He’s no friend of the United States, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly a figure of fascination. As the de facto ruler of Russia for 22 years, Putin has watched three American presidents come and go, and he could remain in office for at least another 14 years. Russia is no economic powerhouse, yet Putin has gotten stronger over time, not weaker—and he now commands the world’s attention as Russian forces threaten to start a land war in eastern Europe.
Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops at its border with Ukraine, in a campaign for attention, respect and territorial security. Russia could invade the former Soviet territory to replace the western-leaning administration of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with a new government aligned with Moscow. Putin, among other things, wants to repel western influence in Ukraine and enlarge the buffer zone that Ukraine, nearly as large as Texas, could provide against western Europe and the NATO military alliance, were it a Russian client state.
Putin could be bluffing, but the Biden administration seems to be taking the threat of invasion seriously. The Pentagon has put 8,500 U.S. troops on standby notice for a possible deployment to the region around Ukraine, and NATO allies are moving their own troops and military gear into eastern Europe. President Biden said on Jan. 19 he expected Russia to invade, with possible sanctions including a ban on semiconductor shipments to Russia, which could cripple the consumer electronics market there. Russia is accustomed to sanctions, however, and Putin has most likely factored them into his cost-benefit calculations.
Putin, 69, is punching way above his weight by threatening to destabilize Europe and reassert some of Russia’s lost superpower credibility. Russia has a formidable military—plus nuclear weapons—but its kleptocratic economy represents less than 2% of world GDP, compared with 21% for the United States and 16% for the European Union. Combined, the U.S. and European economies outproduce Russia 19 to 1.
Yet Putin’s Machiavellian efficiency generates reluctant admiration among many who have studied his methods.
“Putin has thought circles around every president he’s had a chance to think circles around,” says Scott Bethel, CEO of Integrity ISR and a retired Air Force general who analyzed Putin as an Air Force scholar. “He’s really good at following a long-term strategy and operating with an end goal in mind that may be 10 or 20 years away.”
Putin isn’t exactly a leadership role model, given that he assassinates rivals and has become one of the world’s richest people by plundering his nation’s assets. Yet Putin is still one of the world’s wiliest leaders, with skills that might be valuable in any boardroom or on any battlefield. Among them:
Information mastery. As a longtime KGB agent in the USSR and then head of the FSB, Russia’s successor spy agency, Putin became a sophisticated purveyor of propaganda and imagery—including his own public persona. In their 2015 book on Putin, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy described the Russian president as “a master at manipulating information, suppressing information, and creating pseudo-information. The end result of Putin's misinformation and contradictory information is to create the image that he is unknowable and unpredictable and therefore even dangerous. It is part of his play in the domestic and international political game—to keep everyone guessing about, and in some cases fearing, how he might react.”
Russia’s use of social media to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign was a fairly conventional information operation similar to many Putin and his cronies have carried out in Putin’s own political campaigns in Russia, and in other countries Russia wants to influence. Yet it flummoxed U.S. authorities and social-media platforms such as Facebook that never really figured out how to respond. The proliferation of online information and social media in particular have given Putin extensive new opportunities to create viral narratives favorable to Russia and detrimental to Russia’s foes. Nobody uses information as ruthlessly or effectively as Putin.
Aggressive thrift. Russia can’t match U.S. defense spending dollar-for-dollar—but it doesn’t have to. While America’s defense budgets continue to emphasize the world’s most expensive ships and aircraft, Putin gets results with information operations and cyberwarfare, which are vastly cheaper.
“He doesn’t have a lot of money and the ability to produce $350 million fighter jets or billion-dollar boats,” says Bethel. “What he has is roomfuls of people around the world churning out fake news stories, which is a buck ninety eight.”
The United States conducts cyberwarfare too, but Russia can do it without the ethical or legal barriers that hamstring some of what America cyberwarriors can do. Some analysts think Russia (and possibly China) have penetrated U.S. networks so thoroughly they could shut down vital infrastructure in the event of overt conflict, and also disrupt vital technologies such as the GPS system multimillion-dollar weapon systems depend upon. If Russia’s defense can stop America’s offense at a fraction of the cost, it neutralizes the advantage the highly productive U.S. economy provides.
Potent populism. Putin doesn’t need to win elections the way U.S. presidents do, since he has disabled most political opposition and secured an indefinite hold on power. But he still needs popular support to defang protests over massive wealth inequality and burnish his image as a world leader unchallenged at home. Putin builds this support through an uncanny connection to many ordinary Russians that may make him the most effective populist politician in the world. Putin publicly berates wealthy oligarchs who are his behind-the-scenes business partners, to show he can boss around Russian’s most powerful people. He shows up at factories in a hard hat and once appointed a factory foreman to an important political job.
“Putin figured out how to channel, if not completely control, the populist forces at home,” Fiona Hill, a top Russia expert in the Trump administration, wrote in her recent memoir, “There is Nothing for you Here.” “Putin had perfected the art of populist patronage and the big show that Trump tried to emulate.” Putin, unlike Trump, actually grew up poor and worked his way up from the bottom, giving him legitimate credibility with working-class Russians, even if his methods are disingenuous.
A nose for weakness. Hill and others think one reason Putin is moving against Ukraine now is his sense that the United States is in disarray and Europe isn’t in much better shape. Biden is reeling from low approval ratings, ongoing COVID disputes and a hostile Republican party that could take control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. Much of Europe suffers from energy insecurity, relying on Russian natural gas for winter heating and imported oil for petrol. Putin guessed right in 2014 when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and the West failed to stop him. He guessed right again in 2016 when he interfered in the U.S. election on behalf of Donald Trump, with barely any consequence. Europe and the United States have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and those could get tougher if Putin invades Ukraine again. Putin knows the drill and may decides it’s worth the risk.
Putin has some weaknesses, too. He’s thin-skinned and takes it personally when foreigners insult Russia, as President Obama did in 2014 when he called it a “regional power.” He oversteps by violently pursuing critics and political opponents, even outside of Russia. Against a Churchill or a Roosevelt, these shortcomings might bring Putin some long overdue comeuppance. In the world as it is, however, Putin reigns as the ultimate troll.
Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.