have been much more assertive on the threat posed by Russia. Where for example, we’ve seen the French and the Germans and the British … make efforts at negotiating.”

Bruce Jentleson

“This is where a lot of our neighbors from Fort Bragg have been deployed – to other NATO-member countries. That is as a deterrent effort. It’s somewhat analogous, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, to what we did in Saudi Arabia.”

“If Putin were to test that, then the risks run very high. The whole NATO strategy in the Cold War and after was always referred to as the plate glass strategy. You have enough American troops there, that you break the plate glass and then it gets a response.”

“There are a lot of uncertainties here, but I think that the NATO commitment here has to be firm. That’s something President Biden has spent much of his career affirming.”

“Right now we’re trying to deter and control the crisis. It would be great … if there was some quiet backchannel talks going on right now. I’m not saying there are and it’s not something I think a journalist would find. It would have to be quiet. But that’s what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis that helped to defuse it.”

“The primary goal is to ensure Putin doesn’t go further and at the same de-escalate if not resolve the crisis.”

 

ON WHAT HAPPENS TO REFUGEES

Simon Miles

“A really important role for American troops in bordering countries like Romania and Poland is going to be dealing with the refugee flows. We’re already seeing in Kyiv, for example, a huge exodus of people, and that’s continuing.”

“Countries like Romania, Poland to a lesser extent, are not equipped to deal with (large numbers of refugees). It’s going to be a massive, massive logistical challenge to get these people housed and fed and in sanitary conditions. That’s something we know a lot of the U.S. military presence is targeted towards. So there is also an important element there for the U.S. military presence in helping some of these countries.”

 

ON THE MINDSET OF OTHER EASTERN EUROPEAN NATIONS/FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS

Simon Miles

“There’s a mix of fear and some confidence (in former Soviet Republics). On the one hand, there’s a universal sense that if you wondered why we wanted into NATO in the ’90s, this is why.”

“When we were free to choose our security orientation, we chose NATO because we feared Russia and this is proof of why that wasn’t hysteria, why that wasn’t just a ploy but why that had some justification. There’s been a lot of debate about the wisdom of NATO expansion, but certainly I think there’s a strong sense in the countries of eastern Europe right now that it is because of NATO expansion that they don’t believe they’re next.”

“The risk of taking this beyond Ukraine would be enormous to Vladimir Putin and I think he knows that. I think he takes that threat very seriously.”

“In many ways, he’s the architect of his own misery right now. There are going to be conversations in Helsinki and Stockholm about NATO membership, which would not have happened if this wasn’t playing out. But in eastern Europe I think there’s a sense of security.”

 

ON THE IMPACT ON BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY

Bruce Jentleson

“Very rarely does foreign policy affect the way people vote in elections – midterm elections even less so. There are some scenarios out of this in which it could have an impact, most of which are awful, like major escalation.”

“If he helps provide leadership to resolve this, I think in some ways for his foreign policy reputation among a certain chattering class, it will help.”

“But there are a lot of other issues. I think there’s a downsize risk greater than an upside gain for him domestically, politically.”

 

ON RUSSIA’S USE OF CYBERWARFARE

Simon Miles

“It’s striking that Russia’s very significant electronic warfare and cyberwarfare capabilities up to now have been kept largely limited. I think that’s entirely intentional. I think they want Ukrainians to see what’s happening and they want to erode their morale. Telecom networks … are down or are struggling but for example in Kyiv, cell phone networks are still going and I think that’s part of the information and propagandistic part of this ploy. They are hoping that Ukrainians see what’s happening and give up. We haven’t seen any sign of that yet.”

Faculty Participants

Bruce Jentleson
Bruce Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. He served as senior adviser to the State Department Policy Planning Director from 2009-11 and is author of “The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.”

Simon Miles
Simon Miles is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke and an expert in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “Engaging the Evil Empire,” an account of how Washington and Moscow ended the Cold War.