Given this morning’s UN vote declaring the Crimea referendum invalid (and Russia’s obvious veto – along with China’s abstention), and on the heels of Lavrov’s words Friday that Russia would decide how to respond to the Crimean vote after the referendum had been held, it is thought-provoking to consider Putin’s options given the vote’s outcome is a near-certainty voting in favor of accession to the Russian Federation (especially in light of this morning’s images across Crimea). Europe’s Council on Foreign Relations notes “not knowing Vladimir Putin’s strategy makes it hard for Europe and the West to come up with meaningful and workable responses. In a way, we are all speculating and trying to get a glimpse into Putin’s soul. The five points below attempt to reinforce or refute some aspects of the conventional wisdom that has emerged from all this speculation.”
1. Has Putin always wanted to invade Crimea?
Russian diplomats (who probably hate their jobs these days) have made elaborate attempts to demonstrate that no international law has been broken in Crimea. But the breach is blatant and the pretext used to justify invasion is thinner than thin – and Moscow knows it.
It is true that some hawkish groups in Moscow probably could not care less about international law. They would approve of any means to reunify Slavic lands. However, the bulk of the establishment has in fact always maintained a different position. For example, the Russian foreign ministry has traditionally adhered to a rigidly legalistic view of world affairs: in effect, post-1945 international law, with its strict emphasis on state sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the inviolability of borders. Newer and softer concepts, such as the responsibility to protect, are alien to them.
Putin himself has always passionately belonged to that legalistic camp, as evidenced by his positions on Libya, on Syria, and on multiple other issues. Therefore, deciding to invade Crimea cannot have been easy for him. He must consider that something extremely important is at stake. The corollary is that in defending his conception of what is at stake, he may well be ready to go further than many of us assume.
2. Is Putin out of touch with reality?
Angela Merkel’s statement that Putin is out of touch with reality, which was leaked to the New York Times, gave rise to a considerable amount of conjecture and comment. Some people concluded that Putin has gone mad. In fact, while he may be living in his own version of reality, it looks like Putin’s world has actually been around for a long time.
Putin seems to sincerely believe that dangerous extremist groups have taken power in Kiev. He may genuinely not realise that the events in Kiev represented a classic popular revolution. As pointed out by Fiona Hill, it is possible that the whole concept of popular revolutions is alien to Putin. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Russia was having its own revolution, Putin was not there – he was serving the KGB in Dresden. He did not personally witness the fact that a massive number of people were involved in the overthrow of the Soviet Union. His being abroad for these pivotal events, as well as his KGB schooling and worldview, may have made it easy for him to see the collapse of the Soviet Union as the result of a conspiracy by a few combined with betrayal by others.
Similarly, Putin may see current events in Ukraine as a conspiracy by the West, which was definitely his view of the Orange revolution of 2004. Or he may see the situation as the result of recklessness: actions along the same lines as Western involvement in Libya and Syria. As Putin sees it, in both places the West has supported marginal and extremist groups against legitimate leaders, in a naïve hope that democracy will somehow take root in the ruins of the old regimes. It may well be that he saw the West applying the same logic to Ukraine and decided that he could not allow anything of the kind to happen in Ukraine.
Added to this, he likely feels a sense of betrayal over the West’s (as he sees it) geopolitical incursion into Ukraine, and over the West’s failure (as he sees it) to support Viktor Yanukovych after the agreement of February 21. All this comes together to form the reality in which Putin lives.
This means that what we are seeing as Putin’s revisionism may still be inspired largely by his conservatism. Also, much of his reality is indeed based on false premises. But understanding this does not make it easier to set the record straight and make Putin see sense – as multiple Western interlocutors have by now discovered.
3. Does Putin want to use Crimea as leverage over Ukraine?
By now, it is unclear just how much the “Transnistrianisation” of Crimea would add to Moscow’s leverage. Kiev is now considerably less amenable to making a deal with Moscow than it would have been less than a month ago. Many in the nationalist camp may be secretly relieved to see Crimea go, taking with it its two million Russian voters and Russian base.
As recently as a week or so ago, Russia could probably have counted on the West to put pressure on Kiev. The West is terrified by what Moscow is doing and it does not know how to respond. So, many would have been relieved if, instead of annexing Crimea, Russia stopped at “Transnistrianisation”. The West would have been ready to put pressure on Kiev to accept Moscow’s conditions – thereby, of course, contributing to prolonged bad governance in Ukraine and, consequently, to more trouble down the road. But Moscow did not try to use the West either – and now it could be too late for that as well. The build-up of Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders has probably made the West more determined to counter Russia and less likely to go for unholy compromises. And, likewise, the massing of troops could indicate that Moscow is not interested in making use of Western pressure. The sort of control over Kiev that the Kremlin has in mind may be of a much harder sort than mere co-option and coercion.
4. Is Putin acting only in response to domestic pressures?
Some analysts claim that the whole Crimea affair was begun in order to impress the domestic public, who have increasingly fallen out of love with Putin. Others, even those who do not share that interpretation, claim that Putin cannot back down because of domestic pressures. It is true that the invasion has boosted Putin’s ratings. And the domestic media-propaganda machine has created a powerful momentum for annexation, which has the support of many in Russian society. But it is still hard to believe that any of this constitutes serious limitations of action for Putin, especially given that he does not have to face the ballot box any time soon.
Russian society has no capacity for an informed and critical discussion about foreign policy. The state-controlled media is masterful in justifying the regime’s actions, whatever they may be. Portraying a climb-down as a victory would be easy. (This kind of method is described well in an old Soviet joke about a 100-metre race between Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev: after Reagan’s win, the Soviet news agency reported that “in yesterday’s race between the heads of state the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR achieved a precious second place. The president of the Imperialist United States finished second-last.”)
In short, for the moment at least, Putin is in no way hostage to his domestic constituency. But that does not mean that he will want to de-escalate or back down.
5. Will sanctions stop Putin?
Different people see different logic behind Western sanctions on Russia. Some hope that sanctions, or the threat of them, will force Moscow to back down. Others hope that sanctions will alienate Russian elites from Putin and leave him with little domestic support. Others simply believe that people who were instrumental in acting against sovereignty and territorial integrity deserve to be punished. And some look at the situation from a long-term perspective and think that sanctions should be applied to erode the economic foundations of an increasingly aggressive regime.
Much of this reasoning seems accurate and justified. But even so, the calculation that sanctions will make Putin reverse course does not ring true. Ever since the domestic protests of 2011-2012, Putin has lost trust in the members of his elite who keep their money in the West and so are vulnerable to Western pressures. Losing their support, therefore, does not really matter to him. They have no leverage over him. In any case, “repatriating money” has been an unofficial policy for quite a while.
Sanctions, as well as Putin’s growing alienation from Russian elites, may well have effects in the medium term. But they will not stop Putin on Sunday or in the days ahead. Even so, this does not mean that sanctions are futile or unnecessary – especially because it seems more and more likely that we are now facing a longer-term battle between Russia and the West.