With images of a burning Kiev alongside ominous Russian troops movements all over cable news and New York Times front pages, one must wonder why the Russian President is interested in provoking another Cold War. I’d like to discuss a couple of prevailing strands of thought that litter discussions of the Ukraine conflict.
First: The sentiment that Putin is acting irrationally and trying to take over the world. He isn’t. The invasion of Crimea and continuing destabilization of Ukraine consolidates his own power domestically, and pushes Russian influence back into the former Soviet satellite states, some of whom had made bids to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union (notably Ukraine, as well as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova).
Second: That the U.S. has some sort of obligation to keep Russia in check on the international playing field. It doesn’t. While military force is out of the question, the proposed sanctions, even those of a small scale, might entirely have the wrong effect. The two views are often linked, and they’re reminiscent of similar reactions that Americans have had for many decades—we’ve just got to do something about that dictator! Who knows what he might do next! I would argue that Putin is acting appropriately given his own incentives, and that the answer for the U.S. government and its citizens isn’t to overreact, but to ask the question and to continue asking it: What does the invasion of Crimea lead to? The answer, if we look at Russia as it exists today, and not as it did 30 years ago, is not much.
In March 2013, after years of growing public support for the values of the European Union (E.U.), Ukranian President Viktor F. Yanukovych was seemingly on the verge of signing a set of political and economic agreements with the E.U.; he published a decree stating the administration’s intent to work toward signing the accords. Protests erupted in November when it became clear that Yanukovych would not pursue the accords, seemingly bribed by Putin and Russia with a gift of $15 billion worth of loans and natural gas discounts. From there, the situation escalated until an interim government took control of Ukraine.
At the end of February, Russia shocked many with a mobilization of troops to Crimea, an autonomous republic in Southern Ukraine that technically belongs to Ukraine. Putin cited protection of Crimea’s ethnic Russian population as his reason for annexing the region, although some see it as a straight-up land grab. While it’s true that Crimea is the only part of Ukraine with a majority Russian population, Putin’s motivation is obviously deeper. But a simple land grab? No.
The central issue of the Ukrainian crisis is the involvement of the E.U. with former Russian satellite states. By first bribing the Ukrainian government not to listen to its public, and then by invading Crimea, an action that implies more aggressive moves in the future, Russia is keeping the Ukrainian state in as much disarray as possible while broadening its influence in a very real, physical sense. The E.U. is uninterested in Eastern European states that can’t maintain a stable government and prove its ideological independence from Russia.
Now that Russia is exerting a physical presence in its old stomping grounds, the E.U. can’t help but avoid the region for fear of both of the above considerations, Despite Joe Biden’s assurances that the U.S. stands by its allies, it would be unthinkable to do anything militarily in the face of the Russian action, and Putin knows this. But Putin has another agenda that colors the issue further.
It would be disingenuous not to mention that first and foremost, Putin is an autocrat intent on consolidating his own power. In his piece in The New Republic, “Why Vladimir Putin Needs a Poor, Aggressive Russia,” KermlinRussia [pseudonym] asserts that although Putin “concentrated control of all the largest companies in the hands of his clan, increased the state’s role in the economy, slashed political and economic freedoms, and strengthened his personal power” during the early 2000s, the economic toll of autocracy was offset by the rising international demand for Russia’s natural resources, which actually led to a wage increase for many. For the people of Russia, a “false association” formed between authoritarianism and a healthy economy. The effects of Putin’s reforms started to catch up by 2009, and from 2011 to 2012, the most economically active segments of the population had begun to protest the obstructions to economic growth, while many had simply emigrated to the U.S. and E.U..
Providing an ever more impoverished Russian populace with the lens of fervent nationalism is Putin’s answer to maintaining power, and avoiding his own pro-Western revolts. Putin grasps that patriotism is the answer—living in poverty can be compensated with the understanding that all Russians belong to a “superpower,” a superpower that builds bombs and submarines and wins Olympic gold medals by the dozens. The imperialism involved in invading Crimea only bolsters national pride, even if the invasion may carry a significant economic toll.
This is why it’s so dangerous to react immediately and challenge Russia with anything but minimal sanctions. If the Obama administration urges the international community to turn their backs on Russia and institute sanctions, Putin doesn’t lose anything at all. He is interested in re-establishing Russia’s influence globally, yes, but he also has his own independent agenda. Putin is fine with meeting the E.U.’s sanctions with inflated natural resource prices (Europe receives a whopping 30 percent of their energy needs from Russia) because the economic setback isn’t as significant as the potential political gain from winning a game of chicken with all of Europe—it doesn’t get more powerful-looking than that!
So when Senator John McCain urges President Obama to take even stronger economic action against Russia (the administration has already barred Russia from the Group of 8 summit, now potentially the G-7) in the hopes that impoverished Russians will turn against Putin like Ukrainians did against Yanukovych, I say that this is a misreading of the next step. Focusing on Russia is absolutely the wrong approach—Putin’s goal is the broadening influence of Russia on the international stage, and his own on Russia’ stage, neither of which yields to the prospect of Russia’s barren coffers.
By focusing on securing as many former Russian satellites as possible as NATO allies, pressuring the Western-leaning governments of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and the interim government of Ukraine into signing the political and economic accords, the U.S. and the E.U. can call the former Soviet satellites their allies. And Putin knows that once the NATO can militarily defend the states of Eastern Europe legally, the game of chicken is over. Let’s call his bluff the right way—not with economic sanctions that further Putin’s goals, but with key political alliances that suppress them.
—Chris Dietz ’17 is a student at Vassar College.