Vladimir Putin is playing a dangerous geopolitical game by using the Ukraine crisis to try to shore up political support among ultra-nationalist Russians nostalgic for the Soviet era, according to a former U.S. intelligence officer and author who has spent years studying and analyzing the Russian president.
Fiona Hill, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe and author of a book on Putin, says that the Russian president's sagging public support before the Ukraine crisis and reacquisiton of Crimea from Kiev are driving the brinksmanship of recent weeks, including the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along Ukraine's eastern border.
"He's reinventing himself again," she said of Putin, a former officer of the Soviet KGB spy agency. "He is trying to stay one step ahead of the Russian nationalists, and that can be risky."
Putin, 61, has always been a nationalist, but has in the past balanced that with talk of inclusiveness, particularly regarding the mostly Muslim TransCaucasus region. Now, says Hill, he has shifted to the right to reflect the rising tide of ultra-nationalist sentiment in Russia and former Soviet satellites, where millions of ethnic Russians now see themselves as second-class citizens.
By playing the tough guy, Putin has succeeded in bolstering his standing at home. Since the crisis began, his approval numbers in government and media polls have climbed and are now "in the 80s" percentagewise, said Hill.
But in doing so, he may have painted himself into a corner, she said, explaining that it will be difficult to satisfy the ultra-nationalists absent a "complete victory" - seizure of at least some territory in eastern Ukraine - and limit his ability to make compromises.
For that reason, Hill said she expects the Ukraine crisis to drag on as Putin continues to test the West's resolve while simultaneously trying to strengthen his hand with Russian nationalists.
For example, she said his unsolicited phone calls to Barack President Obama in recent weeks have been about "taking the president's measure," and likely not a sincere effort to tamp down or resolve the crisis.
Hill, who is now the director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a unique perspective on Putin. She served as intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2006 to 2009 and last year published a book on the Russian president titled, "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," a reference to his years as an officer in the Soviet KGB spy agency.
Among her other duties while working at the NIC, Hill was tasked with helping prepare a classified leadership profile on Putin. That job gives her a great degree of empathy for the Western leaders and intelligence officers now trying to anticipate his next moves, as her research led her to conclude that Putin is a "black ops guy" who "is quite willing to do pretty much anything" to achieve his ends - including blackmail, extortion and the manipulation of history.
He also has exhibited chameleon-like behavior through his career that makes him both a dangerous adversary and a frustrating subject for study, she said.
"So much of Putin's biography can't be verified, said Hill. "It was and is incredibly difficult to get a sense of the guy. Traditional profiling was very difficult because so much of what we think we know, we can't take at face value."
A purposeful blank slate
That, she says, isn't just a problem of misinformation, but disinformation - that is deliberate deception about who he is and what motivates him.
"Putin wants people to project on him what they want to see," she said, whether that be Russian nationalists searching for the "ultimate action hero," an image Putin cultivates through various he-man activities, or former President George W. Bush looking the Russian leader in the eye and getting "a sense of his soul."
Despite the unfolding drama along Russia's eastern border, Hill said she expects Putin to ride out the Ukraine crisis. There is no alternative political figure on the horizon in Russia, where he enriches allies and imprisons enemies, she notes. He also has tightened his hold on the nation's media, limiting access to the airwaves in the wake of the retaking of Crimea.
He's also an adept student at reading political dynamics in the West, and Hill said she expects Putin to continue to alternate between belligerence and diplomacy in his dealings with Obama, whom he likely sees as not just a "lame duck but a dead duck." He'll also continue to try to play the cautious president against Republican hawks in Congress demanding that he do more to address the situation in Ukraine.
"He's very good at taking advantage of divisions to exploit weakness," she said.