Vladimir Putin is a gambler whose strategy is based on doubling his bet after a loss. It’s a strategy that requires deep pockets, weak opponents, and a very nice calculation of risk.
When Mr. Putin began the Ukraine crisis four months ago by half-pressuring, half-bribing Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych into cancelling the country’s commitment to the European Union, he failed to take into account the risk that the voters might effectively oppose it. His bet failed as a result.
So when he placed a second bet that he could punish Ukraine for this easily, he doubtless calculated that Kiev’s new government was weakened by three serious threats:
1. That the new government in Kiev would show itself to be vengeful, incompetent, and as corrupt as its predecessors so that Ukraine would descend very quickly into anarchy;
2. That Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking Ukrainians who voted heavily for Mr. Yanukovych in 2010, would rise in rebellion against the Kiev authorities;
3. And that Russia would use the crisis to annex either part or the whole of Ukraine on the grounds of restoring order and stability and/or protecting ethnic Russians.
One week later a lot has gone wrong for Ukraine. But the first two threats have not materialized as many predicted – and, I should add, very reasonably predicted. Let’s go through them.
Kiev’s new governing parliamentary majority has made one important mistake. It removed the status of Russian as an official language alongside Ukrainian. It can, and probably will, retrieve that error. Otherwise, it has acted with surprising moderation and maturity, making Moscow look like the hotheaded fascists that Kremlin propagandists see in Kiev. Most of Ukraine has accepted its authority and remains quite stable. In particular Kiev has established good relations with most of the Ukrainian oligarchs who were the financial backers of Mr. Yanukovych. Sensibly, they would prefer to operate even under a democratic Ukrainian regime with an anti-corruption program than under a Putinesque regime where the rival oligarch is the government itself.
Eastern Ukraine did not rise in the rebellion on which Mr. Putin was undoubtedly relying to launch his revanchist program. One reason for this is that the oligarchs have influence there. It is their power base as well as Mr. Yanukovych’s, and they now call for restraint. Another is that Mr. Yanukovych had brilliantly discredited his own cause by mass murder and vulgar excess – and he continued to do so by calling for Russian intervention from Russian territory. He now looks like a kept mistress (albeit a very expensive one). A third is that Ukraine seems to be developing a genuine post-Soviet nationalism of its own. Those historians who pointed out that Ukraine had no national identity may not have been historically wrong, but they had missed this recent development. At least outside Crimea, Russophone Ukrainians feel greater loyalty to Kiev than to Moscow. Over all the result is that Mr. Putin is having to arrange his own rebellion by sending in agents provocateurs to attack buildings and demand separatism.
In Crimea, he has done a great deal more than that. He has launched an old-fashioned military coup (albeit with some post-modern touches such as troops without insignia – which may be contrary to the Geneva Convention and certainly complicates the Kremlin’s argument that the Kiev regime is run by terrorists.) He will be hard to dislodge. Yet as everyone seems to agree, Crimea is a special case; ethnic Russians constitute a majority in a province that was Russian until the 1960s. Taking over other parts of Ukraine would be a much more difficult matter.
Ignore the prospect of any response from the West. Consider only how a Russian invasion of “mainland Ukraine” would fare. Almost certainly the Ukrainians, trained and equipped with (less modernized) Russian equipment, would fight. If so, they might well give a good account of themselves even if Russia’s larger forces were to prevail in the first round. Following that, however, the Ukrainians would fight an unconventional war in favorable territory with the arms already distributed through Ukraine and with other weapons provided over a Polish border that would inevitably be highly porous. It would be a replay of Russia’s Afghan venture – or indeed of the anti-Soviet war that went on in Ukraine for a decade after 1945 – but in the full glare of the world’s media and in conditions of diplomatic isolation.
Mr. Putin now knows that all too well. He does not want to allow Kiev to triumph over him, but he probably hopes to avoid the tempting quagmire that an invasion even of Eastern Ukraine would turn out to be. That points to a Russian policy of keeping Ukraine (and to some extent the West) destabilized by small interventions, offers of mediation, occasional retreats, kicks and kindnesses – in other words, the kind of long-running, never-settled, “running-sore” crisis that Russian policy has created in the Caucasus, Moldova, and elsewhere. But that could be economically expensive – the Rouble was hit and the Russian stock market fell by 10 per cent on Monday.
The way that the West can defeat Mr. Putin at his version of Russian roulette is, quite simply, by helping Ukraine to make an economic success of itself. Mr. Putin is not rich enough for the strategy of doubling his bet every time to be a reliable one.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.