Russia has clearly violated international law by crossing into Crimea and inserting its Special Forces on the ground. Ukrainians are worried they may return to their former status as a Soviet satellite again, while the West sees it as one of the most brazenly dangerous moves since the Cold War ended, but Putin? Well, Putin sees it as something else altogether.
While giving lip service to the idea of national sovereignty, Russian President Vladimir Putin instead calls the overthrow of Russian-leaning former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych illegal. However, one suspects that what Putin is likely more worried about are the signs that the democratically assertive Arab Spring may have spread northward to Ukraine, just steps away from Russia. Putin can’t afford that on his doorstep, particularly when he enjoys being the long-standing leader of Russia so much.
Impact of the international community
While Putin sends Sergei Lavrov off to distract Secretary of State John Kerry and the Europeans, he’s got other plans. First, an occupying force (to protect the ethnic Russian minority in Crimea, as a ruse), then a referendum just days way (moved up several times to March 16) to facilitate a situation in which Crimea is able to break away.
Sanctions won’t sit well, but the West (at least the Europeans) need his country’s energy and can’t hold out forever. While the world supposes that Russia and Putin are losing the luster gained by the Sochi Olympics, think again. Putin is playing to the Russian audience (not the West’s), and from their perspective, the move in Crimea is a bold and positive one.
Why the Russians approve
Strange as it may seem to the West, the events in Crimea have actually given Vladimir Putin a two-point bump in the polls among his own people, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even his critics are praising his actions. For example, Kseniya Sobchak, a Russian television anchor and opposition figure, exclaimed on Twitter: “If Putin returns Crimea to Russia without blood, he will go down in history as great.”
Part of the support for Putin likely comes from the strategic and militarily historic role Crimea has played as the location of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The other part of this sentiment comes from deep-seated attachment to Crimea by many older Russians, who remember this area as a popular Black Sea resort, with vacation homes and children’s summer camps back in the Soviet era of their youth.
As for those ethnic Russians living in Crimea, who have always felt more aligned to Russia than western Ukraine, the Russians have helped those allegiances along. For example, the occupying Russians have already cut off local Ukrainian television, and all the news now being broadcast in Crimea is coming straight out of Moscow.
Putin comes out ahead
While the West works furiously to stop a train in motion, for Putin, it’s already a positive outcome, no matter which way the chips fall. If Russia usurps Crimea, he’s bolstered his machismo and his country’s sphere of influence.
If he gives it up, expect Putin to walk away with some advantage. Have we in the West learned nothing about how this works from watching North Korea demand compensation for agreeing to peace talks with South Korea, or the Iranians demand an easing of financial sanctions for agreeing to sit down with the IAEA?
You can be sure that Putin, too will have his demands at the ready. As one analyst recently noted, “If he de-escalates, he will definitely extract a price for it. He will demand something in return.” Win-win.