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The Memo: Biden locks into battle with enigmatic Putin

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President BidenJoe BidenBiden has decided on Supreme Court nominee: reports Japan, Australia, New Zealand impose penalties on Russia following invasion into Ukraine Psaki on Cruz ‘Peanuts’ character comparison: ‘Don’t tell him I like Peppermint Patty’ MORE promised to make Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinEU condemns Russian invasion of Ukraine, announces additional sanctions Pentagon chief meets with Ukrainian counterpart as Russian invasion rages Blinken says he’s ‘convinced’ Putin will try to topple Ukrainian government MORE “a pariah on the international stage” during remarks from the White House on Thursday.

But for now, Putin is in his favorite position — right in the spotlight.

The Russian president is determined to remain there, even as he faces global opprobrium for his invasion of Ukraine. Exiled critics wonder whether he has made a disastrous blunder.

For all the complexities of the situation in Ukraine, much depends on the mind and intentions of Putin alone. The key question — and one that won’t be answered for weeks or months — is whether Biden and the West can force the enigmatic and autocratic Russian president to bend and withdraw his troops.

The omens are not auspicious — starting with the fact that Putin had enough steel and cunning to rise from a middle-ranking KGB officer to a leader who has dominated Russian life for two decades.

There are few things he loathes, or fears, more than displays of weakness. 

That’s true on a geopolitical basis, where he appears to bear venomous personal grievance that Russia has not, in his view, been accorded sufficient respect in the generation since the Soviet Union unraveled. 

It also manifests in more superficial ways, such as his penchant for macho activities and shirtless photos.

The germane point right now is that there is little chance of Putin backing down unless the political pain becomes unbearable. Sanctions, which are slow-acting at best, seem to have a limited chance to accomplish that goal — even though Biden outlined fresh measures on Thursday and British Prime Minister Boris JohnsonBoris JohnsonOvernight Defense & National Security — Russia launches attack on Ukraine The West needs containment 2.0 Biden says US will sanction Russian banks, impose export controls MORE stated his intention to “hobble” the Russian economy.

Putin “has been preparing economically for sanctions for years,” Yoshiko Herrera, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Russia and U.S.-Russia relations, told this column. Herrera cited Russia’s expansion of its reserves of foreign currency in recent times as one example

Referring to the invasion of Ukraine, Herrera added, “He is willing to pay an economic cost for this. Saying we are making it economically costly? That is not going to do it. He has already factored that in.”

For Biden, this is one of the most perilous aspects of the whole crisis. 

The core of the administration’s strategy to forestall a Russian invasion of Ukraine was to lay out to Putin in specific terms the likely sanctions response.

Biden’s remarks on Thursday caused a stir on this point when he said, “No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening.”

In fact, senior figures in the administration including Vice President Harris and national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanUS has discussed plans for Ukrainian leader to leave if Russia invades: report Belarus: NATO pullback will factor into Russian troop withdrawal Senate Democrats meeting with Polish officials to discuss Russian aggression MORE had previously claimed that sanctions were intended to have a deterrent effect. Aides to Biden argue that, when the language is carefully parsed, there is no contradiction between the positions.

In any event, Putin’s decision to move ahead with the invasion, even in the face of certain sanctions, makes vividly clear that he believes Russia can withstand such measures; that Western resolve and unity will crack; that the voters of the West will be unwilling to suffer some pain of their own; or that Russia can blunt the sanctions by dealing with more friendly powers such as China — or perhaps all of the above.

Putin has premised his actions in Ukraine as a response to NATO expansionism, as well as a purported desire to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine from the central government in Kyiv.

Critics regard his stated motivations as spurious — and contend that Putin’s motivation remains, and has always been, to return Russia to the power and glory it enjoyed in a previous era.

Those critics disagree on what exactly Putin is seeking to recapture. While he lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, some say he looks back to an even earlier “golden age.”

“Putin is not talking about restoring Soviet might, though I’ve heard a lot of people in the media say that. It’s about the restoration of Tsarist might,” said Uriel Epshtein, the executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, the group led by prominent Putin critic and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

“He has specifically talked about how foolish it was for Soviet leaders to give up Ukraine in the way they did. He wants to restore Russia to its pre-1917 ‘glory days’, with a single Tsar, not bound by a politburo, maintaining control of the entire sphere of influence — and of course where there is no freedom, no democracy.”

Putin has long been buoyed by significant support in Russia, founded primarily on the economic progress the nation has made during his time at its center, and the contrast with the chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period.

But whether the Russian public will endorse a war on a neighboring nation — and the economic costs and bloodshed that go with it — is another matter.

Putin himself has asserted that Ukraine is, essentially, not a real country but an errant offshoot of Russia. Now, he has launched the biggest military operation in decades to prove his point.

The Russian stock market plunged Thursday, as did its currency. But those kinds of shocks might be insufficient to budge Putin.

It’s his most audaciously belligerent move yet. His adversaries know the stakes are huge.

Referring to previous aggressions, Epshtein said, “Putin did this piece by piece, and now suddenly he’s decided to go for the whole thing.

“Hopefully he chokes on it. If he doesn’t, the precedent it will set is very dangerous.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.


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