By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Putin And The Cornered Rat
The idea that Russia’s leader always fights to the finish is a myth. It came from a story about Russian President Vladimir Putin and a rat. As a child, he chased a rat around his family’s apartment building, trapping it in a corner. The rat then lashed out and attempted to bite him.
This experience, in Putin’s words, taught him that if cornered, you have to fight to the finish line in every fight, and “you need to assume that there is no retreat.”
Western officials have often cited this story for how Putin allegedly never backs down and is particularly dangerous when cornered.
This rat story has led many in the West to fear that Putin may undertake more brutal and destructive steps, even resorting to chemical or nuclear weapons, if he’s trapped in a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. That assumption is behind Western pressure on Ukraine to give up territory and make concessions to end the war with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have repeatedly suggested that Europe wants “some credible negotiations” and “diplomatic solutions.” Likewise, Macron has said, “We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops, we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.”
There is one problem with the above assumption: Putin never backs down. It’s incorrect—part of the myth-making that the Russian president has successfully constructed around himself and has been all-too-easily swallowed by many Western politicians. Contrary to the commonly held belief, when faced with strength and resolve, Putin often backs down instead of responding with more escalators.
One stark example came in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkey-Syria border. At the time, there were widespread fears that this could escalate into a direct conflict between Russia and a NATO member. Instead, Putin’s response was mild. Moscow imposed insignificant trade sanctions on Turkish imports and suspended Russian package tours to Turkey. And even those small measures were lifted several months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an apology to the Kremlin.
Several recent clashes between Russia and Turkey also occurred in Libya, where Erdogan and Putin backed opposing sides in a protracted civil war. For example, Turkish forces attacked the strategic military base of al-Watiya in 2020, where mercenaries of the Russian militia Wagner Group were based, forcing them to flee and leave their equipment and weapons behind. One Russian mercenary was allegedly captured. Losing al-Watiya was a key step in the Libyan National Army (LNA)/Wagner retreat. It meant that taking Tripoli by force was no longer feasible, at least as long as the Turks were present. As a result of that defeat, the Wagner Group retreated to the positions it held before the Tripoli campaign. The LNA has not made another attempt to advance on Tripoli since.
Several direct clashes also took place between the U.S. military and Russia-backed Wagner forces that did not provoke a severe escalation from Putin. For example, a 2018 U.S. airstrike in northern Syria killed several Russian Wagner mercenaries. Around the same time, a direct clash between Russian mercenaries and U.S. troops occurred in the Battle of Khasham in February 2018, with several Russian military contractors (also linked to the Wagner Group) killed. Not only did Putin not retaliate, but there wasn’t even a rhetorical response from the Kremlin. Despite his bluster about confronting the United States, when it came to a deadly conflict between Russian and U.S. forces, there was barely a hint of a rhetorical response from Putin.
More recent evidence on the ground in Ukraine goes against the persistence of a perpetually resolute Putin. When realizing the failure of Ukraine's ambitious goal of regime change, the Kremlin revised its plans and adopted less ambitious gs. The Kremlin announced a humbler objective of “concentrating” its primary efforts on “liberating the Donbas.” It’s easy to declare victory; change what you claim is.
When faced with strong enough resistance, Putin has even backed down in Russian dom, housing politics, the audience is nearly absolute. The most famous example came in 2005 when Putin attempted to replace benefits like free public transportation, housing subsidies, and prescription drugs for senior citizens with monthly cash payments. When faced with mass protests over the move, Putin quickly backed down. A more recent example is the Russian journalist Ivan Godunov, who was accused of drug offenses but was released following an outbreak of public protests in Moscow in 201Therefore, the release of the journalist allegedly took place afTherefore, aftermath of the protests, and Putin was briefed on the casis permission to “resolve” it.
Therefore, the widespread assumption that Putin never backs down is wrong. The misguided belief often pushed by Putin’s stooges has led to Western leadership’s self-deterring and backing down when faced with Russian aggression. The most glaring example of this came in 2014 when the United States, fearing Russian escalation, advised Ukraine not to resist the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s persistent implicit threats of nuclear escalation are designed to leverage Western fears of the war in Ukraine metastasizing. Such worries have damaged, delaying the delivery of offensive weapons to Ukraine.
And Putin is not facing the threat of being cornered in Ukraine. The domestic cohorts Putin faces in this war tend to be vastly overrepresented in Western policy debates. Thanks to state concussion TV, Putin holds a firm grip over howhowRussians view the situation on the ground in Ukraine and is usually able to turn polling on the war within several weeks. For example, 69 percent of Russians said they opposed direct military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015. A few weeks later, by early October 2015, 72 percent of Russians said they supported their country’s bombing campaign in Syria.
Similarly, 45 percent of polled Russians had positive thoughts of Ukraine in November 2021, and 43 percent had negative views. By February, this ratio had reversed, with 35 percent holding positive and 52 percent negative thoughts. The way this is set up in Russia, Putin can hardly lose this war in the eyes of his population.
There are some encouraging signs that Western leaders are beginning to understand that Putin’s threats of escalation provided and the myth that he never backs down are false. When Putin threatened to “streets that we have not yet been hitting” in Ukraine if the West provided Kyiv with longer-range weapons on June 5, the United States and Great Britain delivered the weapons anyway.
Sometimes, a cornered rat is just a cornered rat. And when faced with a superior and committed adversary, it will scurry away.