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There may be a lot of reasons Putin changed Russia’s Syria policy, but showing up Obama is probably not one of them

- March 21, 2016
This image taken from video footage made available March 15 shows Russian airplanes in flight from Syria to Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry/European Pressphoto Agency)

In the Thunderdome of political narcissism that is the U.S. presidential election, it is perhaps unsurprising that the first question pundits asked when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s withdrawal from Syria was: Did Obama just get played again? (Actually, maybe it is surprising. Obama’s a lame duck. Who cares?)

Yes, as Politico and others reported, the White House appeared not to know that Putin was about to declare his Syrian mission “accomplished.” Yes, the White House also didn’t know that Russia was about to start bombing Syria in the first place. And yes, Washington was caught “off guard” by Russia’s intervention in Crimea. Whether you see Putin as particularly good at keeping secrets or the CIA as particularly bad at uncovering them is a matter of taste. To see any of this as being about Putin “playing” Obama, however, is a fundamental failure of analysis.

Ever since the part of Washington that doesn’t get paid to think about Russia woke up to the fact that Russia still matters to the world, there has emerged something of a cottage industry of pundits, columnists and “thought leaders” peddling exclusive views into Putin’s mind. It’s a lucrative business, predicated, like most snake-oil operations are, on a bit of truth and a bit of falsehood. The truth is that Putin matters, perhaps unusually so: Very few states at Russia’s level of development, sophistication and importance seem to be so captured by the political will of a single man. The falsehood is that we can know anything about how Putin thinks: Of all of the high-security facilities in Russia, Putin’s cranium is the one to which we have the least access.

Serious analysts looking to overcome this problem and provide insight into why Russia does what it does — and what it might do next — are left with two options. One is to fit Russia into the various frameworks of international relations and foreign policy analysts. The best of this can be insightful, to be sure. For example, some analysts have shown that there is a robust relationship between oil prices and aggressive behavior by oil-rich autocrats. Whether you can use a theory based on average annual oil prices to predict the beginning and end of a five-month war like Russia’s intervention in Syria (to say nothing of Russia’s five-day intervention in Georgia in 2008) is questionable, but it’s a pattern of international relations worth noting.

More commonly, however, the IR line leads us back into Putin’s head by way of his mouth: Looking at what he says and lining it up with what he does, we might get a sense of whether Putin is a realist, pursuing great power politics the way great powers usually do, or something of a constructivist, pursuing an agenda steeped in the ideals of Eurasianism. This can be instructive, but it doesn’t solve the basic problem of falsifiability: How could we possibly know which of these arguments is right or wrong? Because both arguments are based on what Putin has actually said and what he has actually done, the difference is once again a matter of taste.

A better approach might be to accept that there are some things we cannot know — because they cannot be verified one way or another — and return to the things about which we have a bit more certainty. The first of these is rationality. There is abundant social science to suggest that most people are rational, by which we mean that most people do the things they do because they believe they will bring them maximum benefit. This benefit need not be exclusively material, people’s evaluation of their benefit need not always be “objective,” and there is plenty of room in this equation for coercion of various kinds, but as long as we believe that people tend to try to act in what they see as their own interest, we believe them to be rational. And because Putin is a person, it’s reasonable to believe that he’s rational, too. (Deep breath.)

In his excellent recent book, the Russian political scientist Vladimir Gel’man calls Putin a rational power maximizer. In other words, Putin seeks to maximize his benefit by maximizing his power. How does Gel’man come to this conclusion? By looking around the world and finding that political systems everywhere tend, except in very rare exceptions, to be led by people who try to maximize their power. Is there reason to believe that Putin should be any different? No. Thus, we should expect Putin to do whatever is in his interest as a rational power maximizer.

What does make Putin different is his surroundings. Politicians in Western environments tend to maximize their power by doing things like building coalitions, raising money, making friends and greasing palms, because their institutional and competitive surroundings make it difficult to do such things as stack constitutional courts, grab control of television, close down opposition parties and jail their critics. Putin’s institutional and competitive surroundings impose no such limits, so he maximizes his power much more freely (and, perhaps, much more effectively).

But that doesn’t mean that he can sit around the Kremlin twiddling his thumbs. While we can’t get inside Putin’s head, we can safely assume he has a brain and that he knows how to use it. And because his brain is probably about as good as ours, we think he is probably aware of at least two things that would keep a rational power maximizer up at night. First, should Putin lose power, his replacement will be another rational power maximizer who is similarly unfettered by institutions and competition. That person’s first order of business, if he (or, less likely, she) follows the patterns of dictators succeeding dictators, will be to neutralize the preceding dictator, i.e., Putin. Second, while everyone understands that Putin is not exactly democratically elected, he does use elections to legitimize his rule, and even closely controlled elections thus provide a golden opportunity for anyone who might seek to end that rule. As a result, he probably finds himself worrying about how to survive to the next elections, as well as about how to win them. How do I know that? Because that’s what I would do if I were him, and I have no probabilistic reason to believe that he is less rational than I am.

So, where does “playing Obama” fit into all of this? It doesn’t.

Scapegoating the West fits into this, because it’s an effective tool for marginalizing the opposition and getting many Russians to rally around the flag (which is then conveniently draped around Putin himself). Going to war in Ukraine fits into this, because it stops the expansion of a geopolitically competitive political project (the European Union), projects power and brings home the message that the Western threat is real. Going to war in Syria also fits into this, because it might help get sanctions lifted, plus it also helps project an image of power. And ending the war in Syria also fits, because it cuts the losses from a failed anti-sanction strategy and allows “victory” to be declared well ahead of parliamentary elections in September, while avoiding the risk of the war going south just before the vote.

Are those the reasons why Russia did what it did in Ukraine and Syria? The answer is, I don’t know, because I cannot know. But they are plausible reasons because they are congruent with what we do know about Russian politics: about the upcoming elections in the midst of economic crisis, about the importance of those elections to Putin’s prospects in 2018, about public opinion and the potential for dissatisfaction, and so on. The idea that Putin sees any of this in terms of outmaneuvering Obama would require us to believe that Putin’s geopolitical priorities outweigh his domestic power-maximization (and prolongation) priorities. It’s possible, I suppose. But given what we know, it’s not plausible.

Samuel Greene is a political sociologist and Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.