The latest information of a prisoner alternate was welcome for American basketball participant Brittney Griner, Russian arms vendor Viktor Bout and their households. However the swap isn’t actually about them, is it? It’s about Russia, the US — and the rising worldwide order.
What does this swap do for Russian President Vladimir Putin? Why now? Does the swap make him stronger or weaker? And what does the swap inform us about what Putin’s subsequent strikes could be? We’ll confine our feedback to him, whom we all know higher than the opposite actors on this drama, as oligarch researchers.
In speaking about prisoner swaps and Putin, it’s straightforward to fall into the trope that that is all only a repeat of the Chilly Battle. Extra “Bridge of Spies” materials for a future film. Smarter analyses acknowledge that Putin is conscious of the post-Chilly Battle historical past of profitable hostage and prisoner swaps by numerous Russian actors (together with himself), starting with the First Chechen Battle. These swaps have continued in the course of the battle with Ukraine, together with the September 2022 alternate of 215 Ukrainian prisoners of battle (POWs) for 55 Russian POWs together with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and Putin ally.
Whereas this angle has benefit, we don’t suppose that it captures all the pieces that is occurring in Putin’s thoughts as of late. Bear in mind, Putin is an oligarch — and that makes him, initially, an opportunist. We proceed to consider that his strikes all comprise the opportunity of new home windows being opened for him. What new home windows simply received opened?
First, we don’t consider the swap is a gap gambit towards Putin negotiating a peace settlement. Nevertheless, it could have the associated objective of demonstrating to the world that Putin is, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s phrases, somebody that the world can do enterprise with. It additionally demonstrates that Putin is engaged, not remoted; he isn’t about to flee overseas.
Second, Bout himself might have some worth to Putin as an skilled on sanctions busting. We are able to all relaxation assured that Bout’s community stays energetic, and that has some worth to Putin as Russia seeks to promote its oil internationally within the interval forward.
However, third, what Putin has actually executed with the swap is to reshuffle the deck but once more. To take the main focus off Ukraine. To ping the system and see how the US reacts. In sum, to generate some info and in addition sow some extra uncertainty, which opens up extra alternatives for him. For instance, this swap might pressure additional the U.S. relationship with Germany, which can have refused to take part on this swap by handing over former Russian colonel Vadim Krasikov, who assassinated a Georgian Chechen in Berlin in 2019 on orders from Putin. On this method, Putin is behaving similar to the political oligarch he’s. He’s a chaos monkey.
And why do the swap now? On condition that the navy dimension of Russia’s battle with Ukraine has not been going terribly effectively for Putin just lately, non-military measures just like the prisoner alternate will possible turn out to be extra vital as we transfer into the Ukrainian winter. For instance, the assaults on Ukraine’s electrical energy infrastructure are one other such measure — and now this swap. We count on extra surprising non-military measures by Putin within the months forward. Little doubt, Western analysts try to recreation these out, and what the response must be. However we nonetheless count on Putin to remain a step forward.
Is Putin higher off for this swap? Our sense is that Griner-for-Bout means extra to the US than it does to Putin. Putin in all probability does count on to learn from the moralizing, self-referential tone of the Western dialog concerning the swap. That tone continues to “out” the U.S. and a few of its allies with the coalition that Putin and others are constructing. This pondering might clarify why he’s prepared to pursue further exchanges. Such exchanges are extra vital for his or her revelatory atmospherics than they’re for his or her substance.
Lastly, what does this prisoner swap inform us about Putin and the place he would possibly go subsequent? Regardless of Russian navy setbacks and up to date hypothesis that Russia would possibly break up, we’re not seeing any proof that Putin is feeling himself to be in a weakened place of late. His newest approval ranking is at 79 p.c, close to historic highs, and the Russian economic system appears to be in a stronger place than many had anticipated.
This implies to us that Putin would possibly increase the vary of strategic alternatives he might need to pursue subsequent. First, because the swap, he has already urged once more that he might introduce a nuclear first-use coverage. Second, as an oligarch, Putin has used a “associates with advantages” technique to couple with and decouple from many strategic companions over his profession. He might start seeking to develop or strengthen some new partnerships, notably with nations which have proven assist for his battle. Current hypothesis has emerged that he and his circle could also be establishing an escape plan to Venezuela if his battle fails. Different partnerships would possibly emerge with nations who abstained from the assorted UN resolutions towards the Ukraine battle, specifically African nations with historic relationships with Russia or the Soviet Union. That is solely a partial record of the alternatives Putin could also be contemplating.
From the start of this battle, now we have been arguing that it will open up new alternatives for an oligarch like Putin. He stays a grasp oligarch, and his time is, in our estimation, removed from over. Whether or not it’s prisoner swaps or some as-yet unimagined motion, rely on Putin to maintain switching it up. That’s what works for him.
David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The College of Baltimore and creator. He lived and labored in Russia from 1994 to 1999, the place he served as president of Financial institution of America — Russia and labored with Vladimir Putin.
Valentina Rodríguez Guerra is an creator and oligarch researcher.
Collectively they’re writing a e-book about oligarchs.