What the Kremlin Seems to Believe

Everything is going according to plan.

That’s the line from President Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, in its fifth month and with no end in sight, may be grueling. But senior Kremlin officials keep repeating that Russia, gaining the upper hand in Ukraine’s east, will achieve all its goals.

That might seem hard to believe. After all, Russia has been forced to retreat from Kyiv, experienced several military reversals, faced sanctions on an unprecedented scale and been subjected to a chorus of international condemnation.

But it’s what the Kremlin seems to believe. Over two decades I have closely followed Mr. Putin’s words, behavior and decisions, forming a comprehensive picture of the president’s calculations. Based on public rhetoric, policy moves and informal discussions with insiders, I have been able to work out — as far as is possible — the contours of the Kremlin’s current thinking. What is very clear is that in late May, the Kremlin came to the firm conclusion that it is winning this conflict in the long run. And Mr. Putin, in contrast to the early chaotic months, now has a clear plan.

Consisting of three main dimensions, the plan is a kind of strategic Russian doll. Each aspect fits within another, amounting to a grand scheme that goes far beyond Ukraine yet centers on it. It may sound extremely fanciful, and it certainly reveals how divorced from reality — to put it mildly — Mr. Putin is. But it’s important for the West, whose response has wavered between confrontation and acquiescence, to understand the full scope of Mr. Putin’s hopes as it continues to assess its role in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The smallest, most pragmatic and achievable goal concerns Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine. Having failed to advance much further into Ukrainian territory since the first few days of war, Russia promptly downsized its ambitions, relinquishing the idea of taking Kyiv. The current, more realistic goal appears to be control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — which the Kremlin sees itself attaining in a matter of time, a view seemingly vindicated by Russian forces’ effective capture of the Luhansk region — and the land corridor that would secure access to Crimea.

For this goal, of minimal geopolitical weight for the Kremlin, Mr. Putin appears to believe that time is on his side. You can see why. Western military support has shown its limits, while Washington has signaled that it is not prepared to risk invoking Mr. Putin’s wrath by crossing any red lines. His earlier threats to resort to nuclear weapons seem to have been heeded: The West will not directly intervene, nor will it assist Ukraine to a point that could lead to Russian military defeat. Today, for all the protestations to the contrary, the conventional wisdom in the West is that Ukraine will not be able to win back the areas occupied by Russian troops. The Kremlin appears to believe that sooner or later the West will abandon that idea completely. Ukraine’s east would then effectively be under Russian control.

The next goal appears to be focused on forcing Kyiv to capitulate. This isn’t about the occupied territories; it’s about the future of Ukraine’s remaining territory — something that has far more geopolitical importance. On a practical level, capitulation would mean Kyiv accepting Russian demands that could be summarized as the “de-Ukrainianization” and “Russification” of the country. That would entail criminalizing the support of national heroes, renaming streets, rewriting history books and guaranteeing the Russian-speaking population a dominant position in education and culture. The aim, in short, would be to deprive Ukraine of the right to build its own nation. The government would be replaced, the elites purged and cooperation with the West voided.

This second goal sounds fantastical, of course. But for Mr. Putin it is also seemingly inevitable, though it may take longer to achieve. In one to two years, by which point the Kremlin expects Ukraine to be exhausted by the war, unable to function normally and profoundly demoralized, the conditions for capitulation will ripen. At that stage, the Kremlin’s calculation appears to be that the elite will split and a pro-peace opposition will gather to oust the Zelensky administration, seeking to put an end to the war. There’d be no need for Russia to capture Kyiv militarily; it would fall of its own accord. Mr. Putin apparently sees nothing that could prevent it.

There is much discussion over what is truly more important for Mr. Putin in his war: stopping NATO from expanding to Russia’s doorstep, or his imperial ambitions to enlarge Russia’s territory and annex at least part of Ukraine. But the two issues are intertwined. As Ukraine slid toward NATO and the conflict in Donbas continued in a stalemate, Mr. Putin became ever more obsessed with the country. The land he believes historically belongs to Russia was being brought to heel by Russia’s worst enemy. As a response, Ukraine’s territory became a target alongside — but not instead of, as many think — the confrontation with NATO.

That brings us to Mr. Putin’s third strategic goal in the war against Ukraine, and the most geopolitically important of them all: building a new world order.

We are used to thinking that Mr. Putin sees the West as a hostile force that aims to destroy Russia. But I believe that for Mr. Putin there are two Wests: a bad one and a good one. The “bad West” is represented by the traditional political elites that currently rule Western countries: Mr. Putin appears to see them as narrow-minded slaves of their electorates who overlook genuine national interests and are incapable of strategic thinking. The “good West” consists of ordinary Europeans and Americans who, he believes, want to have normal relations with Russia, and businesses who are eager to profit from close cooperation with their Russian counterparts.

In Mr. Putin’s thinking, apparently, the bad West is declining and doomed while the good West is slowly challenging the status quo with a raft of nationally oriented leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and even Donald Trump in the United States, ready to break with the old order and fashion a new one. Mr. Putin believes that the war against Ukraine and all its consequences, such as high inflation and soaring energy prices, will nourish the good West and help people rise up against the traditional political establishment.

Mr. Putin’s wager appears to be that the fundamental political shifts in Western countries will in time bring about a transformed, friendly West. Russia will then be able to return to all the security demands it set out in its December ultimatum to the United States and NATO. This may seem wishful to the point of impossible. But that doesn’t stop it from being what Mr. Putin expects to happen.

There is some good news. The very fact that the plan seems realistic to him should, in the short term, prevent any nuclear escalation. But the bad news is that sooner or later, Mr. Putin will face reality. It is in that moment, when his plans are stymied and his disappointment high, that he is likely to be most dangerous. If the West seeks to avoid a catastrophic clash, it needs to truly understand what it’s really dealing with when it comes to Mr. Putin.

The New York Times