As a child growing up in Leningrad, Vladimir Putin lived in a run-down five-story building. He and his parents shared an apartment with two other families. The yard was filled with garbage, and the garbage was filled with rats.
"Putin and his friends used to chase after them with sticks, until one day a large rat, which he had cornered, turned and attacked him, giving him the fright of his life. The memory stayed with him, and years later he would draw the lesson: ‘No one should be cornered. No one should be put in a situation where they have no way out."
The story is recounted in Philip Short’s biography, Putin. Several lessons from childhood can be found in the biography that seem to have been formative for Putin. Three of them stand out.
No One Should be Cornered
Despite the repeated promises of the US, Germany, the UK and NATO that NATO would not move further east, NATO kept moving east. NATO kept encroaching, moving closer and closer to a Russia that had been explicitly left out of the European Union and now saw the US led military alliance devouring territory as it moved right up to its borders. Russia was being cornered.
As early as 2008, when NATO first announced at the Bucharest summit that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, the Russian leadership made clear that they saw this decision as an existential threat. Putin warned that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was "a direct threat" to Russian security. John Mearsheimer quotes a Russian journalist who reported that Putin "flew into a rage" and warned that "if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart."
Over a decade later, Putin was issuing the same plea to the US. On December 2, 2021, Putin asked the US for immediate negotiations and sent a proposal on mutual security guarantees. He asked the US for "reliable and long-term security guarantees" that “would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”
The US declined and closed the door. Russia had no way out.
With NATO crowding Russia’s borders, Ukraine being flooded with lethal NATO weapons and tens of thousands of elite Ukrainian troops massing along the eastern border with Donbas, like that rat in Putin’s yard, Russia was cornered. With its warnings and pleas for immediate negotiations being ignored, Russia saw no way out.
That does not justify the invasion of Ukraine. But the next move had been learned by Putin in his childhood.
There were many rules taught by the KGB that Putin had already learned as a child "scrapping with the other kids." One of them was "Don’t reach for a weapon unless you are prepared to use it . . . It was the same on the street. [There] relations were clarified with fists. You didn’t get involved unless you were prepared to see it through."
When Putin said in 2008 that "if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions," the West ignored him, thinking it was a bluff. But Putin learned as a child not to bluff. You don’t threaten action unless you are "prepared to see it through."
With the US becoming increasingly directly involved in the war, not only providing weapons, training and targeting intelligence, but even going so far as war-gaming with and advising the Ukrainian military, Russia set a new red line.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked the US to go beyond the HIMARS rocket systems with their 50 mile range and provide "a missile system with a range of 190 miles, which could reach far into Russian territory."
On September 15, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared that if the US agrees to supply those longer range missiles to the Ukrainian army, "it would cross the red line and become an actual party to the conflict." The Russian spokeswoman then added that "In such a scenario, we would have to come up with an adequate response." Russia, she reminded the West, "reserves the right to defend its territory using any means available."
A week later, on September 21, Putin repeated that warning himself. On top of the threat of longer range missiles, Putin said some leading NATO countries had talked about the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Russia and said, “I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. Putin then said, “This is not a bluff.”
As a child, Putin learned that you "Don’t reach for a weapon unless you are prepared to use it."
Recognizing that providing Ukraine with longer range guided missiles that could strike Russian territory "would likely be seen by Moscow as a major provocation," that that provocation could lead to World War III and that the benefits "during the next stage of the war" "would be minimal," Biden seems to be resisting Zelensky’s latest request.
Never Back Down
Putin is not spontaneous or rash. His ex-wife, Lyudmila, said that "Everything he did was always thought through." A Swedish diplomat who knew him said that "he sizes up his opponents coldly and soberly, and anticipates his own and others’ actions well before he makes the first chess move."
When you do make that move, you commit to the sequence of moves it sets off. "If something happens," Putin once said, "you should proceed from the fact that there is no retreat. It is necessary to carry it through to the end." The KGB taught that rule, but Putin says that he already knew it because he "learnt it much earlier, scrapping with kids."
Putin would repeat that "carry it through to the end" formulation. "If you want to win a fight," he said, "you have to carry it through to the end, as if it were the most decisive battle of your life."
Though the US and its NATO allies repeatedly commit to arming and aiding Ukraine for the duration, Putin has shown no sign of retreating or backing down. Having seemingly now concluded that Russia is fighting, not a regional war against Ukraine, but a protracted global war against "the entire Western military machine," on September 21, Putin ordered a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reserves. The mobilization will include only military reservists "who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience," representing about 1% of Russia’s full potential.
Russia sees NATO encroachment and NATO presence in Ukraine as an existential threat. Putin learned as a child that "there is no retreat" and that "you have to carry it through to the end, as if it were the most decisive battle of your life."
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.