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Is Putin intentionally provoking the West?

Following a growing list of aggressive moves made by Russia against the West, what is Putin's plan? Kimberly Marten, a Russian scholar and professor at Barnard College and Columbia University joins Hari Sreenivasan to provide insight into what may be behind Putin's recent behavior.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR:

    What does Putin have in mind?

    For more, we are joined now by Kimberly Marten. She is a Russian scholar and a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University.

    So, you know, what's interesting is those two were just the most recent in a long list of aggressive moves that Russia has been taking.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN, RUSSIAN SCHOLAR:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just a few weeks ago, Sweden was looking for a submarine off their coast. Now, they confirmed that there was a foreign sub. The suspicion is certainly on the Russians. We've had aggressive flights near the U.S., simulating kind of bombing runs that could work for New York, Chicago.

    What's he doing?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    I think part of what's going on is that Putin is trying to take attention off of the problems that the Russian economy is facing. The sanctions are working much better than many people predicted that they would, and they're having real impact on the Russian oil industry, which is one of the major contributors to the Russian budget. And the United States and the Europeans are holding together on those sanctions, much better than people thought they were going to, and now, even proposing more sanctions.

    And so, I think that what Putin needs to do is create an enemy in order to justify what's happening to the economy, to get people to be motivated by a patriotic fervor in supporting him. And so, what that means is that he's trying to provoke the West, trying to provoke the United States into taking some kind of action that justifies what he's doing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is it working?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Not so far, thank goodness. I mean, when we hear about these new bomber patrols that are happening, Putin is now threatening that they're going to go into the Gulf of Mexico. I thought it was really interesting that we've had retired Air Force officers who have worked on this in the Cold War period saying, "Oh, it's nothing. We shouldn't be worrying about this."

    And I think that's the right response. I think the most important thing is that the United States does stay calm and say, "Look, Russia is not really a military threat at this point. Let's keep things in perspective."

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And it seems like he's also trying to shore up his base. There were these photos that the Russian news agency just released of allegedly a Ukrainian fighter jet blowing out, or shooting out the — shooting down the Malaysian Airlines.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And in the public opinion polls in Russia, there's only a very small fraction of people that actually believe that the rebels could have done it.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Yes. And the photographs were very badly photoshopped. And so, people have gone back and found earlier images that match the images that were released of supposedly having happened in this event.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, when you said Russian oil companies, that also made me think the price of oil seems to go going down and down.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's down to around 75 bucks. That has to have an impact on Russia's overall economy and what they're able to export and sell to the rest of the world.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    It really does. The new estimate that came out from the United States Energy Administration just a couple of days is that probably, throughout 2015, oil prices are going to hover around $80 a barrel. And the Russians had been planning that it would be more like $90 a barrel and that's what their state budget was based on for 2015.

    So, they're going to be in some difficulty managing to get the base that they need in order to have their expenses covered, especially because now that they are responsible for this area in Crimea and now that they're responsible for the eastern parts of Ukraine. These are impoverished territories, the ones in Eastern Ukraine have faced a lot of destruction. The people are unemployed, and somehow, Russia is going to have to provide for them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes, just like when we see lower gas prices, it's something back into consumer pocketbooks here, do you think that there will be enough frustration on the parts of Russians when they see these sort of economic conditions, very dire, maybe it's unemployment, something that affects them. It says, "You know what, stop with all the saber-rattling. Focus on our country."

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    It might happen. But keep in mind that there's a lot history in Russia of the general population being relatively passive, of just sort of accepting what the government does, of believing that the government must have superior knowledge to what they have.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens as the winter goes by. I think this might be a year of concern for Russia but I think it's too early to predict that's something is going to go wrong yet.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Kimberly Marten, thanks so much for your time.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Thank you, Hari.

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