The Kremlin may fortify the walls of its decaying fortress, but it is undermining the foundation.
I never expected so many intelligent, perceptive, and influential media and political personalities to so easily fall into Vladimir Putin’s trap. After the initial shock to the world, and especially to the West, following Moscow’s announcements about the possible use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine, and then after being forced to acknowledge that Russia has already occupied Crimea, the West breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing Putin’s March 4 press conference, where he suggested Russia doesn’t have any plans to seize eastern Ukraine. I intentionally waited a while to make sure that this would indeed be the prevailing Western reaction after the dust settled—and it was. Western capitals felt encouraged by Putin. In the New York Times, Peter Baker confirmed that “American officials took some solace” after hearing Putin’s explanations. One may suppose that the Europeans, who are much more inclined to forgive Putin than is Washington, have felt more than just relief, but actual satisfaction, at the news.
When it became apparent that Moscow was hurriedly attempting to annex Crimea through a “referendum” scheduled for March 16—in the presence of thousands of Russian troops—some in the West have grown nervous once again. They’re wondering why the Kremlin is in such a hurry, and why it is acting so crudely, without even pro forma attempts to clothe its naked aggression. But they needn’t wonder. By now it’s obvious that both Europe and the United States, unable to reverse the course of recent events and unwilling to pay the price for restraining Russia, are ready to participate in Putin’s gamble. Until now, stunned and appalled, the Western capitals have been merely reacting to the Kremlin’s moves, however belatedly or inadequately. But now the liberal democracies seem prepared to accept the new status quo—that is, to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli, since they do not dare force Russia to back down. They are now focused on stemming Russia’s expansion to Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, apparently fearing that anything but acceptance of the new geopolitical reality will result in a much more dreadful outcome. Let us clarify what this reality is all about.
First, it is about the destruction of the post-Cold War world order. This order was based on the premise that Russia and the West are not in the business of “containing” each other anymore, and that both support the principle of the territorial sovereignty of the independent states that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Moscow began to destroy that order as early as its 2008 war with Georgia, followed by the virtual annexation of Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. No less than President Nicolas Sarkozy, during France’s term of presidency of the European Union, ratified and legitimized the Russian occupation of Georgia’s territories. And Moscow’s interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs and its use of force in dealing with Kiev dates back to the Kremlin’s trade war against Ukraine in August 2013. So there’s nothing new or strange in the West’s inability to find a convincing way to react to Russia’s moves. Moscow concluded some time ago that it was free to take additional steps toward establishing the new order.
Second, it is about more than just setting a precedent allowing the Kremlin’s direct interference in the affairs of a sovereign state. Not only did its behavior validate the presence of Russia’s spheres of influence, thanks to the lack of meaningful Western reaction, but the Kremlin also reintroduced the “doctrine of interference” under the pretext of protecting the “Russian-speaking population.” Since Russian speakers live in most of the newly independent states, this “doctrine” threatens the stability of the entire post-Soviet space. Even Russia’s willing partners—Belorussian leader Lukashenko and Kazakh leader Nazarbajev—understand the looming threat to their countries’ territorial integrity, and so have stubbornly refused to support the Kremlin “solution” for Ukraine.
Third, it is about paving the way for the second stage of Moscow’s plans, which is to bring southeastern Ukraine under Russian control. This would make Ukraine a failed state and zone of instability, which will serve as an invitation to Moscow to “stabilize” it. One should even expect there to be Western supporters of Russia’s “moderating” role. Indeed some have already hinted that Moscow has its “interests” in the regions that have to be “accommodated.” And Moldova is likely the next target. In short, Eurasia is entering a period of instability.
I would argue that, so far, the Western political community has demonstrated a rather simplistic understanding of Putin’s psyche and goals, and this has made it easier for the Kremlin to carry out its agenda.
Here is a sampling of Western explanations for Putin’s mindset and goals, proffered by various politicians, analysts, and journalists:
- “Because Putin can.”
- Because of “Putin’s appetite for expansion.”
- Because it’s a “land grab.”
- Because “he wants Ukraine back.”
(If these explanations are true, then why is he only trying this now? And why was he interested in Ukraine, specifically, rather than, say, Moldova?)
- “Because Putin is afraid of NATO expansion.”
(But NATO currently has no plans for expansion.)
- “To prevent clashes between the nationalists and the pro-Russian population in Crimea and the East.”
(But there had been no such clashes, until Russia got involved.)
- “To protect the Russian-speaking population.”
(But why, then, hasn’t Moscow shown any enthusiasm for protecting the Russian speakers in Central Asia, where their rights are genuinely being violated? And why is Moscow so interested in this group’s fate in Ukraine at this particular time?)
- “To recreate the Soviet Union.”
- “To start a Cold War with the West.”
(In my view Putin hardly looks the part of an insane person who has totally lost contact with reality. He hardly wants to rally the world against Russia to fulfill some sort of bizarre dream of going down in flames with his country. Besides, the Cold War actually had some rules that both belligerents observed; the Kremlin has demonstrated that it does not respect any rules.)
As you can see, there are major questions about most of the popular explanations offered to explain the recent events in Ukraine. I do not claim to have a monopoly on the truth on this or other questions. We political pundits have demonstrated how pathetic we are, not just when it comes to making adequate forecasts of developments in Ukraine, but also when it comes to explaining what is happening in real time. We all could use a healthy dose of humility when discussing these developments. With that in mind, I would suggest the following explanation of the Kremlin’s motives and its agenda regarding Ukraine.
Annexing Crimea is not an end in itself for the Kremlin, nor is partitioning Ukraine. These are just means to a more ambitious end. The Kremlin’s intervention in Crimea and involvement in the destabilization of southeastern Ukraine exemplifies the Putin Doctrine, formulated by the Kremlin in 2012-2013. One of the goals of this doctrine is to find ways to reproduce the traditional Russian state and Putin’s regime, and to respond to new domestic and international challenges. This doctrine is based on three premises: Russia is a “unique” civilization and must contain the demoralized West; Russia can only exist as a galactic center, around which orbit satellite-statelets; Russia is the civilizational pillar whose mission is to defend “traditional values” globally.
Many have viewed the Putin Doctrine as an exercise in empty rhetoric, but Putin has proved that it is the real thing. He has also proved that foreign policy is now the key instrument serving his domestic agenda. What a lesson this has been for those Western politicians who believed they could rest their Russia policy on the basis of “de-linking” domestic and foreign affairs!
We need to keep in mind that, even if a new imperialism and a hunger for land are behind Russia’s recent actions, they do not fully account for the brashness of the invasion, nor for Moscow’s open rejection of all accepted norms and principles of international order. The invasion and destabilization of Ukraine are Moscow’s means of pursuing not just the geopolitical goal of guaranteeing influence, but a civilizational goal as well: eliminating the very idea of the Maidan as an alternative to the Russian Matrix (namely, the Russian personalized power system and the individual’s subjugation by the state). In the Kremlin’s view, the Maidan is the Absolute Evil, which must be erased permanently and utterly, with the utmost cruelty. The Kremlin’s Ukrainian campaign is thus a preemptive strategy with the ultimate goals of reproducing and preventing any threats to the personalized power system in Russia and the post-Soviet space. I also think that the flagrant and aggressive beating to which Putin has subjected Ukraine has certain psychological underpinnings. We might surmise that they also come from a desire to humiliate the Ukrainian state and nation, to both punish and terrify—pour encourager les autres, including Russians. In fact, Putin is demonstrating the judo style his coach once described: “You have to hit first and whack down the opponent to scare the hell out of him, forcing him to accept your domination!”
Actually, the Kremlin’s tactics against Ukraine are the same ones it used against the Bolotnaya protesters in Russia: The government will use both psychological and physical terror tactics to ensure dominance and guarantee obedience—both here and over there. This is an up-to-date version of the Brezhnev Doctrine used in 1968 against Czechoslovakia, an aggression which was also meant as a warning to Soviet society.
Ukraine has long been Putin’s personal project. The site of a stinging rebuke during the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine now presents an opportunity for the Kremlin to exact revenge for both past and present Maidans, to teach the rebellious Ukrainians a lesson, and to warn Russians about the price of insubordination or attempts to escape the Russian Matrix.
Yet another angle: Russia is warning the West, “Don’t meddle—this is our playground!”
But this is not the end for the Kremlin’s agenda. Ukraine is supposed to test the West’s ability to accept Putin’s rules of the game. Let us not forget that this test has already been conducted once before, in Georgia. Moscow’s decision to take over Crimea indicates that Putin has concluded that the West is ready to accept the Putin Doctrine, or that it can be persuaded to do so. The chain of recent Kremlin statements and steps—Putin’s March 4 press conference; various comments by Kremlin officials, including Putin’s Press Secretary and the Minister of Foreign Affairs; Kremlin press releases summing up Putin’s talks with Western leaders (and first of all with Obama)—all signal the start of a new phase in Moscow’s self-affirmation of its civilization-state status. This new phase will be characterized by a combination of “hot” and “cold” tactics: constant threats to use force beyond Russian borders, as well as a wide range of administrative, financial, and other pressure mechanisms.
It’s ironic that the Western leaders have been discussing “face-saving” options for Putin—moves that would allow him to voluntarily “de-escalate” the crisis. Escape valves are the last things on his mind: He’s looking for ways to destroy the West’s reputation and to force it to accept his way of dealing with the world. What the West is treating as a pause, perhaps even as a prelude to retreat, is in fact a new stage in the Kremlin’s offensive.
Just look at recent Kremlin rhetoric: At his March 4 press conference, the Russian President delivered an ultimatum to both Kiev and the West. But this ultimatum, which has been repeated by Russian officials non-stop since Putin first uttered it, is itself a safety valve for the West—couched in rhetoric allowing Western leaders weary of the Ukrainian headache to accept it without completely embarrassing themselves.
Since March 4, Putin has repeated his former position on Ukraine: that the current Kiev regime is not legitimate. But he hasn’t stopped there. He has also charged that Ukraine has been supplanted by a “new state” whose legitimacy he has also called into question. Moreover, he has listed several terms under which he is ready to deal with Kiev. These terms go beyond a desire to control Ukraine’s foreign policy. Now Moscow is even telling Ukraine how to build its state, by calling for a constitutional change and a referendum, and by calling on Ukraine to accept the February 21 agreement, which would return Yanukovych to power. These are the kinds of demands one would issue to a protectorate or a colony.
Besides, Putin has openly referred to the possibility of a military option if his demands are ignored. He has also reminded us that Russia has other instruments for influencing Ukraine at his disposal. When Putin mentioned that “Russia will not be sidelined if the Russian speakers are persecuted,” he alluded to the influence Russia wields over gas prices and over Ukraine’s debt. He’s perfectly willing to cooperate with the “legitimate” Ukrainian regime, just as once cooperated with the Timoshenko government—as long as this cooperation is on the Kremlin’s terms.
In short, the Russian President made it clear that Russia will not be satisfied with grabbing Crimea. (Who really cares about Crimea in the Kremlin?). Russia isn’t about to loosen its grip on Ukraine. He has dangled possibilities in front of the West’s nose (for instance, he won’t send troops into Ukraine unless it is absolutely necessary!) in order to get it to be more receptive to the Kremlin’s other demands. Putin has essentially asked the West to turn a blind eye to any further moves by Moscow to establish its control over Ukraine. He even suggested that the West take part in “normalizing” the situation in Ukraine in conjunction with Russia. It is quite possible that the Kremlin believes (or has grounds to believe) that the West is ready for a repeat of the 1938 Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
According to the press release the Kremlin issued after the nearly hour-long conversation between Putin and Obama on March 7, the Russian President said, “These relations should not be sacrificed to differences over individual—even though very important—international problems.” Translation: “What’s done is done. Accept it, and we’re ready to discuss other problems. But you need to understand that the world has changed.”
Even the West’s current goal for the Ukraine crisis, to “de-escalate” the situation, is perceived in Russia not as a demand to return to the status quo ante, but as an effort to stop any further expansion by Russia. In other words, Moscow believes that the West recognizes and tacitly accepts the new situation. But if the West is ready to recognize one alteration to the status quo, why not another?
Meanwhile, all the talk in the West about sanctioning the Kremlin has only served to strengthen Putin’s belief that the West will not dare to really hurt his regime. All of these sanctions—from imposing visa restrictions to freezing the assets of a limited number of people in the Russian elite—don’t inflict any pain on the Russian political class. The visa restrictions on travel to the United States and Europe don’t alarm most of the elite. Many Russian officials, alerted earlier by the threat of Magnitsky Act, have found ways to safeguard their assets.
The Russian elite would stand to lose more if key figures of Putin’s gang and oligarchs are closed out of Western banks. But there are signs that this is not going to happen—at least not anytime soon. According to a government briefing paper accidentally exposed to journalists by UK officials, the UK government should “not support for now…trade sanctions…or close London’s financial center to Russians.” Similar briefing papers could just have easily been exposed in other Western capitals. Western journalists analyzing the issue confirm that Western financial centers are hardly ready to lose access to Russian money. See Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast, Ben Judah in Politico, and Oliver Bullough in the New Republic. The Kremlin has nothing to worry about on this score, then.
Moreover, the Kremlin is now opening a discussion about freezing and confiscating Western assets in Russia, demonstrating its ability to launch a counterstrike. So Moscow is trying to bolster the already powerful world business lobby, which protects the Kremlin’s interests in order to guarantee its own interests inside Russia. The German business community is currently acting as the most fervent defender of the Kremlin’s interests. The Russian regime will do everything in its power to make sure that the rest of the business community in Russia, as well as influential Western lobby groups that serve the Russian regime, will become more active in defending Russia’s interests. They will force Western leaders to abandon their efforts to hurt Putin. The latest rhetorical nuances show that Western politicians are cautiously looking for compromise with the Kremlin on the basis of the new status quo, hoping that its appetite has been sated for the time being.
Never before has the West had such powerful mechanisms for influencing Russia, thanks to the Russian elite’s integration into Western society. At the same time, never before has the West been so impotent when it comes to using those mechanisms, thanks to the Russian (Ukrainian, Kazakh) elite’s ability to corrupt and demoralize the Western political and business establishment. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was right to say that Russia’s exports to the West are commodities and corruption.
What about other means of pacifying Putin? Sailing an American fleet into the Black Sea? Doing this would only give the Kremlin yet another pretext to prove that the West is a threat to Russia. Cutting investments to Russia? Surely Putin has already anticipated this, and if he’s willing to accept this risk, it means that the logic of the regime survival is stronger than the problems presented by a withdrawal of investments. An EU gas boycott, then? Who really believes that could happen today?
But let’s imagine what would happen if the West decided to start dismantling the money laundering machine the Russian elite has built with the assistance of the Western “service lobby.” Would that precipitate a moment of truth for the Kremlin and the Russian ruling class? I’m not so sure. The Kremlin has prepared for this eventuality. In fact Putin, having declared the need for the “nationalization” of the Russian elite (meaning that the elite must repatriate its wealth back to Russia), is ready for a new challenge along these lines. Moreover, if the West were to cut off the Russian elite, that could only help Putin tighten control over the political and business establishment. Those members of the political class who “come home” would become his political base; others would become the new traitors. One could conclude that Putin is fully prepared to close off the country and pay the price of increased isolation in order to stay in power. You might respond here by saying that Putin wants to remain a member of the Western club—the G-8, the NATO-Russia Council, the WTO, and so forth. But I’m not so certain of this either. Indeed he would like to prolong his stay in Club West, but only if he gets to set his own agenda. He doesn’t necessarily wants to remove Russia from the international system; he wants to align the system with his wishes, and he wants an endorsement of his right to break the rules. If the West isn’t ready to do these things, Putin would be ready to turn in his club membership card. From now on, he’ll be breaking the rules—with or without the West’s consent!
In any event, Putin is in bobsled mode. He is hurtling down the track; no one can stop him, and he can no longer reverse course. But the more he acts to preserve his power, the more damage he will inflict on his country. Angela Merkel was wrong saying that Putin is living in another world. He actually fits rather well into his system of power. Every new step he takes along this course makes his departure from power even more improbable, forcing him to take greater and greater risks.
Putin may be convinced that he is succeeding. He may think that the West is tamed, or that it is only capable of wagging its finger at Russia. Berlin continues to defend Putin against the possibility of any serious Western reaction. Obama is reluctant to risk precipitating another European headache. Russian society is applauding Putin’s actions. His approval rating is skyrocketing: In March 2014 his approval rating rose to 67 percent (compared to 60 percent in 2013). A majority of Russians support the official view of the motives behind the Ukrainian conflict. In February 69 percent of Russian respondents accused the Ukrainian opposition and the West of provoking the conflict and the violence. Thus, majority of Russians are prepared to accept the annexation of Crimea and further Russian action in Ukraine.
Thus once again Putin has the support of a nation that only yesterday seemed to be so tired of him! He has regained control over the elites, too. He has returned triumphantly to the scene as a War President and as a Triumphalist. True, we know how War Presidents end up. But at the moment his strategy is to focus on his plans for this evening and try to make it last as long as possible.
Thus, nothing could have stopped Vladimir Putin from his current course of action. He has become a hostage of his own logic, and couldn’t even free himself if he wanted to. He can’t leave power, and he can only preserve the regime by showing might, strength, aggression, and recklessness. The only strategy left to him by political circumstances was to mobilize Russia by resurrecting a policy of containment of the West and by the search for new enemies. The inexorable logic of this strategy has even driven him to dig up old slogans from World War II about liberating the Soviet people from fascists and Nazis. There’s no stopping now; this strategy dictates that Putin must press on. The moment he stops, he is politically dead; there are too many people waiting in the wings for their chance to knock him down.
Having drawn Western leaders into his own trap, Putin has invented an even more interesting pastime for them: He has now called on them to normalize the situation in Ukraine in partnership with Russia. The Kremlin has even offered a reform package, which it is ready to implement in Ukraine, in cooperation with Western leaders. This package includes provisions to federalize Ukraine (this way it will be easier for Russia to gobble up one region at a time), a constitutional referendum (voters from the eastern regions can be bribed), and talks about Ukraine’s fate under the auspices of an EU-Ukraine-Russia framework. (They can even invite Obama if he behaves himself.) Finally, Moscow must like Kissinger’s idea of Ukraine becoming a “bridge” between Europe and Russia, since Moscow knows that this bridge will be guarded by the Russian soldiers.
Does it mean that the West is trapped? Does it mean that whatever it does, it will only help Putin in his desperate gamble? The West’s current tactics to calm Putin down—“de-escalation” and “diplomatic conclusions” without definite resolve—will only feed the Kremlin’s sense of impunity. However, if the West were to develop a strategy that had as its goal influencing the part of the Russian elite that will lose out most if Russia turns into a “cast-into-concrete” state, it could cause a split in the Russian establishment, hopefully leading to the emergence of forces inside Russia that would break it out of its trap. Not soon, but with time. Current Western tactics, however, are only serving to consolidate Russia’s elites around their leader.
The Kremlin’s moves have triggered the law of unintended consequences. Its tactical victory in Ukraine will inevitably result in a strategic defeat. The Kremlin may fortify the walls of its decaying fortress, but it is undermining the foundation. The incursion into Crimea has already brought on the collapse of the Russian ruble. The Putin Doctrine is turning the country into a perpetually mobilized command-economy state—the same kind that in 1991 brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The law of unintended consequences is also at work in Ukraine. The Kremlin did what no political force in Ukraine had ever been able to do. The Russian invasion set off the consolidation of Ukraine’s disparate political forces—liberals, nationalists, the Left, oligarchs, communists, and even the Party of Regions. It is possible that the only lasting result of Putin’s actions will be to help strengthen Ukrainian national identity on the basis of a struggle for national liberation.
Let’s hope that the law of unintended consequences will break in a positive direction for the West, too, consolidating its foreign policy and forcing its leaders to acquire the political will to solve the conundrum Putin has created.
I hope that these things will happen, but we are not there yet.
This article was first published in March issue of The American Interest.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.