It is now clear that what is going on in Crimea and eastern Ukraine is all an elaborate show, planned and directed by Moscow. Given the wording in a resolution unanimously passed by the Russian Federation Council giving Vladimir Putin authority to use Russian troops in not just Crimea, but on “Ukrainian territory,” the beginnings of ‘popular’ pro-Russian unrest in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s continued inflammatory rhetoric, we can reasonably say that Putin will attempt to incorporate eastern Ukraine and Crimea into Russia or split Ukraine in two and establish a Moscow puppet state in the east.
But the question remains, why would the risk-averse Putin, all too-well knowing the heavy fallout from such a provocative action, which obnoxiously flouts international law and norms, take such decisive and aggressive action? Moreover, Russia has preached sovereignty as its No. 1 foreign policy principle, even in the face of mounting evidence of the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria for instance. Then there’s the fact that Moscow has spent $50 billion in the last seven years on bettering its image in the West and successfully lobbied to host the recent Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. Sure, Russia has an important naval base on Crimea, however, Russia’s lease isn’t up until 2042 and the Ukrainian state surely needs the money going forward.
Had Putin just waited, the painful reforms that the West would have demanded in exchange for loans to plug Ukraine’s immediate budget holes likely would have rendered the interim Ukrainian government extremely unpopular, leaving Moscow sitting pretty. Instead, Russia will inherit this mess, along with severe economic problems, should they gain de facto or de jure control of Ukraine, or parts of it. And few believe that a Russian military victory can be achieved without much bloodshed and destruction.
First, we must remember that Ukraine was a zero-sum game for Putin from the start. When it became clear the Kremlin had lost, it instinctively attributed it to Western, specifically U.S. interference. It is inconceivable to Moscow that the Ukrainian people, or anyone for that matter, could revolt against their rulers without outside instigation. We must also keep in mind that the Russian elite is currently buoyed by their success in hosting the Olympics, despite much skepticism and criticism – the fact that no top Western leaders attended is fresh in their minds as well. Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political commentator, labeled it “hypertoxic schizophrenia.”
Secondly, Putin was correct in his observation that the West didn’t want Ukraine that badly, for any number of reasons, including but not limited to its aforementioned deep economic problems and disastrous finances, as well as internal strife, and fear of agitating Russia. Putin also correctly realized that ultimately the U.S. and the West could do little but shun his regime internationally, slap sanctions on Russian officials and freeze Russian assets in Western banks, at least in the immediate to short term. The latter is an oddly desirable outcome considering that mid-level Russian officials have been sabotaging Putin’s anti-corruption efforts, as well as the fact that their higher-ups, including Putin, have their illegally received money safely hidden. And there is the question of whether the West even has the appetite to seize the assets since the Western financial sector will vigorously resist any attempt to impinge on the Russian assets they hold, potentially rendering any Western effort to seize these assets futile. Moreover, some greedy Westerner will always be there to take stolen Russian money. And besides, Western governments can’t really stop their companies from doing business in Russia. Even if they could, properly-applied Russian pressure could break their unity.
Thirdly, with the first signs of an impending economic crisis in Russia appearing, the Kremlin needs all the sources of public support it can get. Certainly, reestablishing Russian control over territories historically Russia’s would do just that. The Kremlin’s aggressive response to and rhetoric toward the protests is meant to marginalize Putin’s domestic opposition, associating them with the conniving West and fascism, while simultaneously making it clear that Putin will stand firmly against challenges to established power, whether they be in Syria, Ukraine, or Russia itself. Just a few days ago, leading Russian oppositionist, Aleksei Navalny, was placed under house arrest for two months with no internet access. This is just the latest in a string of Kremlin moves aimed at further consolidating its power and raising the stakes for opposition.
The veneer of democracy and rule of law is no more.
Finally, and most crucially in my opinion, aside from the deep historical and cultural ties Russia and Ukraine share, the latter is central to Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union, an attempt at reintegrating the post-Soviet space economically under the control of Moscow. Putin has created a politico-economic system whose most salient features are cronyism and corruption and that by all indications is becoming more and more difficult to control. Therefore, the Customs Union project was not just an attempt to make Russia a stronger world power, but an admittance of failure on the part of the Kremlin; the current system is simply unfixable. The result is stagnation, inflation and has required a mix of increased authoritarianism and government social spending to ward off political challenges. Putin calculated that without Ukrainian participation, his Customs Union project, and by extension his legacy as Russian president, would be irreparably damaged.
No one knows where this will end. For one, Russia has not come this far to back down, and certainly not to Western pressure. Secondly, if Putin has indeed gone rogue, reconciling himself with the idea of a closed, autarkic (along with other Customs Union countries), authoritarian or fascist Russia, where does Moscow’s aggression end?
The post-Soviet era is over. The post-WWII international order is dead. Globalization and its byproduct, i.e. the weakening of state, and more broadly collective, organized, power is the cause. The combination of the total embrace of unfettered neoliberalism in the West and the incoherence of America’s foreign policy since 1991 has only accelerated the West’s decline. Putin is just reaping the benefits of these processes.
The author is a Junior Fellow at the Miami University Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.