What is Putin thinking?

His incursion into Crimea could be muscle-flexing, expansionism, desperation over losing Ukraine, or none of the above.

Transitions Online, 5 March 2014

Vladimir Putin’s decision to teach the West a lesson by a show of force in Crimea has stunned observers around the world. Commentators are struggling to make sense of his actions. This essay is a speculative excursion into competing explanations for Putin’s behavior.

Russia’s attitudes toward Ukraine have always been deeply ambivalent. Even as they acknowledge Ukraine is a separate country, they are likely to assert that Ukrainians are “just like us.” Russian media are sending a mixed message: are Russian forces going in to save the ethnic Russians living there from the Ukrainians, or to save the Ukrainians themselves from the “fascists”?

Just as the U.S. officer in the Vietnam War famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” so Putin seems bent on breaking up Ukraine in the name of saving it – from fascism, Western domination, or whatever.

Things did not become much clearer after Putin’s press conference on 4 March – his first public statement since Russia’s Federation Council authorized the deployment of troops on 1 March. Putin twisted himself into knots trying to justify the legality of his actions, but he failed to clarify what his real objectives are. It was hard to explain why, if it was a legitimate peacekeeping operation, Russian troops were not wearing any identifying insignia – a clear violation of the centuries-old laws of war, let alone the laws of peacekeeping.

Putin signaled no desire to go to war with Ukraine, saying, “I am sure that Russian and Ukrainian troops will not be on opposite sides of the barricades.” At the same time, however, he said the people of Crimea have the right of self-determination.

From a Hobbesian point of view, Putin’s unilateral display of military muscle would seem a classic example of a state rationally pursuing self-preservation, using the means at its disposal. As a result of the political standoff in Kyiv, Ukraine had fallen into a state of anarchy, a condition in which, Hobbes argued, “force and fraud” become “the two cardinal virtues.” Force and fraud certainly describes Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine over the past week.

Russia enjoys overwhelming military superiority against Ukraine, a bankrupt country with no military allies, no nuclear weapons, and an army a tenth the size of Russia’s. The only thing holding Russia back from taking advantage of this superior position was its recognition of international norms restraining its behavior. For Putin, however, the toppling of the duly-elected president of Ukraine and the tearing up of an internationally brokered agreement to form a transitional government amounted to the breakdown of the established rules of the game. In a state of anarchy, states (or individuals) will do whatever they can to survive.

However, this Hobbesian logic is completely inadequate to explaining the problem at hand. Ukraine posed no threat to Russian national survival. Russian media reports of attacks on Russians living in Ukraine are nonsense. Threats to infringe on the language rights of Russians – in the form of parliament’s hasty move 27 February to effectively revoke the status of Russian as an official language in some regions – have been part of the usual ebb and flow of Ukrainian politics over the previous two decades. In the past Russia has never acted as if this were a vital concern.

Is Putin’s goal the annexation of Crimea? Russia would gain some nice beaches and a naval base in perpetuity. But it would face tremendous international opprobrium, and it would drive the rump Ukrainian state to seek even closer ties with the West. So from a cost-benefit point of view, it does not look particularly attractive. But after witnessing two revolutions in a decade, perhaps Putin has simply lost patience with Kyiv and given up on the idea of a Eurasian Union including Ukraine. Crimea therefore is a consolation prize.

To try to head off international condemnation, he may leave Crimea as an independent statelet, rather than incorporate it into the Russian Federation. This would be consistent with Russia’s treatment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both Georgian breakaway territories that it formally recognized as sovereign states in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war.

Maybe Putin’s ambitions do not stop at Crimea, however. He might want to peel off more Ukrainian provinces where Russians form a majority, or even a plurality. This will be a lot trickier to engineer than Crimea, however. Russia does not have military assets on the ground, and it is not clear that the Russians living in Donetsk or Lugansk want to give up on the Ukrainian state. Yes, living standards in Russia are higher – but would you want your sons to be drafted into the Russian army and sent to Dagestan? (Ukraine has been free of Islamist terrorism and in December abolished the draft.) But the idea of a state of “New Russia,” perhaps even extending around the northern coast of the Black Sea to Odessa, is appealing to Russian nationalists.

One thing is clear – Russia has no plan for putting Ukraine back together. At his press conference, Putin bluntly acknowledged that Viktor Yanukovych “has no political future.” Putin anyway had always found him a prickly customer to deal with. It seems to have been personal. One senior U.S. diplomat suggested that their antipathy rested in the fact that Putin was an ex-cop and Yanukovych was an ex-con.

Some strategists of the Realist school, especially those sitting in Washington, D.C., have searched for some still deeper, nefarious master plan. Some argue that Putin’s real agenda is the restoration of the Soviet empire. Cue at this point Putin’s 2005 statement that the Soviet collapse was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” Less quoted is his remark that “he who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart, and he who thinks it can be put back together has no head.”

Other analysts argue that Putin’s strategy is to undermine the European Union by showing its impotence, and to sow discord between the EU and United States. The latter was greatly aided by the intercepted phone conversation of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in which she interjected “F**k the EU.” This was gleefully promoted on Twitter by the Russian Foreign Ministry, in a strange meeting of 19th-century realpolitik with 21st-century hipster communications. But rather than quit while they were ahead, Moscow subsequently launched Operation Crimea, thereby uniting the EU and United States in a common cause to contain Russian aggression.

Grand strategy aside, maybe one can find a more mundane explanation for Russian behavior. As things were falling apart in Kyiv, Putin had to be shown to be doing something – anything – even if it did not make much sense from the point of view of Russia’s national interests. The military and security services had some contingency plans in their office drawers – to secure the Crimean peninsula, and to trigger an ersatz nationalist uprising in the Donbas.

Back in 1971 Graham Allison published a classic account of the 1963 Cuban missile crisis titled Essence of Decision, in which he demonstrated that the strategic bargaining between the national leaders was overtaken by events as they developed on the ground. The U.S. Navy set the blockade farther offshore than President Kennedy had anticipated, triggering a premature confrontation with approaching Russian vessels. (Since the Soviet Union lacked the naval forces to break the blockade, they turned back.) On the Soviet side, they had installed tactical nuclear missiles to defend Cuba from a U.S. invasion before they started building the strategic missile sites – something the United States was not aware of as it threatened military action against Cuba.

A similar pattern of bottom-up initiatives seems to have driven the extraordinary political developments in Ukraine. Time and again in Kyiv it was clear that political leaders in both the government and the opposition found themselves upstaged by developments on the street. Similarly, Putin may find himself vulnerable to the spontaneous actions of Russian nationalists in Crimea or Donbas.

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, thankfully, without war. One can only hope that the messy evolution of the Crimean crisis will similarly educate world leaders about the dangers of confrontation.

Peter Rutland


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