"We want a stable, predictable relationship," President Joe Biden said last May when asked about his goals for his summit the next month in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The official summit photograph communicated a sense of harmony and balance, with the leaders seated in matching chairs, a globe between them.
Many years of Kremlin propaganda about Russia being victimized by the West have prepared Russians and their allies for this moment.
Uh-oh, I thought at the time: A stable relationship with America is the last thing Putin aspires to. Russia works hard to weaken American democracy through cyberattacks, election interference, and supporting secessionist movements and other forms of extremism.
As an analyst of autocrats, I also knew that being presented as Biden's equal at the summit could spark a desire in Putin to show dominance. A few weeks later, I forecast that post-summit, we would likely see an uptick in Russian international aggression, with "chaos and risk-taking" on the horizon. That is now manifesting in Putin's apparent planned invasion of Ukraine, which would mark a return to the active warfare of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean region.
Putin and Biden’s history playing into the Ukraine crisisFeb. 13, 202208:05
Yet, Ukraine is also a means to a greater end. Former Estonian President Toomas Ilves has warned that "Putin wants to establish a legacy for himself in the tradition of Peter the Great and Catherine. He lived the collapse of the Soviet Union as a personal tragedy and he is convinced that Russia has an imperial vocation." The Russian president's obsessive desire to revive a version of the Soviet empire is a case study in how strongmen leverage nostalgia to bolster their own power.
Ukraine, in this scheme, would be one of several neighboring countries that act as client states — a new stage of the old Soviet doctrine of spheres of influence. Belarus, led by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, already plays this role. Up to 30,000 Russian troops are conducting drills at the Belarus-Ukraine border, and Lukashenko has vowed to bring Ukraine "back into the fold of Slavism."
Only 4 percent of Russian respondents to a December poll hold Russia responsible for the escalation of tensions with Ukraine.
Many years of Kremlin propaganda about Russia being victimized by the West have prepared Russians and their allies for this moment. Putin has consistently depicted himself as a defender of traditional Russian values and a bulwark against the infiltration of liberal values (such as secularization, tolerance for same-sex marriage, political pluralism) that could lead the country to ruin.
Moreover, the logic of autocracies dictates that the more imperialist the country becomes, the more it must seem to be a victim of others, whether "globalists," NATO, the EU or Biden's America. "The dominant mindset is that of a fortress under siege," Masha Lipman observed in the 2016 anthology “Putin’s Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain," edited by Stephen K. Wegren, for which Lipman contributed a chapter.
That translates today into popular approval in Russia of the Kremlin's "defensive" actions: only 4 percent of Russian respondents to a December poll hold Russia responsible for the escalation of tensions with Ukraine.
Putin's longstanding personal crusade to "undo" the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union has now led to Russia's renewed aggression against Ukraine. His assertion at the summit press conference that the United States had “declared Russia as its enemy and adversary” continued the victimization narrative and told the world that any lawless behavior Russia engaged in would be in its own defense.
Whatever happens to Ukraine, we should have no illusions that it will be enough for Putin.
Biden's notion that "thoughtful dialogue" with the Russian president in Geneva would create a safer world was far too optimistic; Putin came away from that summit likely feeling empowered to pursue his imperial dreams.
Autocrats typically don't negotiate. They instead create crises and use those situations of turmoil to extract concessions or create a "new normal" that furthers their larger geopolitical goals. This is what Putin is now doing with Ukraine. Time will tell if his gamble will succeed.