Editor's Note: This is Dr. Leon Aron's contribution to POLITICO Magazine's "Putin on the couch."
Vladimir Putin is a man who sees his mission as the Russian state’s recovery of political, economic, social, cultural and geostrategic assets that were lost in the Soviet collapse—this mission I’ve dubbed the “Putin doctrine.” Domestically, it means re-establishing the state’s control over (and maybe even ownership of) politics, Russia’s legal system, the economy’s “commanding heights” (first and foremost, oil and gas) and the national cultural narrative.
In foreign policy, the Putin doctrine means more muscular, more assertive, at times even aggressive, policies with respect to the geostrategic triad essential to Russia’s national identity: nuclear superpowership, defined by Putin as incompatible with strategic missile defense anywhere near Russian borders; Russia as a great power, which he interprets largely in opposition to the West and, especially, the United States; and dominance, even hegemony, in the post-Soviet space (minus the Baltics), specifically a veto over former satellites’ foreign and defense policies and alliances.
This vision of Russia’s geostrategy explains why a Europe-bound Ukraine is such a sharp and deep setback for the Putin regime and why it necessitated such a swift response. Defined by Putin from the very beginning as a contest within the greater West vs. Russia competition, the Ukrainian revolution has struck body blows not at one, but at two elements at the heart of Russia’s geopolitical objectives as defined by Putin: a world great power and the regional hegemon. As a result, containment, destabilization and, if possible, derailment of the new, pro-Western Ukraine have become (and will continue to be) a key domestic political issue for Putin, whose legitimacy is being threatened by Ukraine’s exit from Russia’s sphere of influence.
As for Putin’s next moves, they will be defined solely by a cross calculation of the two sets of constantly updated political metrics in his head: his sense of regaining the initiative and recovering Russia’s status on the one hand, and the costs inflicted by the West’s sanctions on the other.