After recent events in Crimea several commentators have asked for more understanding of Russia's position -- among them, for example, my old friend Liam Halligan. This is particularly important because, if we do not understand Russia, we will be unable to predict the consequences of our own actions. Because this will be a long blog, here's the short version:
- Does Putin want primarily to be King in Russia or Emperor of All the Russias? We don't know, and it will make a big difference.
- If Putin wants to be King, the result of his invasion of Ukraine will be to consolidate his rule, at least for a while, but any further implications are limited.
- If Putin wants to be Emperor, a protracted and dangerous international conflict has already begun; only resolute deterrence will avert tragedy.
We need better to understand Russia, but Russia is not easy to understand. Why? The most important reason is that Russia's politics lack transparency and accountability. Consider the following. The Russian invasion was clearly well planned, yet took the world by surprise. It was undertaken despite a near total absence of popular support; according to a VTsIOM poll published on 24 February[correction: link updated, 8 March 2014], only 15 percent of Russians endorsed military intervention in Ukraine, with 73 percent opposed. Although there was no popular enthusiasm for military intervention, Russia's parliamentarians mandated it unanimously. Although there would appear to be clear blue water between the administration and public opinion, the administration's action has met with little or no popular reaction.
Russia, in short, is free of the public agonizing that signals a vibrant democracy. Nothing could show more clearly that Moscow's decisions are made in a secretive, unaccountable way, so that ordinary people expect to have no voice and remain passive.
Two related factors only add to the difficulty we face in trying to interpret Russia's behaviour. One is that the Kremlin understands the value of surprise. The sudden and unexpected character of the Russian action in Crimea deprived Russia's opponents of the chance to react promptly in a calculated way. The result has been confusion and indecision in Kiev and western capitals. While Ukrainian and Western leaders have pondered their best responses, Moscow has consolidated its gains. The result of this is an analyst's paradox. A capacity for unpredictable action is valuable, but can only be maintained by preventing adversaries from understanding how Russia will decide its next move, and therefore from predicting it. Thus, Russia's leaders must continue to behave unpredictably, avoiding any clear or systematic pattern.
A second related factor stems from the fact that, while Russia's action in Crimea was extremely successful in exploiting surprise to achieve a bloodless coup, the bloodless nature of the intervention could not have been predicted. Any panicky self-defence by Ukrainian troops or (say) Tatar civilians would have led to a bloodbath. One must suppose that Putin and his cabinet anticipated this possibility, but discounted it and went ahead regardless. As things turned out, the risk of bloodshed was not realized, but this was just lucky. In other words, Russia's leaders were prepared to take a very substantial risk. A propensity for risky behaviour is characteristic of rulers that have a great deal at stake but also fear that time is running out: the option of wait-and-see has low value for them, or is seen as also highly risky, so they act now despite the risks.
What is at stake for Russia in Ukraine that is of such value? What is Russia's action designed to achieve? Here I see two possibilities, and the opaque, unaccountable nature of Russia's politics makes it hard to discern which is the dominant factor.
I take it for granted that Russia's action in the Crimea was designed to help bring about a lasting change in the balance of forces. I cannot see that any lesser objective would justify invading a sovereign neighbour whose borders are guaranteed by two other nuclear powers (the US and UK, the third being Russia itself). But which hostile forces was the Russian action designed to counter? Does Putin mean to change the balance of forces within Russia or that in the world beyond Russia? Related to this, is Putin content to be King in Russia more or less as it is today, or does he mean to become the new Emperor of All the Russias?
Explanatory note. "All the Russias" means Great Russia (Russia proper) plus Little Russia (the Ukraine) plus White Russia (Belarus). All the Russias would be a smaller territory than the old Russian Empire (which extended to Poland, Finland, the Baltic, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) and also smaller than the Soviet Union (which lost Poland and Finland), but it would reunite all the Slavic nationalities under one authority.
There is a case for thinking that Putin just wants to be King, and his primary objective is to offset potential domestic opposition. Among Russians, his legitimacy rests on a narrative of Russia, weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, plundered by domestic and foreign thieves, and encircled by enemies at her borders. When Putin's position at home is weakened by stories of election-stealing or corruption, he portrays his opponents as fraudsters and agents of foreign powers and he deters many critics by putting a few of the more important out of circulation. His narrative has been sustained by the turmoil of Ukraine's unfinished transition from communism and by worsening relations with the West. On this interpretation, Putin's goal in Ukraine has been to stoke international tension for a while and so change the balance of forces domestically, within Russia. He has used the Ukrainian events to teach Russians that Ukraine's movement is not "anti-corruption" or "pro-democracy" or "pro-Europe" but "anti-Russia." And anyone in Russia who campaigns against corruption or vote-rigging is now vulnerable to proscription as anti-Russian.
If it is Putin's strategy to weaken domestic opponents and so shift the domestic balance of forces in his favour, then it is already largely successful. All that is required is for the West to put up a show of resistance, and Putin will have achieved his objective, which is to confirm that Russia is embattled and he is the Russians' only defender. He does not need a war to prove it. He will take no more risks, and he will stop here. It's hard to say how long the effects will last; they might be relatively short lived. As for Crimea, the outcome can be some messy compromise that will poison Ukrainian politics and store up future conflict, which will also serve Putin's domestic purposes.
Alternatively, and much more seriously, Putin's final objective may be to weaken external adversaries, and so to shift the balance of forces in Europe. To do this permanently would mean to redraw frontiers by creating a new Empire of All the Russias with a cordon sanitaire of neutralized states on its borders. A first step is to expose the powerlessness of the EU, to divide Europe from the US, and so to divide NATO. But in this case he has only just begun. He will continue to work to subordinate Ukraine and Belarus in a Eurasian Union, while isolating and neutralizing all Russia's less compliant neighbours, which include Georgia, Poland and the Baltic states. If that is Putin's grand project, it is probably shared by others around him.
If Putin wants to be Emperor, it is hard to see how confrontation can be avoided at some point. If Europe and NATO signal accommodation, for example, and express only token resistance to the Russian action in Crimea, then Putin will drive on towards his ultimate goal by undertaking other adventures, perhaps by going deeper into Ukraine or by setting out to humiliate other neighbours. On the other hand, to the extent that Europe and NATO show unity and put up resistance, Putin's objective will become more distant and, because time is not on his side, he will be willing to take more risks to achieve it. Only resolute deterrence will prevent violence and tragedy.
As I see it the immediate policy implications are limited. In 1994 Britain guaranteed the security of Ukraine's borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Whatever Russia's motivation for breaking its word, we cannot honourably walk away from our own guarantee. There are many steps that Britain, Europe, and NATO should now take, that fall well short of destabilizing military intervention. Most importantly, we should take them together.
It troubles me, however, that we do not know how Russia will respond. If Putin's objective is to affect the domestic balance of forces, nothing much more will follow, except that his regime will be consolidated for a while. If his objective is to redraw Europe's boundaries, then a game has begun with many unpredictable and dangerous moves in store.