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Putin in His Labyrinth: Alexander Gabuev on the View from Moscow
“If plan A doesn’t work, and it hasn’t, Putin is ready to turn Kiev and Kharkiv into Aleppo and Grozny.”
While Russia’s increasing isolation may be a well deserved consequence of its brutal war in Ukraine, it nonetheless poses several dangers for the West. One is that the Russian public will lose its last access to honest reporting about what’s happening in the United States, in Ukraine, and in their own country. Another is that figuring out what the Russian people are thinking, and their government is planning, will become even harder for those of us on the outside. In the hopes of getting a glimpse inside the black box before it closes entirely, I reached out to on Friday to an old friend, Alexander Gabuev. A former diplomatic correspondent and editor at Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, he’s now a senior fellow and chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center—although he, like many of his colleagues and a huge number of other Russians, recently left the country. We spoke about Putin’s mindset, how he got Ukraine so wrong, and—since Sasha is a China expert—about what this all means for the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
Octavian Report: Why have Putin and his advisors made so many basic mistakes since the war began? What’s going on?
Alexander Gabuev: There are several explanations. The overarching one that’s not covered enough in the media is their obsession with Ukraine and their basic misjudgment of its importance for Russian foreign policy. They perceive that without dominance over Ukraine, Russia cannot be a great power, and that a Ukraine closely associated with NATO—even if it remains outside the alliance—is a national security threat.
The other part of Putin’s obsession is his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. He’s not bullshitting when he talks about this. He’s been obsessed with Ukraine since he became president, but he became much more absorbed by this narrative during the last two years, which he spent in self-isolation due to COVID. He spent a lot of time reading historical stuff, but his reading was very selective. A lot of it was archival material, and he obviously didn’t go to archives himself because he’s not a historian. So somebody brought this stuff to his desk.
Imagine a Russian czar at the top of a powerful country, unchallenged for 20-plus years, who’s also been lucky and successful by Russian standards. Russia has never been as free and prosperous at the same time as it has been during Putin’s reign, particularly his first two terms. That’s all been undone over the last two weeks, obviously. But before that, he was very successful. To the self-confidence born from that success, add the impact of his age and his isolation, and you get a state of mind that led him to believe that his legacy would be the return of Ukraine to Russia’s control. The whole idea is irrational, but in his worldview, it’s a prize worth fighting for.
Another reason for all the mistakes is that he never went to Russia’s national-security establishment and said, “Hey guys, in a year or so I want to invade Ukraine, so let’s start thinking through the scenarios and debate the economic costs.” A full invasion of Ukraine was such an unimaginable idea that Putin tried to keep his plan as well hidden as possible. Instead of serious war planning, it became a clandestine operation, with only a handful of military planners involved.
OR: Why was it clandestine?
Gabuev: Putin’s a KGB man, and that’s the way he does stuff. He was really concerned that some of the details would be leaked, so he kept the discussion limited to the smallest possible circle, with only like-minded people involved. Had he told senior officials outside that circle what he was planning, it would have sent shockwaves throughout the system.
Gabuev: Because the idea is obviously crazy, and the costs are obviously crazy, and because many Russian officials have a better understanding of what Ukraine is and what it isn’t than the president does.
OR: Putin’s claim that Ukraine is led by Nazis seems particularly weird, not least because many members of its leadership are Jewish.
Gabuev: Let’s be clear. There are right-wing elements in Ukraine, nationalist battalions and stuff. The problem is that Putin’s very myopic; he’s obsessed with one part of the Ukrainian political landscape and doesn’t look at the whole picture.
Another part of the problem involves a paradox: Putin understands China and the Arab world far better than he gets his own neighbors, particularly Ukraine. The reason is that when he is dealing with a Chinese leader, he’ll say, “I don’t understand the language. I don’t understand the culture. I need somebody who is a professional China-watcher to help me understand what the hell is going on there.” Same with the Middle East. But when it comes to the United States and Europe, Putin—who speaks German, remember—will say, “Oh, we are Europeans ourselves, so we know them.” And he won’t rely on real experts, which has led to a lot of misconceptions.
When it comes to Ukraine, it’s even worse. The department of the Russian presidential administration that works on Ukraine stuff has always been the domestic unit. The diplomats have never been involved, and the quality of people working on Ukraine has been really terrible. They have all these misconceptions, because Russians and Ukrainians of Putin’s generation used to be part of the same country. They are very, very similar. They are Soviet people by background, who watched the same movies, tell the same jokes. So when Putin has to deal with Ukraine, he doesn’t turn to professionals and say, “Okay, what’s going on?” And when people in Ukraine start to do strange things like speak Ukrainian or show a strong sense of Ukrainian identity, he says, “I know Ukraine. Ukraine is like us. This is something foreign, something imposed on them.”
That helps explain why the design of the operation was to make a surgical strike that would eliminate Ukraine’s aerial defenses, destroy its command-and-control systems, target weapon depots and concentrations of Ukrainian troops. Putin thought this would make Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky run away to Washington, D.C. on Day One. He thought the Ukrainian army would be demoralized, and that part of the country would greet Russia with flowers and the other part would not resist. That was his theory. And he sought to minimize civilian casualties because he saw Ukrainians as our people and as pro-Russia. And there weren’t enough Russian military officials involved in the planning who could ask, “Okay, what if that’s not what happens? Are we ready to take big cities? Are we ready to occupy the country?” There was no plan B, no plan C.
OR: Even if that was the case, why didn’t the Russian military leadership tell its conscripts that they were going to war in Ukraine rather than telling them they were just going to do exercises in Belarus—which led the situation where you have Russian kids who don’t even know where they’re fighting, let alone why?
Gabuev: Because of an obsession with operational security. As the leadership saw things, the fewer people who knew what the mission was, the better. And we have evidence that when, one day in advance, they finally did tell senior commanders what the ultimate mission was, many of them were visibly shaken and there was a lot of pushback. Because if you tell any sane Russian military person that their mission is to bombard Kiev to liberate it from Nazis, they’ll know its nuts, right? So the morale was, and is, very low. No one was prepared, and that explains why the performance has been so bad.
That and the fact that it looks like the Russian military is just not as powerful as we thought. I have an explanation for that, too. Over the last 20-plus years, Putin has tried to professionalize the military but in a way that would ensure it wouldn’t become a rival power center. Unlike in the U.S. military, where you have figures like General David Petraeus or General Stanley McChrystal, who are world class intellectually and were groomed to be senior statesmen, the majority of senior Russian commanders don’t speak any foreign language and were never educated about how the outside world operates.
OR: How does the Russian public view the war? Do many Russians understand what’s happening in Ukraine?
Gabuev: I think that the first reaction was shock, and people didn’t understand what was going on. Propaganda is very efficient domestically. The Kremlin knocked out all sources of independent coverage. A lot of journalists have fled, because the government has criminalized independent coverage and anti-war slogans, which means you can now end up in prison for 15 years for saying the wrong thing. Meanwhile all of the TV channels, which is where most people get their news, are now repeating Putin’s narrative, which is that the Ukrainian leaders are fascists and that they act like Hezbollah or Hamas and put their artillery inside maternity hospitals.
Most Russian people don’t speak English or look at alternative sources of information. Only 16 percent of Russians even have passports, and only eight percent have travelled to countries that require a visa. So either they buy the government’s line, or they prefer to look the other way
Now, the super-rich elite are terrified. A lot of them are now under sanction, and they’re screwed. What can they do? Look at what happened in Hong Kong: half the city protested when Beijing imposed stricter control there, and it didn’t stop President Xi. And Putin definitely won’t hesitate to use bullets on protesters. So people who do object can either flee, or, if they’re in the elite, they can say, “Okay, we’ve thrown in our lot with Putin, and as terrible as things are going to get, at least we’ll be like the nomenklatura of North Korea or the revolutionary establishment of Iran. We have enough Château Margaux in our cellars, we have enough fancy wristwatches, we have enough Louis Vuitton luggage. So we’ll live in Fortress Russia, and we’ll support Putin, and we’ll survive.”
As for educated class, the 20-to-30 percent of the population who are independent professional and not tied to the regime, most of them will flee. There will be a huge exodus of the best and the brightest. Most of my social circle has already emigrated. But there is not that much sympathy for Russians out there right now, so many people will stay.
OR: What do you make of the argument that this is the beginning of the end of Putin: that the war will inevitably get worse and worse, and when it does, the Russian people will turn against him?
Gabuev: We can’t know, but I think there is high probability that this scenario is not realistic. If you look at Russia’s demands in its negotiations with Ukraine, they tell you that Putin is not going to turn back. So if plan A doesn’t work, and it hasn’t, he is ready to turn Kiev and Kharkiv into Aleppo and Grozny. And then Russia will need to occupy Ukraine, because the moment Russian troops go home, whatever puppet government they’ve installed will be out. So Russia will occupy Ukraine, and there will be an Iraq-type insurgency, and ultimately this will end badly, because there is no way that Russia can occupy Ukraine forever. The problem here is that it can last for many years, like the U.S. operation in Afghanistan. But most of the Russian population won’t protest the war.
OR: Even when Russian boys start coming home in body bags?
Gabuev: I don’t think that will change things, because the regime will turn more and more repressive. We have many examples of how that works. Look at the Iran-Iraq war: that was really long and bloody, but the populations didn’t turn against the dictatorships. The political opposition in Russia has been disassembled. The most active part of society will emigrate. And even if protests do pop up, the government will just take out bigger sticks.
On the economic front, the West talks about reducing dependency on Russian oil and gas. You can do that quickly if you are the United States or the United Kingdom, because they are not that dependent on Russian energy. But if you’re the European Union, you simply can’t do that overnight; it takes years. So as much as you hate the Kremlin, you’ll need to keep a channel open to pay for their oil and gas. And because the shock of the war has sent energy prices through the roof, Russia will most likely build a huge current-account surplus this year, because while its imports are collapsing, the energy earnings are still there.
If you’re the Russian government, and you also have really big earnings from selling oil and gas to Europe and to China, and all of your obligations are ruble denominated, and the ruble goes into freefall as it has, your state budget is far better off. Inflation will definitely go through the roof, but you will have enough money. People’s quality of life will decrease dramatically, but you will have enough money to feed them, especially because Russia is sort of self-sufficient in food imports. The quality of food will get worse than it used to be, but still, people will have something to eat. People will have jobs. And the people will be afraid of your big sticks. So I think that the chances of Russia turning into a giant Iran and then into a giant North Korea are far more higher than a major pushback from the population.
Especially since the people who matter, the people with guns, have been very carefully selected for their loyalty. And the West has zero channels to talk to them and say, “Hey, if you remove Putin, you will be forgiven and you don’t have to go to International Criminal Court in The Hague.”
OR: You’ve written that Putin’s small group of trusted advisors actually benefits from conflict with the West. How so?
Gabuev: Well, they probably didn’t envision the magnitude of the conflict and that Russia would be turned into a giant North Korea. But even if you are North Korea, while a lot of your people live in misery, some people still do well. Even if the pie shrinks, the elite still get the largest chunk. I think Russia’s economy will become much more kind of state-led. But it will be led by friends of Putin, so net-net, they will be the beneficiaries of this very different new reality.
OR: Is there anything the West could have done in the years before the war that would have deterred Putin from invading? Like let’s say that President Barack Obama had provided Ukraine with the lethal military assistance that it asked for; would that have made a difference?
Gabuev: It’s very hard to say whether that would have deterred Putin or not. Closer cooperation with NATO was exactly what prompted this invasion, so I think doing more military would have been counterproductive.
The other option was for NATO to say out loud that yes, our doors are not shut, and every country (including Ukraine) has the right to choose its own alliances—but also that every alliance has the right to choose its members, and that Ukraine isn’t a likely candidate, both because of Russia and because it’s not ready. That might have helped. But this is a debate for historians. It’s unfortunately irrelevant now.
OR: You’re a China expert, so let’s talk about that angle. Do you think Putin and his advisors realized how the crisis is going to change the power balance between Moscow and Beijing?
Gabuev: Again, they didn’t envisage the magnitude of the war or of the Western response. They thought there would be some new sanctions and so some additional reliance on China, but not that much.
You have to understand what happened between 2014 and early 2022. After Russia invaded Ukraine the first time and Western sanctions were imposed, Moscow made an emotional pivot to Beijing. But China didn’t then deliver as much as Russians had hoped for. So the early optimism turned to pessimism around mid-2015, and my contacts in government started to say, “We thought that China is our friend, but it’s turned out to be very selfish.” But then there was a recognition that all great powers are selfish, and we shouldn’t get emotional about it. There was a sense that China had not betrayed us, they are just doing what’s right for them, just as we do what’s right for us.
Around that time, I began arguing, both in private and in public, that the trendline is asymmetric: China is getting more leverage, and 10, 15 years, if things continue like they are—if we don’t stabilize our relationship with the West, and if we don’t make domestic structural reforms—China will be in a position to dictate the terms. For example, Beijing could say, “Hey, Russia, you still sell weapons to India? India is not friend of China, so you should stop.” But the response I often got from people in government was, “Sasha, in 2014, before the first Ukraine war, we were overly exposed to the West. Yet we were able to stand up and push back when we had to. Now China is more important, but it doesn’t stand as tall as European Union did before Crimea. And we don’t have political disagreements. So why would China be mean to us? They will definitely drive a hard bargain on commercial deals, but that’s to be expected.”
OR: How have things changed since then?
Gabuev: Now it’s a very different game, one that has not been anticipated by Putin and his entourage. And I think that China has chosen a very smart strategy. It has a template for how to react to moves that it cannot anticipate by Russia, which is often unpredictable and irrational in the Chinese view. That template was set by Crimea. When it was annexed sanctions were introduced, China said that it supports peace, it respects Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and it never recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It may have criticized the unilateral American sanctions, but it also observed the letter of the sanctions. At the same time, however, it did everything it could to maximize its new opportunities in Russia.
That’s very much what China will do now. China will criticize NATO expansion and U.S.-led military alliances, as we see it doing. As the situation on the ground gets more and more dire, they will add some talking points expressing sympathy toward the Ukrainian people. Critics will say, “Hasn’t Putin violated the rules-based order that China has been profiting from for so many decades? And aren’t respect for sovereignty and noninterference in others’ affairs core values of Chinese foreign policy?” Well, China is a very selfish, very pragmatic great power. For China, noninterference means noninterference in China’s affairs. China itself interferes in the affairs of is neighbors all the time—by imposing sanctions on South Korea and Australia, for example.
Meanwhile, China’s relationship with Russia is very important to Beijing. Russia turning unstable or joining the pro-Western, anti-China camp would be a strategic nightmare. So Chinese leaders see a lot of opportunity right now. If the West says, “You should support us pushing back against Russia,” they’ll say, “We support territorial integrity, noninterference, and peace.” If the West says, “What about Russia’s threat to the U.S.-led rules-based international order?” China will say, “We support territorial integrity, noninterference, and peace.” They will observe the letter of the sanctions, because they don’t want to further damage their relationship with the West. In the meantime, they’ll watch from the sidelines as Russia’s economy goes through free-fall. Only when Russia hits the bottom, and the active phase of war is over, and all the sanctions have been introduced and are rock solid, and the economic situation in Russia has become terrible as it’s ever been—only then, when China can fully understand the situation, will it step in.
At that point, the opportunities for China will be enormous. Russia has long been reluctant to sell China its most sophisticated military technology. Well, guess what? Soon Moscow will have no other choice. Russia has also been reluctant to do a lot of deals in the renminbi, because it’s not fully convertible. Now Russia won’t have any other choice, and the renminbi will become the default currency of China-Russia trade. Those are byproducts of the war that Putin did not envisage.
OR: You’re arguing that this new world is better for China in many ways. But isn’t a less-peaceful world in which the global trading regime is threatened and the United States and Europe are reinvigorated actually bad for China?
Gabuev: Those parts are bad, but China doesn’t have agency or control over Putin’s decision making, so it has to adapt. It’s like dealing with a hurricane or volcano. Meanwhile, China sees that the United States is distracted—this war will consume the rest of Biden’s presidency. And if Biden isn’t successful on delivering on his domestic agenda, the divisions and other domestic problems of the United States will only get worse. Those are big upsides for China.
OR: Can you imagine any situation where either Putin starts to seem so irrational and erratic, or the cost of supporting Russia gets so high, that China abandons it?
Gabuev: I don’t think so. China will be super cautious and it won’t openly support Russia’s war. But a weaker Russia is a benefit to China, because China will gain much more control over their relationship.
OR: To return to Ukraine: can you imagine any deal with Kiev or the West to end the war that Putin would accept?
Gabuev: President Zelensky will not accept the maximalist deal that Putin is pushing now, because he knows that the moment he does, the popularity he’s gained in the war will be destroyed. Ukraine is now hostage to its own propaganda. I think that many Ukrainians actually believe that they’re winning the war and that if they don’t stop Putin, they will all die. So they will not surrender. It’s really tragic, but I don’t think that they will accept a peace settlement that makes them semi-dependent on the aggressor, even if it saves their cities. The ugliest days of this war are in front of us, not behind us.
OR: Let’s say you were given 15 minutes to offer President Biden advice on Russia policy right now. What would you say?
Gabuev: Look, I’m a Russian citizen and I’m a Russian patriot. It’s tragic what’s happening in Ukraine and it’s a tragedy for my country too. On an emotional level, it’s very hard to process. You cannot explain to yourself why Putin sees war as an instrument to achieve Russia’s foreign policy goals in Ukraine. It’s unfathomable because the downsides are just so obvious. They are obvious to everybody, so why would you start this?
It’s heartbreaking to see Kyiv, the city where my mother was born and where I spent part of my childhood and where many of my friends still are, be destroyed by Russian bombs. They are our closest kin. There are so many personal links. It’s tragic, but I don’t want to give President Biden advice on how to squeeze my own country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.