The annexation of Crimea as Putin’s geopolitical triumph or self-imposed defeat
From the very beginning of his rule, Putin has assumed that his ability to govern Russia indefinitely was highly dependent on the strength of the ideological justification of his power. Indeed, he was never elected according to even elementary democratic standards. For this reason, the state’s ideology was of primary importance in the decision-making process for Putin’s regime—even higher than for the Soviet leaders. Thus, many domestic and foreign policy decisions have been decided upon in order to cultivate Putin as a national leader and savior of the nation. The obsession with his personal power makes Putin indifferent to the long term national interests of his own country, such as the diversity of the Russian economy, the state of science, the flight of talented people from the country, and, certainly, the development of democratic traditions that the Russians so badly need.
Ultimately, Putin’s hostile attitude toward the West was determined by his belief that Western leaders and the media do not see him as a democratically legitimate leader of Russia, and, for this reason, systematically plot to remove him from power. For the same reason, his attitude toward the former Soviet republics has depended on the character of their regime. If they were authoritarian, similar to his own, the relations between Russia and the post-Soviet republics were more or less good, but if these republics happened to make movements toward democracy, which could set an example for the Russian people, then they became fierce enemies. This inferiority complex caused by lacking democratic legitimacy explains why Putin is so afraid that the revolution in Kiev will indeed usher Ukraine into an era of prosperity as a country. Putin needs chaos in Ukraine, and suggestions for his own people that democracy and an alliance with the West can only lead to disaster.
In the first half of his rule, the main ideological argument in favor of Putin as the leader was the stability of society, together with some increase in the standard of living; in comparison with the 1990s, this was seen as one of the regime’s great achievements. By the beginning of his third term, however, it became evident to the country, and to Putin himself, that “stability” had worn itself out as the basis of an ideological construction. The prospect of economic stagnation, as predicted by his own advisers, makes the future quite gloomy for Putin, who needs popular acclamation as a leader who brings the good life to Russians. The protest demonstrations in 2011-2012, which scared Putin immensely in much the same way as the revolutions in nearby Ukraine had done, made it necessary for the Kremlin to “reset” the regime’s ideology. For geopolitics, a public goal of partially restoring the Soviet empire as a way of restoring the unity of the Russian people, combined with anti-Americanism, was chosen as the new major ideological instrument for the legitimization of the regime. In his address to the State Duma in the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin proclaimed that the West has always, or at least since the 18th century, conducted a policy of “containment” because “we have an independent position and are not hypocritical.” In addition, Putin strengthened the official attitudes toward the West, accusing it of moral decadence and disrespect for Russian civilization and its Orthodox religion. Hatred of America in particular was a leading ingredient in Putin’s third term ideology, not only because it was easy to foment the xenophobic sentiments of Russians but also because the USA was seen by Putin as a sponsor of democratic processes inside Russia, as well as in the former Soviet republics, and especially in Ukraine. Putin was also encouraged by his vision of the USA as a declining power, and by the meekness of the American president.
At first glance, it looks as though providence once again helped Putin in 2013-2014 with the revolution in Kiev, as it had already done with the high price of oil, combined with the timidity and disunity of the opposition. The events in Kiev in autumn 2013 frightened Putin because they offered Russians an example of how to fight a corrupted system. At the same time, the Kiev events offered God-sent opportunities for the Kremlin master to recharge the country’s ideology. Indeed, the events that destabilized Ukraine allowed Putin to play his geopolitical card, which, as seen by his war against Georgia in 2008, he had used rather cautiously in the past. This time, Putin has seemingly decided that entering into a risky game of confrontation with the West can give him the fuel he needs to maintain, and even increase, his personal cult; in his mind, this promises to secure his power for many years, even with the deterioration of the economic situation in the country.
Indeed, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 looked like a grandiose geopolitical victory for the Russian ruler. It was definitely perceived in this way by the majority of Russians, who celebrated the “the return” of Crimea to the motherland. In March 2014, 80 percent of Russians enthusiastically greeted “the restoration of historical justice,” since Crimea was indeed a part of Russia for two and a half centuries. Many liberals, including Mikhail Gorbachev, joined the jubilant Russians, praising the brave move by the government. It is true that the 40-50,000 educated Muscovites came out on March 16th to protest the Kremlin’s foreign policy—there were practically no other serious protest actions in other cities—but they clearly did not spoil the country’s euphoria. The Kremlin immediately labeled the protesters as “the fifth column,” and as a gathering of paid foreign agents. “National traitors” is a new entry in Putin’s lexicon. More than ever, the impact of the brave critique of the Kremlin by a few famous cultural figures, like writer Boris Akunin, has been neutralized by the mobilization of numerous members of the intelligentsia, like the famous theatre director Oleg Tabakov or the conductor Valerii Gergiev, who offered their full support and admiration for Putin.
The fact that the mass support of the military invasion into Ukraine was pumped up by the official media does not undermine the political meaning of Russian public opinion. The impact of the blatant lies about Ukraine that were interspersed in Putin’s public statements in February and March of 2014 (no Soviet leader after Stalin ever demeaned themselves with such blatant falsehoods in their public statements), and the influence on the Russian public of such abominable figures of Russian TV as Dmitry Kisilev or Vladimir Soloviev would be impossible if the masses were not traditionally receptive to xenophobia and anti-Americanism. Most Russians, including the most educated, amazingly believe in the wildest absurdities about the developments in Ukraine, like the supposed mass harassment of the Russians there, the US State Department’s direction of the revolution in Kiev, and the absence of the Russian troops in Crimea during the referendum on March 16th. From the very beginning of the Soviet system up until now, the Kremlin has never been concerned about the internal motivations of those who obeyed its orders, whether through fear or by a “genuine” belief in the official ideology. They are simply delighted with the support, whatever the motivation.
In any case Putin’s prestige has reached its highest level in the last 5 years; in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, almost 80 percent of Russians endorsed his action. He has indeed transformed himself into a national “hero” from whom the agitated population expects new successes in the restoration of the Soviet empire—a dangerous fact because, in his desire for a new wave of popularity, a leader like Putin can end up the victim of his own propaganda .
Among the devotees of the authoritarian regime are the enthusiasts, who are more royalist than the king, and who will call for the further expansion of governmental policies on key issues, with a leaning toward extremism. On March 17th, the participants of the talk show on the leading TV channel almost unanimously demanded that Putin not stop with the annexation of Crimea but also seize East and South Ukraine, justifying their aggressive ardor with both the necessity of protecting Russians and their language, and the dubious security of the nuclear power stations and chemical industry under the current chaotic conditions in Ukraine. Half of Russians supported this idea and look forward to the inclusion of the Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine in Russia. In the atmosphere of patriotic paranoia, several Russians are going even further; the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta reported that a member of the Volgograd legislature demanded on March 13th that President Obama return Alaska. Judging by the Internet response, the idea of Alaska being returned does not seem absolutely absurd to many Russians, who look at Putin as a guy able to undertake any geopolitical action. So far, of course, the slogan, “Alaska back,” or even a call for the return of the other former Soviet republics to the imperial fold, does not play a serious role in the Russian political climate. It does, however, reveal the real potential of Putin’s ideological strategy.
The Kremlin hawks were restrained in their imperialist demagoguery up until now. They seem to have been given a green light for the most arrogant statements, even to the point of threatening the USA—who they say is the major force behind all pro-democratic movements in post-Soviet space. They “remind” the world that Russia can turn the USA into “radioactive dust” with Russian missiles if, as they have insinuated, the USA continues to hinder Russia’s path to glory and supremacy in the territory of the former Soviet empire. Even during the gloomiest years of the cold war, including Stalin’s times, it would have been impossible for a Soviet propagandist to resort to such language. With this statement, the Kremlin has clearly decided to follow the example of the North Korean leaders, who regularly scare the world with threats of a nuclear attack to secure their personal power.
There are those who try to prove that Putin’s geopolitical triumph is evident, and that the world is trembling as it tries to guess the next move of the new Russian tsar. It was with sadistic pleasure that the March 23rd participants of the talk show hosted by Vladimir Soloviev, one of Putin’s ideological servants, tried to suggest that Obama’s willingness to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis showed how scared America is of Russia, and of Putin personally. Putin’s propagandists pointed with great Schadenfreude to the critique of Obama in the USA—ignoring, of course, that it was mostly for the weak response to Russia’s aggression—and said that Americans see Putin as a much more energetic leader than Obama. Politicians and the media mocked the American and European sanctions against Moscow.
Operation “Crimea” looks even more important to bolstering Putin’s intention to be the country’s ruler for many years if we take into account that it helped him to accelerate the eradication of opposition to the regime. This operation put accusations of anti-patriotism into circulation, with a frequency similar to the way the term was used during Stalin’s fight against cosmopolitism in the late 40s and early 50s. Previously standard denunciations, like extremism or denigration of authority, clearly retreated before this charge. Dmitry Kisilev boasted that Putin appointed him to head the giant media holding “Russia today” in March 2014 because he, in the president’s words ,“is a patriot.” Many journalists and academics have lost their jobs, mostly under the pretext of anti-patriotism. Without any embarrassment, Kisilev stated on the main TV channel that he intended to fire dozens of journalists from his media corporation for “subversive activity.” Russian media no longer says Alexei Navalny is a denigrator of Putin’s regime so much as they say he is not a real patriot. What is more important, the campaign for the elimination of the “fifth column” has raised the fear of persecution—so far mostly of losing jobs or normal business conditions—to a level not seen in the country since 1985. Professor Andrei Zubov was fired from the Institute of International Relations for his “anti-patriotic article” in the newspaper Vedomosti. Everybody in Russia sees this as only the beginning of a mass campaign against “national traitors”.
The success of the Russian Blitzkrieg in Crimea that was accepted with such elation by the majority of Russians, also misled many analysts in the West, and in Russia, into believing this was a great victory for Putin’s geopolitical program, as well as a formidable elevation, under his guidance, of Russia on the world scene. In fact, an elementary cost-benefit analysis shows that it is not so. The wrong analysis is rooted in a miscomprehension of the real goal of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. In fact, Putin’s sudden decision to invade Crimea—it was not abrupt only for the American intelligence services but it was for members of the Russian ruling elite—actually had nothing to do with a long term strategy for “gathering Russian lands and Russians living in the near abroad.”
The geopolitical goals and the desire to help Russians living in the “new abroad” are only a cover for the single passion of the Russian president—to keep his status as the Russian leader “forever.” Putin’s foreign policy is virtually always an instrument for Putin’s personal goal, a fact which is mostly ignored by observers, who assume that Putin is actually pursuing the national interests of his country, and that the seizure of Crimea is a reaction to the humiliation of Russia by Western countries (for example, look at Jack Matlock ‘s article “The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War” in The Washington Post on March 14, 2014, or David Herszenhorn’s article “In Crimea, Russia moved to throw off the cloak of defeat” in the New York Times on March 25, 2014). This is not only true in the West but also in Russia, where too many analysts, like leading Moscow political scientist Fedor Lukianov, who pretends to be independent of the Kremlin, have advanced theories that try, with their various incursions in history and philosophy, to obfuscate the essential fact of the crucial impact the current developments around Ukraine will have on Putin’s personal interests (Nobody, however, tries to explain the policy of Kim Jong-un as a desire to pursue his country’s national interests because it is so evidently directed by his desire to keep power by any means).
The theory of Putin’s neo-imperialist goals are fully refuted by the facts. It is well known that any leader concerned with building and maintaining an empire tries to gain the support, almost the love, of all of the nations that are (or can make up) its parts. Indeed, Franz-Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as Lenin and Stalin, cultivated “the friendship of the people” (using one of the most important Soviet slogans).Putin’s policy is the absolute opposite. Instead of improving his relations with other countries—candidates for a variety of alliances in which Moscow would play a leading role—Putin has scared them all. Only Armenia expressed its full endorsement for the Crimean annexation. Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, two major actors in forging allies with Putin, were very evasive (especially the Belorussian leader) about supporting the annexation of part of the territory of an independent country; tiny Kirgizia and Moldova even dared to protest. More important, however, is that Ukraine—whether or not Putin cuts additional chunks out of its territory—will be an implacable foe of Moscow’s for a long time into the future. The Russian intellectuals who traveled to Kiev during and in the aftermath of the February revolution, like the prominent writer Evgenii Grishkovets, are telling radio Ekho Moskvy about the hatred they found there for Russia. Meanwhile, the Baltic republics and all of the former Russian satellites in East Europe, particularly Poland, have increased their yearning for even closer military cooperation with NATO enormously.
Besides Armenia and Belarus, only Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe (Andrei Illarionov, a famous critic of Putin’s, named all these authoritarian countries as members of “Putin’s posse”) supported the annexation of the peninsula in the vote by the UN General Assembly. Evidently, the Crimea operation factually revived NATO, which had almost lost its raison d’etre. In the last several years, Russian foreign policy considered the prevention of the American antimissile defense system being built in East Europe to be its main task. Now, the issue of Russian discontent has lost any meaning, and the USA is free to create this defense any place it chooses.
The actions in Crimea can only help the separatist activities inside Russia in the future. For now, it has revived the idea of the referendum, which Putin had outlawed, refusing to recognize it as a legal way of expressing the people’s will inside Russia. Indeed, the country is full of territories where many people now nurture the idea of a separation from Russia. In addition to the Muslim republics in North Caucasus and Tatarstan, we can mention the Far East, Kaliningrad, and even some Ural regions. Russia will pay for the Crimean operation with insurrection in some regions, where the people will resort to their own referendum to proclaim their autonomy, or even full independence.
The deterioration of relations with the West, however far they go, can hardly help to enhance the real international status of Russia, which Russia had been yearning to enhance with the extremely expensive Olympic Games in Sochi; instead they are being ousted from the elitist G-8 club. In the West, Russia now looks like a veritable monster to many ordinary people. Whatever the reluctance of Western Europe to join American economic sanctions against Russia, and however limited the American sanctions themselves are, they will all hurt the Russian economy in various ways, which was sliding even before they began, and bring unpredictable consequences for Putin. This will be true even if Putin’s Special Forces, like OMON, are able to quash protest actions for a long time.
Amusingly, if looked at from another perspective, the Crimean operation is fraught with serious dangers for the Putin’s long term chances of staying in power. The opportunities for this new geopolitical adventure to maintain the current blazing levels of patriotism are limited. Putin is generally a cautious politician, even if he is confident of the West’s reluctance go to a “hot war”—this fear the West has of a new war is, in fact, Putin’s major weapon—he is still afraid to go further.
Aside from the impending stagnation, or even deterioration, of material life in the country, Putin has clearly pitted himself against a considerable part of the ruling political and economic elites. Almost all those who were included in the blacklists formed by the USA and EU, like Vladimir Yakunin, the president of state-run Russian Railways company and one of the richest people in Russia, or Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s adviser, publicly mock their new “untravellable” position (in the Soviet Union, this status was “enjoyed” by all people suspected, like me, of not being loyal to the “system,” as well as by most non-party members). The fact is, however, that restricting their freedom to travel, even aside from the potential loss of their property and money kept in the West, has hurt them a lot. We can suppose that these people, who are utterly cynical, are hardly admirers of Putin’s patriotism, and are very much indifferent toward the reunification of Crimea with the motherland. We can also affirm with great probability that with only a few exceptions, the members of the elite, along with the members of their families, are cursing their “national leader” for his anti-Western policy. Even those privileged people in Russia who, so far, have not been targeted by the West nurture a growing animosity toward their benefactor. Of course, in the climate of total fear of the president, the members of the elite, show complete public loyalty to their chief. What is more, many of them, all corrupted, are aware that the fall of this regime does not promise them a nice future. And still, the discontent of the elite is a time bomb, which will contribute, in one form or another, to the end of Putin’s rule. Private property is a new factor in Russian politics and its impact on Putin’s future we will see.
What are the results of the Crimean operation in terms of a cost-benefit approach? On the positive side for Putin, his popularity in Russia has increased a lot. The reunification of Crimea with Russia permitted Putin to rearrange his propaganda, making “patriotism” a key value, much like it was in Stalin’s times, and allowing him to expand the fight against anybody who is critical of his regime, labeling all of them as “traitors” and “American agents.”
On the debit side of Putin’s balance sheet, Russia’s geopolitical situation has deteriorated enormously. Practically all of the former Soviet republics, without even mentioning the East European countries that Moscow wanted to unite under its direction, became more suspicious of Putin’s intentions than they were before. What is especially important is that no matter what Russia does at this point, Ukraine will be a fierce enemy of Moscow’s for decades to come, something that has never before been part of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Eastern European countries now have another argument for their apprehensions about Russia, and the necessity of expanding the American military presence in their country. The Crimean operation also saved NATO, which was almost surely facing its demise before but which will be able to augment its military capacity and its significance, albeit slowly. Even in their initial and weak forms, the sanctions against Russia have already hurt a very vulnerable Russian economy. No doubt Putin has created a hidden front against him inside the political and economic establishment.
Whether Putin will continue to play out the geopolitical card in order to sustain the patriotic hysteria in the country, or will see the cost of his activities in post-Soviet space as too high is something that even Putin himself probably cannot answer yet. In any case, the West hardly has a position other than trying to increase this cost if there is a new act of aggression. The idea that Russia swallowing Ukraine without a serious reaction from the West would lead to Putin immediately turning himself into a peaceful member of the world community is wrong. Those who share this view do not understand that Putin’s major preoccupation is to stay in power as long as possible.