03/24/2014 08:51 am ET Updated May 24, 2014

Putin, Ukraine and Syria: Russia's Carrots and Sticks


To many in the West, Vladimir Putin seems mysterious, as well as deeply troubling.

Troubling he is. But mysterious not so much. If we can't figure him out it's only because we're unwilling to see him as a political and governmental leader with all the attributes of our own leadership class. Real-Politik, however you spell it, is a better explanation of what he's done and what he will do than the darker analyses that prevail.

Putin's purposes seem obvious. He's trying to transform the Russian economy and reclaim Russia's role as a world power. His KGB background, Russia's historic love for a Fearless Leader, and the relative lawlessness of its social institutions are important. But rebuilding the Russian image and power are the heart of his efforts.

It should not have come as a surprise that he reacted strongly to the Ukrainian revolution. If the West thought he would stand aside and let events unfold as they did, then our leadership was thinking with some part of its anatomy other than its brain.

The merger of Crimea into Russia was an unprincipled act to be sure. Putin will never let Chechnya or other constituent areas vote themselves out of Russia. He's no believer in popular sovereignty. But neither are we. This was raw power politics on both sides of the balance sheet.

Putin now seems to be threatening more territorial acquisitions, and is thumbing his nose at the West's niggling attempts at economic sanctions. He seems to be steering Russia to a rogue status, and an outcast on the world scene.

Probably not.

It's more likely that Putin will play his two big cards to bolster Russia's perceived strength and to remind the West of how we need Russia as a partner on the world stage.

Card 1 is Russia's control over the energy market in Europe. Even a temporary disruption of the Russian delivery system of natural gas will wreak havoc with the European economy. It's a delicate game because it will do the same to the Russian economy. But Putin has control of domestic public opinion in ways Europe does not and will weather the storm better than the European nations. This is the stick available to him.

Card 2 is Russia's powerful influence on client states like Syria and Iran. If the West wants a negotiated settlement in either place then Russia will play a pivotal if not dispositive role. Neither Syria nor Iran can reject Western demands if Russia abandons them. This is the carrot available to him.

A dangerous, expansionist, mysterious Putin cannot be relied on to play these cards in rational ways. A traditional (if authoritarian) politician will behave like most other leaders.

Here's a prediction. Putin will not endanger our economic relations. He will rattle the energy sword but do nothing damaging at least in the short run. Putin will publicly engage in the Syrian and Iranian negotiations in ways that increase the likelihood of the negotiated settlement the West wants.

None of this is because he is a good guy or cares about world opinion. It's because these are the policies most likely to restore Russia's power and influence. The US and the West would be well served by crafting responses to the current tensions that understood all this, rather than relying on the comforting but unhelpful cartoon characterizations of Putin and Russia alike.