Vladimir Putin is misunderstood by the West. He is not a rational thinker in the sense Westerners understand. He plays a different game than U.S. politicians and their NATO allies.
The West is saying, “we are going to make it economically costly for you if you to invade Ukraine.” That’s the kind of thinking of a politician who cares about getting votes in the next election. What drives office retention or electoral victory for such politicians is what people will judge as economic success or failure. In other words, power outcomes in electoral systems depend on the availability of jobs, the stability of prices, purchasing power, and so on.
Putin’s Russia is different. Elections play no role in power retention for the oligarchy, which has been in charge since the 1990s. The oligarchs have all the economic might. Yes, sanctions will hurt them, but they will still find a way to make and spend their money. The politician’s concern for ordinary people does not exist, because the elections are manipulated. That means that Putin’s costs are not economic. So, ultimately, he is not threatened by sanctions because the “economy” does not matter to him.
What Does Putin Care About?
Vladimir Putin cares about one thing: his legacy. He is like a U.S. president in the last part of his second term. He cares about what Russia will look like after him. Putin is not a selfless man. His focus on legacy comes from his ego.
If you want to understand Putin, think Peter the Great. Not the sophisticated Peter the Great who made sweeping reforms and westernized Russia but Peter’s dream of creating a powerful Russian navy. Then think about his campaigns against the Ottoman Empire that led to the successful capture of the fortress of Azov in July 1696. After that, he led the successful Northern War against the Swedish Empire that made Russia a dominant power in Europe and later forced Persia to cede the western and southern shores of the Caspian to Russia. Through skillful statesmanship, generalship, and diplomacy, Peter the Great expanded the territory of Russia, making it into a larger empire and a major European power. By the time of his death, the Russian Empire stretched from Archangel on the White Sea to Mazanderan on the Caspian and from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Putin has followed this pattern. He rebuilt Russian military might. Azov is an area very close to where Putin’s ambitions now lie in Ukraine, which he believes is part of Russia. The fact that large parts of Ukraine were long part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire does not matter to Putin. The war against Sweden corresponds to Putin’s ambitions in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea. Peter the Great’s moves in the Caspian region correspond roughly to the recent actions of Putin in Georgia, where he occupied part of the country, and in Armenia, where he sent troops to control the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Why is Putin acting in the same regions as Peter the Great? These regions have long been disputed areas around Russia, which past tsars and leaders have tried to control in order to create a Greater Russia. To put it simply, Putin wants to be remembered by history as Putin the Great.
Imperialism, Mercantilism, and Putin
The fact that trade with Ukraine and the West can bring more prosperity to Russia also doesn’t matter to Putin. This is, after all, a modern way of understanding economics and the world. Putin thinks in imperial terms, gaining resources by gaining territory. Economic efficiency is not his concern. For him, earning money comes from selling resources that you gain through territorial expansion. His understanding of economics is mercantilist. The Donbas and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine are the resource-rich industrial areas of Ukraine. The majority of the population thinks of itself as Russian and waits for their liberator. That makes Ukraine the perfect target for Russian mercantilist and imperialist expansion.
The main point, then, is not whether economic sanctions will stop Putin from invading Ukraine. He is not calculating whether the cost of sanctions will be too great for Russians to bear. His calculation is whether he can manage to become Putin the Great by achieving what his predecessor Peter achieved and more.
However, Putin does care about losing power in a popular revolt because many Russian soldiers die in a war. He saw what happened to an unpopular government when he was a KGB officer in East Germany at the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, when Putin is cornered, he jumps and attacks. He does not allow anyone to bully him. That is the biggest mistake of Western politicians: to try to scare him into submission with economic threats.