What Putin Really Wants—And Why We Cannot Give It to Him

Satisfying Kremlin demands means sacrificing what made America great

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin. MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

It appears that the West is moving toward “a deal” with Russia, so let’s have a look at what Moscow really wants and what the consequences would be. Knowing your adversary is the best way to win any contest.

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In speaking about the Russian Federation, we mean the autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin. Having been under his rule for almost 17 years, freedom of speech is worse than in Zimbabwe or South Sudan: political opponents are shot, journalists are assassinated, history is falsified (even by state laws and repressive means), and most of the major media outlets are effectively commanded by the regime. Incoming National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was right when he said, “Putin is a totalitarian dictator and a thug who does not have our interests in mind.”

Putin’s core interest is clear: he wants to stay in power as long as possible. He suppresses his domestic opposition—from both political groups and independent media—because he has failed to deliver a solid standard of living for ordinary Russians. Russia has a lower GDP than Italy, and its average wages are lower than in Romania. As the Russian economic situation worsens, there are fears among the kleptocratic elite that citizens will begin to be dissatisfied by the regime.

That’s precisely why Putin assaulted Ukraine by invading and illegally occupying Ukrainian land in Crimea and waging war in Eastern Ukraine. He is afraid that Ukraine might start adopting European standards of governance, and eventually see economic benefits from transforming from a post-Soviet economic system. A successful Ukraine with high governance and high standard of living is a nightmare for the Kremlin. If ordinary Russians saw Ukraine doing better than Russia, the general population might start questioning Russia’s autocratic rule, which isn’t delivering in economic or social terms. With this in mind, Moscow tries to sabotage the efforts of Ukraine to turn itself into a successful country. For example, Russia does this by waging (limited, but still) war against Ukraine. Obviously, this aim will take a long time and many setbacks are to be expected.

The new U.S. administration comes with a “deal-making” narrative, basically arguing that we should listen to Putin’s interests and proposals. If you follow Moscow’s actions since its occupation of Georgian territory in 2008, it’s not hard to guess what Russia really wants.

First, Putin wants Western sanctions to be lifted as soon as possible. Those sanctions were put on Russia after its aggressive invasion into Ukraine, which is why Kremlin officials brag about them almost daily. This classic foreign policy tool has shown Western resolve and unity, so Moscow sees that if it took even one step further, it would be punished harder. If Donald Trump manages to negotiate a retreat of all the Kremlin soldiers, intelligence officers and weapons from Eastern Ukraine, it would provide a perfect reason to lift sanctions related to the Russian involvement in that part of the region. It would be a clear win for the West—and anything other than this would be a defeat for American and European interests. There are other sanctions related to Russian occupation of Ukrainian land in Crimea—however, it is highly unlikely that Putin will roll back from Crimea now, so those sanctions will probably stay in place for a while. If the U.S. lifted the sanctions for anything less than a Russian retreat from the foreign territories it currently occupies by force, it would be basically be a sell-out of the rule-based international order.

Second, Moscow practically calls for a new Yalta agreement. It wants to have its “zone of influence” guaranteed and acknowledged. This essentially means that selected countries in Russia’s neighborhood—primarily Ukraine—would be denied to be sovereign states. They would be denied a chance to join the EU or NATO in the future and their citizens would not be allowed to choose what they want to do with their own country. I personally come from a country that saw big powers get behind the 1938 Munich Agreement to force Czechoslovakia to give up its own land. This is what a new “zone of influence” would mean for parts of the Eastern European region. Russia has no right to decide for foreign countries what they want to do with their future. If any Western leader wishes to formally grant Moscow that power over its neighbors, it is nothing else than appeasement. We all know what happened after Western allies gave “a totalitarian dictator” everything he wanted at that time. It would not only be a huge moral defeat, but, realistically, it would be an open invitation for more Russian aggression. You cannot put out fire with oil.

Third, the Kremlin wants the West to stop supporting democratic civil society in the Eurasian region. The Moscow ruling elite sees it as a direct threat to its existence because they know that citizens who know their rights and are not afraid to confront kleptocratic authoritarians are the biggest threat to the comfortable rule of power. That’s why journalists, opposition leaders, civic activists and freedom of speech in general are oppressed in Russia. If the West accepted ceasing its support for pro-democratic citizens anywhere across Eurasia, it would be just another form of appeasement over autocracy. Obviously, nobody is calling for coups orchestrated by the West, but it is only natural for rich democracies to mildly support anybody who is oppressed in this region.

Four, Putin wants to be seen as a historical figure who returned Russia’s allegedly deserved glory. Nobody would argue with this if it meant making the country an economically blossoming state with strong democratic rules that are obeyed. This is something Putin could have tried to bring to his country during his nearly 20-year rule, but he did not. Unfortunately for Moscow, it means that the world needs to be afraid of Russia—that’s what the Kremlin believes respect is. We simply are in a zero-sum game. If Russia bullies countries in Eastern Europe, it doesn’t get friendship or love, but resistance and disdain.

If the West wants to satisfy Putin’s demands, it cannot do so without handing over things we hold dear: state sovereignty, the right of any nation to choose its own path despite wishes of its bigger neighbor, and freedom of speech. Those are the things that have made America great, and you cannot make it great again if you give up on the values that are the cornerstone of the current Western world. Because, yes, things can get much worse, just as they did after 1938 when Western leaders made some really bad decisions.

Jakub Janda is Head of Kremlin Watch Program and Deputy Director at the European Values Think-Tank based in Prague. He specializes in response of democratic states to hostile disinformation and influence operations. In 2016, he was tasked by Czech security and intelligence institutions to consult on “Influence of Foreign Powers” chapter within Audit of National Security conducted by the Czech government. Follow him on Twitter @_jakubjanda

What Putin Really Wants—And Why We Cannot Give It to Him