The Crimea crisis demonstrates that Vladimir Putin is “an unabashed authoritarian,” David Remnick writes for The New Yorker:
His outrage over the uprising in Kiev, like his subsequent decision to invade Crimea, is stoked by a powerful suspicion of Western motives and hypocrisies. Putin absorbed the eastward expansion of NATO; attacks on his abysmal record on human rights and civil society; and the “color” revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev—even the revolts in Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, Manama, and Damascus—as intimations of his own political mortality. He sees everything from the National Endowment for Democracy to the American Embassy in Moscow as an outpost of a plot against him.
“Right now, Putin retains his familiar strut and disdain,” notes Remnick, author of Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia. “But it may be that his adventure in Crimea—and not the American Embassy in Moscow—will undo him. Last month, a Kremlin-sponsored poll showed that seventy-three per cent of Russians opposed interfering in the political confrontations in Kiev.”
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should not be understood as an opportunistic power grab, but as an attempt to politically, culturally, and militarily resist the West, says a leading analyst.
Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change, not because it had no other options, according to Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
“Putin decided to throw caution to the wind. Anger is one of his reasons for doing so. Putin was defeated twice in Ukraine: first during the 2004 Orange revolution, which brought to power a pro-Western coalition led by Yulia Tymoshenko, and second during the recent protests, which booted President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician, out of office,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “When Yanukovych lost power, Putin suddenly and unexpectedly lost his strategic partner. Putin’s escalation, at least in part, is an attempt to cover up the failures of his Ukraine policy.”
But Putin cannot win the battle for hearts and minds, a prominent analyst suggests.
“So far, the only certain victory is the ideological one,” says Chrystia Freeland, the author of Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride From Communism to Capitalism and a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament.
“Many outsiders have interpreted the past three months as a Yugoslav-style ethno-cultural fight. It is nothing of the kind. This is a political struggle,” she writes for the New York Times:
Notwithstanding the bloodshed, the best parallel is with Prague’s Velvet Revolution of 1989. The emphasis there on changing society’s moral tone, and each person’s behavior, was likewise central to the protests that overthrew Mr. Yanukovych.
For Ukraine, as well as for Russia and much of the former U.S.S.R., the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was only a partial revolution. The U.S.S.R. vanished, but the old nomenklatura, and its venal, authoritarian style of governance remained. Mr. Putin is explicitly drawing on that heritage and fitfully trying to reshape it into a new state capitalist system that can compete and flourish globally. An alliance with Mr. Yanukovych’s Ukraine was an essential part of that plan.
“The Putin of 2014 is not the Putin of 2004, or even the Putin of 2008,” a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum:
He is no longer simply the ruthless operator who is interested in power and money, the one who dreams of getting Russia back on the global stage. He is interested in ideas. He presents his advisers with the writings of Ivan Ilyn, the Russian philosopher and ideologue of the Russian All-Military Union. He personally directs the writing of history textbooks. In the last few years, and particularly after the explosion of protests in Moscow in the winter of 2011–12, Putin has come to view himself as a last bastion of order and traditional values. He is convinced that liberalism is contagious and that Western mores and institutions present a real danger to Russian society and the Russian state. He surely dreams of the pre-1914 days, when Russia was autocratic but accepted, revolutions were not tolerated, and Russia could be part of Europe while preserving its distinctive culture and traditions.
From that perspective, the Ukrainian revolution is a symbol of everything that is wrong with today’s Europe. It flirts with people power and moral relativism, it stirs passions, and it shows utter disregard for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.
“In Crimea, Moscow has demonstrated its readiness to cross the red lines drawn by the West — to question legal norms and the structure of the post–Cold War European order,” says Krastev:
His move is a challenge: Is the United States still ready to guarantee the security of European democracies, or does it prefer offshore balancing and pivoting to Asia? Is Germany powerful enough to deal with a Russia that is uninterested in being European?
His foreign policy amounts to a deep rejection of modern Western values and an attempt to draw a clear line between Russia’s world and Europe’s. For Putin, Crimea is likely just the beginning.
The battle for Ukraine has become a battle over the shape that a Russo-German Europe will take, says regional expert Mitchell Orenstein:
Russia, through its geopolitical boldness, aggression, and sense of entitlement, has proved willing to annex the territories that it wants, building up a Eurasian bloc to balance against the European Union. Ukraine is an essential part of that plan, and Crimea is the leading edge. Russia is very likely to keep what it has now seized, as it has in all other regional conflicts, and continue trying to use its position in Crimea to destabilize Ukraine. That will help Russia as it attempts to draw a sharp line between its values, culture, politics, and economy, and the West’s.
Thanks to Germany’s role as a key state in the European Union and its deep ties to Russia, it is the only country that could thwart or contain Russia’s grand geopolitical ambitions, he writes for Foreign Affairs:
It was particularly clear during European negotiations this week over possible sanctions on Russia for invading Crimea that Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, would ultimately decide how much to pressure Russia and how to balance Europe’s desire to punish the country against its desire to bring Russia closer through economic engagement. Germany held the line against jumping too quickly to sanctions and, instead, channeled Western anger toward Russia into an “off-ramp” solution, in which Russians and the new Ukrainian government would hold direct talks about the future of Crimea, with international mediation.
And that hints at Germany’s reluctance to abandon its long game: Since the end of the Cold War, the country has emphasized economic engagement with Russia in the hope of ushering Russian society along toward modernization.