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How Putin’s emotional reactions drive Russian strategy

What motivates President Vladimir Putin, the man accused of ordering Russian interference in the 2016 American election? Special correspondent Nick Schifrin talks with Julia Ioffe, who has written a new cover story for The Atlantic about what he really wants.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we heard a little earlier, Russian interference in last year's U.S. election continues to sow political division here.

    But what motivates the man the U.S. accuses of ordering that hacking?

    Special correspondent Nick Schifrin now with more on what drives Mr. Putin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Winston Churchill once called Stalin's Russia a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

    Atlantic magazine staffer writer Julia Ioffe tries to unwrap where that riddle stands today in her new cover story, "What Putin Really Wants."

    And Julia Ioffe joins me in the studio today.

    Thank you very much.

  • Julia Ioffe:


  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many in the U.S. see Russia right now as very strategic, as organized.

    But you write that Russia is weaker, and almost more emotional than we see it. Why is that?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Because that's, in some ways, deeply cultural, and it's also the kind of leader Vladimir Putin it is. He tends to leave as many options and doors open as he can, and then he will make a decision at the last minute, often in a very emotional way.

    For example, with the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine, the decision to meddle in the American presidential election, again, very emotional decision, based in part on what he saw as the CIA and the Clintons' involvement in the leak of the Panama Papers, which was this big dossier of documents from a law firm based in Panama that helped very rich people hide their ill-gotten gains.

    And a lot of Kremlin people were caught up in it and implicated in it, including Putin's own family. And so he was very angry, and in the spring of 2016 is when he decided to retaliate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mention a couple of examples Putin's aggression into Crimea, into Syria, into the U.S. And each of these have had blowback.

    Crimea is very difficult to rule. It's expensive. Syria, there's a lot of radicals who are trying to come back to Russia. And the FSB, the success of the KGB, has kind of lost its relationship with U.S. intelligence.

    Is that blowback something that Russia and the government and Putin kind of anticipated and doesn't care about, or, no, these are unintended consequences they have to deal with now?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    I think these are unintended consequences.

    And the problem with them is that it then makes Russia or Putin do more things to kind of fix the damage incurred with the first move.

    So, for example, the incursion into Syria, or the intervention in Syria, let's call it, was done in part because of the isolation in which Putin found himself after invading Ukraine.

    So he was trying to say, look, I know you guys are mad at me for annexing Crimea, for invading Ukraine, but we're at least all on the same side in defending Western Christendom against from these crazy Islamist radicals. Let's all go fight terrorism together in Syria.

    And it was working for a while. And then he went and meddled in the American elections, and in the French elections, and the German elections, and maybe in the Brexit vote. And he finds himself on the outs again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's skip ahead after next election, which most people believe he will win, to the exit strategy.

    He came to power in 1999 promising his predecessor, promised that they weren't going to go after any of the family members or actually go after his predecessor personally.

    Does Putin have an exit strategy? Does he have that in mind for his successor?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    We don't know, but it sure doesn't seem like it.

    When I was in Moscow a few months ago, people were already looking past the 2018 elections, because everybody knows Putin was always going to run, and Putin will win when he does.

    So, the question is what happens in 2024 when this term runs out, this next term runs out, and who takes over for him? Does he stay in power after that, or does he find somebody to guarantee his safety and his family's safety, like he did for Boris Yeltsin?

    That's going to be hard to do, because he tried to do it once in 2008, when he had Dmitry Medvedev hold his place for four years. And in Putin's mind, he screwed it up royally. So he feels himself very hemmed in, that he doesn't have a lot of good options.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, lastly, you write that many people here predict, in 2018 and 2020, will be a repeat of what Russia tried to do in 2016, in part because they haven't experienced any consequence to what happened in 2016.

    Is there something that can be done to prevent Russia from doing this again?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Well, there is something that has been done a little bit, right?

    The sanctions that the outgoing Obama administration around this time last year imposed on Russia have been basically written in for the next generation, and Russia has lost a bunch of its spying compounds in the U.S.

    But there aren't really real consequences, no real sanctions that cripple the Russian economy in any way.

    Our cyber-armies, counterintelligence armies are not fighting back in any way. They haven't gotten any kind of signal from the top. And, here, there has only been political resistance at the very top. But it doesn't seem like, where it matters, they're encountering any friction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Julia Ioffe, staff writer at The Atlantic, thank you very much.

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Thank you.

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