Putin’s Posture

Maria Snegovaya unpacks his view of foreign policy:

The recent literature on Putin is [correctly] drawing attention to his pro-Soviet imperialistic views: remember, to Putin the collapse of the USSR the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century. But what exactly this pro-Soviet worldview means is fairly poorly understood. To get a grasp on one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century – Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin — whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy.

She illustrates her point by quoting from a 1950 essay by Ilyin:

We know that Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity… They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break these twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their civilization. They need to partition Russia to equate it with the West, and thus destroy it: a plan of hatred and lust for power

KermlinRussia, the highly influential satirical duo, explains Putin’s calculus:

The West has already begun to threaten Russia with political and economic isolation, but this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Putin’s power.

For example, Western analysts say that “Russia will not invade Crimea because Russia’s economy is in bad shape and this would only weaken it further.” They are mistaken. Putin no longer needs economic growth. He has grasped the contradiction between economic growth and the consolidation of his own power, and he has made his choice. He understands very well that in 2011-2012 it was the most economically active and wealthy segments of the population that protested against him. He understands that millions of entrepreneurs and workers of the knowledge economy had already emigrated to the U.S. and European Union during his reign. And he understands that a solution which simultaneously halts economic growth and strengthens the patriotism of the poorest segments of the population is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

On that note, Andrew Ryvkin looks at how the Crimea invasion is playing in Russia:

A growing number of right-leaning Russians, known for their resentment of Putin due to his lax stance on Central Asian immigrants and his support of the Muslim republics of Northern Caucasus, are praising the invasion. To many of them, this regime’s shortcomings can now be overlooked, overshadowed as they are by the image of a “Great Russia” finally reunited with its prodigal sibling, Ukraine. No one really cares what happens in Russia, as long as this country still has the balls to send a military force outside of its borders to protect ethnic Russians. The fact that Russia often can’t provide security for its citizens—mostly ethnic Russians—within its own borders, often losing in its never-ending war on homegrown terror, fades away at the prospect of a territorial gain and a victorious war.

With Ukraine, the Kremlin is creating its own axis of evil: America, the “fascists” who seized power in Kiev, and their liberal Russian supporters.

Motyl’s view:

If one considers Russia’s interests, none of this — the armed intervention in Crimea, the claimed right to intervene anywhere in Ukraine — makes sense. Putin’s arguments simply do not hold water. As objective observers will confirm, there is absolutely no threat to Russian citizens anywhere in Ukraine. There may have been a diminution of overall law and order following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovich’s regime, but that affects all Ukrainian residents equally. Nor is the Kremlin’s claim that putative “fascists” from Western Ukraine are about to descend on Crimea and the southeast even remotely true. By the same token, intervention, war, international isolation, and the like will not enhance Russians’ living standards or their sense of well-being. There may be a temporary spurt of excitement at seeing the Russian tricolor hoisted in Donetsk, but that enthusiasm will quickly fade when Russians realize that these regions will impose an enormous economic liability. And, finally, there is no way that a truncated Ukraine’s transformation into a hostile anti-Russian state and a permanent occupation by Russian troops of potentially rebellious provinces — after all, there are also large numbers of pro-Western Ukrainians in the southeast — could possibly serve Russia’s interests.

There is only one reason Putin has embarked on what Russian democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov calls “folly”: flexing his military muscle enhances Putin’s authority as a strongman who will reestablish Russia’s grandeur and brook no people-power in former Soviet states.