What is Vladimir Putin Thinking?

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine closes out its first full month, the erratic, irascible behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown increasingly questionable. As of March 22, U.S. intelligence from the Pentagon indicates that Russian military strength in Ukraine has fallen below 90 percent of its initial strength, a major indication of the struggles Russian troops have faced thus far.

To Putin, this has apparently come as a surprise. Though he has repeatedly insisted in public comments that “[the war] is going according to plan,” it does not appear, even from the Russian perspective, that this is the case. “There was probably the hope that they [the Ukrainians] wouldn’t resist so intensely,” said retired lieutenant general and Russian media regular Yevgeny Buzhinsky, adding, “They were expected to be more reasonable.”

Official U.S. government analysis indicates that these expectations have not been borne out. According to a March 8 article from U.S. News & World Report, “[t]he U.S. officials who testified Tuesday noted that the invasion has played out largely as they had forecast, in contrast to Putin’s own overly rosy assessments of the speed with which he could take the country.” Even Putin’s own closest advisors were apparently less than thrilled with the prospect of war with Ukraine; In January, an important Russian military official declared potentially invading Ukraine to be “pointless and extremely dangerous.”

Some members of Putin’s inner circle have also offered resistance to his dubious military strategy assessments,   Russian state expert Andrei Soldatov observes in The New Yorker. Soldatov, who notably conducts independent research using often-unverified sources, reports that “these days, Putin listens to only three or four people,”— a significant downsizing from his previous inner circle. 

Russian opposition to the war has manifested itself in the proletariat as well, from the beginning of the war to the present. The New York Times reported early in the war that the national reaction to the invasion was mostly one of shock and awe, with a simple Russian citizen on the street uttering the striking line, “The world has turned upside down.”  The Economist also estimates that over 15,000 Russians have been jailed for some form of anti-war protesting.

Lastly, the international condemnation of Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine has been swift, significant, and incisive. Sanctions from the U.S. and Europe, as well as other NATO-aligned powers, have crippled the Russian economy in the short and long run: Russia’s stock market dived between 33 and 40% immediately after sanctions were imposed, while Foreign Affairs reports that economists expect  Russia’s GDP to shrink by 9-15%  this coming fiscal year, undoing nearly 30 years of economic growth. 

The United Nations roundly condemned the Russian invasion, with 141 of 193 countries voting for a resolution both repudiating the war and demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities. Even China, which jointly announced with Russia a ‘boundless friendship’ just over a month ago, has been reluctant to show any significant support of its neighbor, seemingly unwilling to incur the ire of the world en-masse by signaling approval of the invasion.  U.S. intelligence has not uncovered any official Chinese response to Russia’s request for aid.

As for all of this, it seems Putin cares not. According to Newsweek, the U.S. government “remain[s] convinced Putin will continue the invasion despite the global backlash and a large volume of Russian casualties.” In sum, despite stiff opposition in the theaters of battle, despite global outrage over the war that has manifested itself in devastating economic sanctions, and despite copious protests at home from his own constituents, Putin appears bent on continuing what he has called a “de-Nazification” effort. 

Given the above, it is difficult to imagine what Vladimir Putin is thinking as he presses on into a second month of an invasion for which he does not appear to have a clear end goal. An expedient and decisive military victory is clearly not in the offing, and the economic fallout from the sanctions, as well as the withdrawal of many companies from the country (over 400 as of this writing), will only worsen over time.

From these debacles stems the challenge of messaging for Putin. Domestically, Putin has certainly chosen to double down on his rhetoric thus far, imposing a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for calling the Ukraine invasion a war. Perhaps as a further show of might, Russia’s courts handed down another nine-year prison sentence to one of Putin’s primary domestic foes, Alexei Navalny. Putin has consistently made it clear that he will not tolerate dissent throughout his regime, but the depth of his intolerance has grown significantly during wartime.

That, however, has not stopped dissenters, such as former Russian Channel One employee Maria Ovsyannikova, who in a now-infamous clip burst onto the set of the news station holding a sign that proclaimed “no war” in English and “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here” in Russian.

Ovsyannikova faced a hefty fine for her protest, but as the war drags on, it is hard to imagine such demonstrations will stop; instead, they stand to grow more frequent.

That said, it likely seems untenable to the Russian ruler to scale down the war effort at present. The former KGB agent has frequently been described as a ‘strongman,’ and it would be most unbecoming of such a leader to back down from such a war effort, even in the face of prickly military resistance and global denunciation. 

With each passing day, it seems that Putin will face increasing uproar at home and abroad,  with little to show for it by way of the spoils of war. Yet as destabilizing as that combination may be, the continuation of war seems inevitable insofar as the Kremlin probably sees no other choice, according to U.S. intelligence assessments. Two separate quotes from experts on Russia make this clear—first, as reported by The New York Times:

“The Russian leadership can’t lose,” said Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government. “No matter what, they will need to end this whole story with some kind of victory.”

Second, as reported by Newsweek and voiced by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in a congressional hearing: 

“‘We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose,’ Haines said at the hearing. ‘But what he might be willing to accept as a victory may change over time given the significant costs he is incurring.’”

Thus, altogether, it seems that Putin will continue the war until he feels he can escape the label of ‘loser/losing’ in some way; the stakes for him are too high to lose at all. In his mind, it may appear that any concession of defeat would compromise his image at home, and would signal the recognition of Western supremacy—both intolerable outcomes.

Such is the educated speculation on Putin’s current line of thinking. But it is important to recognize it as just that: speculation. Putin has intentionally made himself quite unknowable, frequently seeking to obfuscate his intentions to the West and even to his own people. As mentioned before, his reasoning for starting the war, both in cause and in timing, came as a shock to  Russian citizens; it is very possible that this war will come to a similarly unexpected end. However, this outcome seems unlikely for the time being. As of now, the world must wait, hope, and pray for Putin to see reason and conclude Europe’s most severe conflict in decades—though we have little idea of when such an end may come.