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The West Has Cornered Putin—and That's When He's Most Dangerous

Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

Today is not a good day to be Vladimir Putin. A game that the Russian president was winning so deftly in the spring has turned on him in summer: The Ukrainian military is bearing down on the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, and there’s word that it’s on the verge of splitting the rebel-held territory in two and that two major rebel leaders have fled. Putin's supporting these guys because of a position he staked out months ago, even though they’ve just gotten him into a whole lot of trouble by mistakenly shooting down a plane full of Dutch people. Which is why the Europeans have finally stopped allowing Putin to divide and conquer them, and announced their toughest sanctions to date, slamming his finance, defense, and energy industries. That's unfortunate, given that Europe is Russia's biggest energy market and that Russia depends on Europe for some 40 percent of its food and medicine. And, in case that wasn't enough, the United States piled on, too, sanctioning three major Russian banks.

And yet, there’s very little Putin can do. He's trapped by a propaganda apparatus that has primed the Russian population to want blood and victory, so there’s not all that much room behind him to beat a retreat. Even if it weren’t for the media, he's spent his entire 14-year tenure establishing Russia as a counterweight to American and European foreign policy. Has he been pushing back on Western righteousness and lecturing all these years just to back down now?

This is Putin today: a brash and unpredictable man backed into a corner with little, if any, way out. And it’s not a good Putin to be faced with.

His whole image mirrors that of the Russia he’s tried to create since he came to power in 2000: sovereign, strong, and unbowed by Western heckling. Putin, like the Russia he leads, likes to make decisions on his own terms. And he may very well lash out if the West demands he come out of that corner with his tail between his legs. This causes him to dig in his heels and resist at all costs, or to lash out. Because Putin, and Russia, do not follow commands, and they do not dance to the beat of Washington’s drum.

“Putin backed into a corner is not a great outcome for the West,” says Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian political analyst. She points out that boxing in the hard-to-predict leader of a massive military and nuclear power that has its fingers in various geopolitical pies that are of interest to the U.S. is quite risky. Will Russia retaliate by scuttling Iran talks? By forging a closer bond with China? And what will it make him do in Donetsk?

There have been many instances of Putin unpleasantly surprising his adversaries, who thought they had him cornered. There was the time that protests were growing over the construction of Moscow-St. Petersburg road (by a French company) as it was going to cut through a protected Russian forest. Putin halted construction, waited for public attention to shift away, and resumed the project. There were the anti-Putin protests that brought tens of thousands of Muscovites into the streets in 2011-2012. The authorities let everyone go home, even after the protest turned violent, thinking it had all blown over. Then, a couple months later, they started rounding up dozens of protesters and handing out hard prison time for throwing lemons at cops in Kevlar vests.

When it comes to Ukraine, Lipman and other Russian analysts observe that, these days, Putin is relatively measured in his statements about the Kiev government and the crash. Compared to the barking hounds in his government and media, Putin has been almost a voice of reason, refraining recently from calling the Ukrainian government fascists and not saying publicly that Kiev shot down MH17. He is clearly trying to leave himself some space to maneuver. This week’s developments, though, shut that space down. “We’re getting closer to irreversible developments,” Lipman says. “Sanctions might force Putin to pursue a policy he doesn’t want to pursue.”

To wit, there are now voices in Moscow saying that these sanctions are an attempt to force regime change in Russia. Others are calling for Putin to redouble his support for the rebels. “We need to demonstrate that there is no chance that you can forcibly beat the anti-fascist rebels,” says Sergei Markov, deputy of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Civic Chamber. “So we need to increase support for the rebels. We have to allow volunteers to go there. The Krasnodar Cossacks are upset that they can’t go fight.” He also thinks Russia should recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and supply them with even more potent materiel.

But Putin has also shown that, given the opportunity to make it look like he made the decision himself and to make himself look level-headed and benevolent, he will pleasantly surprise—at least those with an untrained eye. See, for example, how he handled last summer’s Syria crisis, facing down Western pressure to allow intervention by unexpectedly offering to help strip Assad of his chemical weapons. He turned himself from villain to hero overnight. The time pressure at home and abroad was building for Putin to release his arch nemesis, oil tycoon-turned-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, from jail. Instead Putin let Russia’s prosecutor general leak information about a third Khodorkovsky trial—and the implication that it would result in a life sentence—and then, when no one expected it, released Khodorkovsky. (Though he kept his co-defendant in Russia as a guarantee of Khodorkovsky’s good behavior abroad.)

Sanctioning Putin is a gamble. Not because it will adversely affect the American and European economies, but because it’s hard to predict which way Putin’s going to dive. One way to coax him along in the right direction is to discreetly offer him an out behind the scenes, an out that may be an unpleasant compromise for the U.S.—for example, pledging not to accept Ukraine into NATO, or making both Ukrainian and Russian the official languages of Ukraine—but something that Putin can tout at home as a victory, rather than submission to the West.

According to senior administration officials, Putin has been repeatedly offered various off-ramps. “He's been offered a lifeline every other day for months,” says one administration official. “That's what all the phone calls with Obama and Merkel have been about.” Until now, Putin hasn’t taken it, but he also hasn’t been as boxed in. And while such a compromise may not be a total win for the West, it’s vastly better than the alternative: a cowed and angry Putin clawing his way to the exit.