Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy additional Russian military forces in Ukraine’s Crimea, combined with the unanimous vote of his rubber-stamp Federation Council to potentially allow the use of military force throughout Ukraine, looms as a stark demonstration of the Russian leader’s brazen flexing of military muscle in pursuit of his strategic goals. In reality, it is much more a sign of desperation and weakness, with Mr. Putin disoriented and fearful.
Just a few months ago Mr. Putin successfully bullied and bribed the now ousted corrupt and feckless president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, into forgoing his promise to sign the Eastern Partnership association agreement with the European Union. Instead Ukraine would move toward joining the Russian-controlled Eurasian Union which Mr. Putin views as the centerpiece of his legacy in his quest to restore Russia to superpower status by rebuilding a 19th-century style Russian Empire.
The “Maidan Revolution," which led to the truly ignominious collapse of Mr. Putin’s client regime in Kiev, has now put in jeopardy Mr. Putin’s entire dream of imperial restoration. Further, that revolution, in Mr. Putin’s perception, poses two specific great dangers.
First, the new government in Kiev, built on the sacrifices of the Ukrainian people, may face down Russian pressure and might in the future put at risk Russia’s strategic position in the Crimea where Moscow has based its Black Sea fleet and from where it sends the vital military supplies that help keep the Syrian regime in power.
Second, if the long-suffering Ukrainian people succeed in achieving their goal of building a modern society that guarantees the rights and dignity of Ukraine’s citizens in a prosperous and stable political order, this “Ukrainian virus” could well spread to Russia where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has already suggested that a Russian “Maidan” is inevitable. That would be a direct danger to the increasingly repressive and often risible regime of Mr. Putin, which has long wasted its opportunities for desperately needed fundamental reform in favour of an odd mix of fantasy and increasingly limited reality, what we may call political magical realism, that too often entails an evasion rather than a resolution of key problems.
In the foreign policy version of this we are witnessing an attempt by Mr. Putin to use 19th-century style military imperialism to try and battle 21st century Ukrainian aspirations.
He has responded to the sacrifices and dreams of the Ukrainian people for dignity, democracy, and prosperity with brutal intimidation and disruption. Moreover, he seems to believe that he can induce a kind of controlled chaos in Ukraine that would destroy the new government and force the country back on to a path that would both lead it to become a Russian vassal and pivotally aid Russian superpower restoration.
Though the Federation Council authorized the use of forces throughout Ukraine, Mr. Putin so far seems to be focused on Crimea where additional Russian forces have and are being deployed. He is undoubtedly though exploring his options in the rest of Ukraine. Mr. Putin seems to work under the belief that just as since 2009, when Washington’s failed “reset button” basically gave Russia a free pass on his 2008 invasion of Georgia, the West, rhetoric to the contrary, will remain largely disinterested and impotent.
Sadly for Mr. Putin, though, the bane of international relations has often been misperception and many plans and policies have fallen victim to miscalculation. Though Mr. Putin may have acted with considerable impunity internationally and within Russia for a number of years this is more the result of Western disengagement rather than of genuine Russian power and efficacious policy.
Ukraine, moreover is not Georgia. It is a vast, strategically crucial, country with 46 million people, the majority of whom, despite Russian-inspired and emboldened disruptions in Donetsk, Kharkiv, or Mariupol, (where there are predominately Russian-speaking Ukrainians), have not sacrificed so much to again become vassals of Moscow. The acting President of Ukraine and its new Prime Minister have ordered full military mobilization and the safeguarding and security of Ukrainian airports, nuclear facilities, and strategic sites and warned conditions are “on the brink of disaster”. They indicated that that there would be mass resistance to a Russian attempt to take over the country.
Furthermore, the 1994 treaty that was signed by Russia, the UK, and the U.S., which bound all to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty places legal obligations on the West, and Ukraine’s government has called on the U.S. to help. U.S. President Barack Obama has characterized Russian actions a “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty” and warned that “there will be costs” and Secretary of State John Kerry has labelled Moscow’s moves as an “incredible act of aggression”.
Perhaps the West will not go beyond rhetoric, but it should be kept in mind that today Russia is but a pale remnant of the Soviet Union with a uni-dimensional economy and a per capita GDP roughly that of Barbados. Its economy is increasingly stagnant and large-scale political dissatisfaction in many parts is smouldering just beneath the surface. Ensnared in his own political fantasy, Mr. Putin has failed to transform Russia into a modern state, has wasted vast resources, missed all historic critical opportunities, and depleted Russian international prestige by trying to save the murderous Syrian government, defend Iran’s genocidal regime, and coddle Belarus’ repugnant dictatorship. Russia is very vulnerable to economic sanctions and international ostracism.
There is an alternative though to confrontation and escalation. “Losing Ukraine” could be a blessing in disguise for Mr. Putin if he were to give up his delusionary imperial ambitions and focus instead on transforming Russia itself into a modern democratic state that the Russian people deserve and would welcome. Rather than try to prevent a Russian “Maidan” through repression, Mr. Putin could change tack and try to create a Russia on par, for example, with Japan. In short, Mr. Putin could opt for a “Great Russia” rather than a “Greater Russia.” If he continues to insist on the latter, however, his sordid military adventure in Ukraine is likely to bring nothing but grief for everyone, including the people of Russia.
Aurel Braun is a visiting professor in the Department of Government, Harvard University, and a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto. His latest book is “The NATO-Russia Relationship in the Twenty-First Century.”