The difficulties of predicting an authoritarian leader’s behavior: Putin and Crimea
There is no doubt that the invasion of the Crimea in March, 2014, with its ensuing developments, was a turning point in world geopolitics. It was an excellent example of how an event of such a scale can turn out to be almost completely unpredictable, even if the retrospective analysis found a great many signs that could have helped to predict what would happen. Putin’s decision to invade in March, 2014 was as unexpected for both the supporters and foes of Putin’s regime as it was for the politicians and experts in the West. As further developments have shown, the next twists in Putin’s foreign politics were also unpredictable and confusing for analysts.
The invasion of Crimea was totally unexpected
One of the explanations for why the world was totally unprepared for the Crimean invasion was Moscow’s passive policy toward the Ukrainian turmoil when it began in November 2013. When President Victor Yanukovich refused to sign an agreement about economic associations with the EU, it triggered the events later referred to as the second Maidan revolution.
Indeed, Moscow’s self-restraint from active participation in the political turmoil in Kiev in January-February 2014 contrasts greatly with its active entanglement in Ukrainian affairs during the first Maidan revolution in 2003. Putin’s absorption at the beginning of this year with the organization of the Olympic Games in Sochi also eliminated any suspicions about any belligerent plans that might have existed in Putin’s head. It was evident that, with hosting the Games and attracting the 50 billion dollars required to garner the respect of the world for himself and for Russia, Putin’s mind was seemingly not focused on defying the international community with a rude aggression. In one moment, however, the invasion of Crimea destroyed Putin’s dreams of the world viewing him and Russia as the symbol of the Olympiad that unites the world.
Before February 24th, when Yanukovich fled from Kiev, it is almost certain that the Kremlin did not have plans to be militarily involved in Ukrainian developments. We can trust, this time, that Putin, despite his normally being a very mendacious person—as the Ukrainian crisis developed, he resorted to crass lies in his public appearances more often than he had in any other period of his 15-year-rule—meant what he said on April 14th, in his on-line talk show with Russian citizens: that the decision to invade Crimea had not been designed even a few weeks earlier. Bolstering Putin’s assertion, it is interesting to note that before the invasion, even though developments in the turmoil in Ukraine were discussed on various talk shows, the idea of a possible Crimean invasion was categorically rejected by the people who usually conveyed the Kremlin’s thoughts.
Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev, and the total victory of Maidan and the pro-Western Ukrainian politicians, changed the course of Russia’s and the world’s history. Watching the developments in Kiev, Putin made a fatal decision in choosing between two alternatives: restraining the Russian reaction by simply denouncing the new regime in Kiev and their Western sponsors, or committing to full-scale involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, with the possibility of annexing some part of Ukraine, and removing any possibility of Kiev joining the West.
There are not many times in Russian history where the leadership has faced the necessity of making a geopolitically risky decision. The resolve to annex a part of Ukraine was one of them (chronologically, the most recent such decision was the judgment to invade Afghanistan in 1979; the earliest was probably Stalin’s decision not to react to the concentration of German troops in former Poland on the eve of their invasion, or to the reports by the Soviet agents in Germany and Japan about the imminent war).
Again the prediction: what Putin will do next
After the occupation of Crimea in March, 2014, the world held its breath, wondering what would happen next. The Crimean operation looked like it would be the greatest victory of Putin’s reign. It was executed bloodlessly, without victims among either the civilian population or the military. The support of the majority of the Crimean population was almost indisputable. In addition, what was especially important for Putin and seemed to justify his assessment of the risks was that the West appeared to choke down Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, just like it had in his war against Georgia in 2008.
The experts in Russia and the West started a game of prediction. At one point, in the middle of May, the majority of experts appeared to converge on one conviction: in the next week or two, Russian troops would cross the borders and, after easily defeating the Ukrainian army—which had already shown its helplessness in Crimea—would occupy a large part of Ukraine, including Kharkov, the Donbass with Donetsk and Lugansk, Kherson, Nikolayev, and Odessa. Some pessimists in Ukraine did not even exclude the seizure of the central part of Ukraine. In any case, in the beginning of May, many residents in Kiev were afraid that Putin intended to see Russian troops marching on Khreschatyk, the main street in Kiev, on May 9th, the day of the victory that is so sacred for Russia. It looks like, from March-May, Putin suddenly found himself closer to the implementation of his project of partial restoring the Soviet Union than at any time before. On the eve of the Crimean invasion, this had been more of a utopian dream for him, in view of Russia’s economic and military weakness.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the experts could only speculate about the Politburo’s intentions—whether Moscow would continue its march to the South, toward the Indian Ocean. In this case, Putin himself declared, without ambiguity, that his next move would be to the South and central parts of Ukraine, which the Kremlin labeled a failed state; a territory without its own state in the past; and an eternal part of Russia.
The denigration of Ukraine and its culture—an example of schizophrenic propaganda
In March and April, Putin’s Russian TV did not seem to consider any limitations to the denigration of everything related to Ukraine. The Moscow propaganda started an all-out attack on Ukraine, its history, its people, and its heroes. Ukrainian history was deeply distorted, and Ukrainians were accused of having always plotted against Russia.
The intensity of this ideological attack on Ukraine could only be compared to the propagandistic warfare against Germany following the Nazi invasion. By the way, during the war against the Nazis, Stalin was very careful not to go too far in the ideological offensive against Germany, excluding German culture, like its classic literature and music (only German classic philosophy and military theorists such as Clausewitz were denigrated), and definitely foregoing comments on the German language, which is in huge contrast to the way the Ukrainian language is mocked on Russian TV. In composing their diatribes against the Ukrainians, the Kremlin propagandists were not the least bit bothered by the high proportion of Ukrainians in the Russian political and business classes, nor by the marital intermingling of both nations. Watching Russian TV during this period created the feeling that the Kremlin had decided to inculcate the hatred of Ukraine into Russian minds, presenting them along with the USA as the most hostile country in the world toward the Russian people.
Never in the history of Russia has the chauvinistic and anti-Western ecstasy, bordering on pathological hysteria, reached such a level as in April of 2014. It was evident to anyone who had even a superficial knowledge of the mechanisms of the autocratic regime that the Kremlin had fomented this patriotic madness. However, nobody thought, even among all those who had never discounted the nostalgic feelings of the Russians, either inside or outside of Russia, that, in a few short weeks, the absolute majority of Russians—including many refined intellectuals—would turn themselves into people who had lost their common sense. It looked as though 20 years of life in a relatively open society had been washed away; as if the Russians had voluntarily returned to the gloomiest days of Stalin’s era, when most Russians believed in the veracity of show trials in the 30s, or in the doctors’ plot in the early 50s.
The leading television journalists, like Dmitry Kisilev or Vladimir Soloviev, were indeed successful in tapping a heretofore unforeseen gigantic reservoir of nostalgia for the empire, and a yearning to live in a “great country” (the world has seen this before in Germany, on the eve of Hitler’s ascension to power). The calls for following Ukraine with a march into Poland, and even the return of Alaska were included in the propagandistic agenda. Putin, in his talk show with Russians in April, almost seemed to take the Alaska idea seriously.
From a weak leader to his deification: the immediate influence of the Crimean invasion
Russian media turned the invasion of Crimea into Putin’s personal triumph. His popularity reached the highest possible levels in Russia, up to 80-90 percent. It practically became impossible to say a critical word about him or his actions publicly; he had gained the status of national hero.
In a few days, the Putin who was portrayed in Western media as a weak leader whose main occupation was to destroy his potential rivals, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Alexei Navalny, became a political Goliath. Without fear of a war with the West, he was inclined to change the international order and destroy its bulwark—the principle of the inviolability of state borders. Putin forced many countries in East Europe to conjecture whether their countries might be in Putin’s map of a future great Russia.
The destruction of the remnants of the opposition
Putin, of course, could not keep himself from using the invasion of Crimea to tear apart what remained of opposition in the country. He introduced the concept of “national traitors,” adding to the list of invectives used against those who were not his admirers. Everybody who did not enthusiastically cry “Crimea is ours” was also tagged as “a member of the fifth column” and as “not a patriot.” “The Crimea case” was used to humiliate the intelligentsia in the same way that Stalin and Brezhnev had done when they forced its most outstanding members to sign various “letters” condemning Bukharin or Tukhachevsky in the middle of the 1930s, or Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov in the late1960s.This time, 300 Russian intellectuals, including people with world fame, were in a hurry in May to sign a letter praising Putin’s wise decision.
The invasion of Crimea—“Crimea is ours!”—was enough for the Russians to crown Putin as one of the greatest leaders in Russian history. The media has already awarded Putin the title of “the collector of the Russian lands,” and “the creator of the Russian world.” With sadistic pleasure, Russian TV gathered data on the low ratings of Western leaders, Obama first of all, of course. Statements made by oppositional politicians in the West, suggesting Putin’s superiority as a leader over his counterparts in the West, were regularly cited in Russian media. Under the pen of the Kremlin operators, Putin was transformed into the most important political figure in the world. Supposing the support of the “patriotic majority,” the Kremlin has moved Russia quite far down the road of obscurantism and xenophobia. A new law that the State Duma is expected to adopt would introduce fines for the public use of foreign words. If Putin does not stop extremist members of the parliament, it will be an action without precedent in world history.
The signs of the next aggressive steps
With the image of Putin as a ruthless, intrepid, canny and strong-willed leader, the expert community almost instantly started to believe in the imminence of a Russian intrusion into Ukraine. The psychological status in Russia had a great deal of influence on most experts. The patriotic rage scared and consternated the world because it showed how far Russia is from being a democratic society, and how much the psyche of the ordinary Russian is ready to greet a new fuehrer. It was considered a clear signal of Putin’s aggressive intentions to go ahead and satisfy the expectations of the masses.
Indeed, several events in Ukraine after March confirmed that the Kremlin had been going ahead with Putin’s great plans, while the Russian population waited in a continuing frenzy of patriotism, fueled each day by all governmental outlets. The hatred of the USA and Europe, which had been an essential ingredient of Putin’s ideology before, was significantly enhanced.
The signs of an imminent war with Ukraine were not only found in the media but in real facts. The actions of the pro-Russian forces inside Ukraine expanded regularly during April and in the beginning of May. Russian troops amassed on the East border of Russia, in a state of readiness to start an invasion. All the activities of the pro-Russian units were evidently created and controlled by Moscow. Credit for the Crimean operation goes to the special services of the FSB and GRU (the army intelligence service). They ran the events in the peninsula perfectly. Keeping their identity well covered, the agents of these organizations executed their missions extremely well, which created the belief in Moscow that these people could do the same in other Ukrainian cities. Two cities looked to be in the vanguard of the Ukrainian operation: Kharkov and Odessa.
However, the crucial developments happened in the Donbass, the coal mine basin that has a majority Russian population, and borders directly with Russia. Here, the Russian operatives organized the referenda, even if they were of very low validity, and proclaimed independence for two republics—Donetsk and Lugansk. Then, the self-proclaimed leaders of these pseudo states—most of whom were imported from Moscow, like the known Russian nationalist Boroday, now the premier minister of the Donetsk republic—demanded total separation from Ukraine, and, ultimately, called for unification with Russia.
After some hesitation, Kiev started to fight the separatists, with a growing number of victims, including some in the civic population. While “the victims” in Crimea before the invasion were a pure hoax, in this case, real losses among the civil population and the Russian citizens have included a lot people from Chechnya and South Ossetia, who were sent by Moscow to join the separatists. Moscow has used this as clear grounds for crying about the necessity of protecting ethnic Russians as justification for the new invasion. The separatists, and in particular, the segment of the population in the Donbass who joined them (reliable sociological surveys showed that they were made up of a minority, no more than one-third, of the population in this region) expected the arrival of Russian troops in the Donbass each day in May. The secret flow of weapons and “volunteers” from Russia to the Donbass could only have been a very modest consolation to the people who were the victims of Moscow’s abetting them in moving against the central authorities in Kiev. Even Russian television showed a woman in Slaviansk, one of the centers of the separatists in the Donbass, who cried out desperately that “nobody wants to take care of us.”
The change of policy: from plan “A” to plan “B”
In the middle of May, Putin suddenly changed gears in his foreign policy. He undertook some measures which were supposedly meant to bolster his aggressive course toward the West and Ukraine. There were active attempts to make China his ally, which were not very successful. China did not support Russia at the UN General Assembly or Security Council. And, while the new agreements about delivering gas to China over the next 30 years can serve as some sort of consolation for Putin, the economic results of this agreement are suspicious even to officials in Moscow. It turns out that, in order to build the pipes for the gas delivery, “Gasprom” will need big loans, which make their dependence on Western financial institutions evident. The creation of the Eurasian Union with the participation of Belorussia and Kazakhstan is also a very modest outcome. It is remarkable that Nursultan Nazarbayev underscored that this alliance will not have a political dimension. (Before the meeting about creating the Eurasian Union, Alexander Lukashenko said, in connection with Crimea, that he would personally take part in the defense of his country, even if Putin himself were to lead the offensive against his republic).
Evidently, Putin came to the conclusion—perhaps someday we will learn what happened in the Kremlin in May—that his plan “A,” with its fast dismemberment of Ukraine, was too dangerous, and that the cost of implementing this plan would be too high for the country and for him personally. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to determine the weight of all the elements of this cost. By all accounts, it was the Western sanctions against Russia and its officials—those implemented in May and those that had been postponed until the future—that caused the change of minds in the Kremlin, despite how feeble they looked to many in Russia and in the West, and how much they were derogated in Moscow.
By the middle of May, Putin’s policy toward Ukraine seemed to change, as noted by many moderate Russian journalists, like Mikhail Rostovsky from Moskovskii Komsomolets. Far from being dropped, though, Putin’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine moved to plan “B.” This plan abandoned the idea of a mass expansion toward Ukraine, included the recognition of the presidential election and the possibility of contact between Russian and Ukrainian officials. The plan also made it possible for Putin to meet with Petro Poroshenko, the new elected president, in France, in the background of the festivities related to the 70th anniversary of “D” day. At the same time, plan “B” assumes Moscow’s continued efforts to destabilize the country through actively supporting the separatists in the Donbass and threatening to cutting off the supply of Russian gas to Ukraine.
The information war against Ukraine, as suggested by plan “B,” became more complex. Ukraine continued to be the main attraction on Russian TV .Aall of the news programs in June started with descriptions of the atrocities performed by the Ukrainian army fighting separatists in the Donbass. At the same time, TV announcers mostly ceased denigrating Ukraine as a country, on the whole, and reported some information about the election of the president and the mayor of Kiev. The thesis of the dominance of the Nazis, or the followers of the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, in Ukrainian political life diminished radically after the presidential election on May 25th, when the leader of the radical nationalists, Dmitro Yarosh, got only one percent of the votes.
Special TV programs, however, particularly those of Vladimir Soloviev, remained as aggressive as they had been in the past. In the beginning of June, the participants on Soloviev’s program demanded immediate military help for the separatists; insisted on the necessity of dismembering Ukraine; called for open war against Ukraine and for ignoring the West; named the government in Kiev a “fascist junta” and a bunch of criminals including president Poroshenko.
There is no doubt that this program, as well as several others, reflect the agitation created by Putin’s administration with the seizure of Crimea, and by the promise to go forward with the restoration of the Soviet empire. To some observers, the mass patriotic frenzy in June looked as if it had become a loose cannon; as if it was no longer governed by the Kremlin. That is wrong. Putin is working to maintain a patriotic rage that is ready to support his policy if he decides to return to plan “A.” By the middle of June, though, Putin was seemingly also considering plan “C,” which supposes reconciliation with the West, on the condition that Crimea remains a part of Russia.
The interactions between the egotistical goals of a leader to stay in power as long as possible, and the interests of the nation have always been the subject of incessant reflections. In some cases, the actions of the leader effectively pursued both goals, and the progress of the nation helped that leader to strengthen his position, but quite often, the leader’s and the nation’s goals are antagonistic Having control over the media makes it possible for the leader—especially if he plays on the people’s patriotic or xenophobic instincts, or their nostalgia for a brilliant past—to suggest to the masses that what he is doing is for the wealth of society, even if the opposite is true. Putin belongs among those leaders who make their authoritarian regimes submit to their personal interests over the interests of the country.
Putin’s Crimean adventure is a perfect example. With the seizure of Crimea, the Russian leader’s media whipped the mood of the Russians to a fury of patriotism, which would have been enough to guarantee Putin’s reelection as president, today and in the next several years, if nothing adverse were to happen to Russia. Meanwhile, the cost of this adventure has been extremely high. It stimulated the restoration of the role of NATO; removed any obstacles for the location of an American military installation in East Europe; increased the hostility of all East European countries toward Russia immensely; made Ukraine, its most important neighbor, a hostile country; and strengthened the hidden animosity of all of the post-Soviet republics. Even more important, the deterioration of relations with the West, for a long period ahead, will slacken technological and scientific progress in Russia, and, ultimately, its military potential, as well as the well-being of the population. While Putin enjoyed the rise in his ratings, which seemed to ensure his power, all these other developments are counterproductive to his personal ambitions. It is particularly true of the attitudes of the political and economic elite toward him. It is certainly true that the members of the elite will not dare to express their negative attitudes toward Putin’s adventure in public.
Putin, whose hubris is extraordinary, also no longer enjoys the status he did before when he travels to the West. On the other hand, perhaps, his aides did not tell him that the international media reported on how he was avoided by many of the participants at the meetings in Normandy.
Putin is evidently torn between two incompatible desires: to continue to bask in the patriotic adulation of his compatriots and savor the idea that his leadership is “forever” ignoring the various risks generated by the further deterioration of the relations with the external world; or, to choose a policy that will bring stability to him and his nation for the next several years. The choice of the first alternative means the sustenance of patriotic agitation in the country, a cold—or even a hot—war with Ukraine, and the deterioration of quality of life in Russia. The second alternative means the de-escalation of the conflict with Ukraine, without abandoning the claim on the Crimea; the radical improvement of relations with the USA and EU, with some friendly gestures addressed to the West; and the restoration of some oppositional activity inside Russia, even though it could mean some risk to Putin’s position as president in the remote future. The choice is existential for Putin personally, and to some degree for Russia and the whole world. It would very useful to guess more or less correctly which alternative Putin will choose. In any case, though, the West has entered a period in which it has to be ready to live with the unpredictable authoritarian leader of a country equipped with a nuclear weapon.