What’s Putin Up To?
By Andrew Kydd
Russian troops have moved into the Crimean peninsula, but Vladimir Putin is running silent as Clarence Thomas. We can only speculate on his goals and strategy. Is he trying to acquire a beachfront locale for a summer Olympics bid? Probably not, but what other reasons could possibly explain his behavior? The key, I think, is that Putin is determined to overcome Russia’s quarter century of humiliation. He is the anti-Gorbachev, the anti-Yeltsin. He wants to make it clear that he is not averse to using force to prevent westward drift within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Following from this premise are two possible strategies behind the Crimean gambit. First, he could be intending to use Crimea as a bargaining chip with a future Ukrainian leadership that emerges in Kiev. He is clearly not happy with the way things turned out for his friend Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. Yanukovych was under his thumb, while the current government, such as it is, will want to lean west and away from Russia. Where a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin would have supinely accepted this, Putin bargains harder. By seizing Crimea he can confront an eventual Ukrainian leader with a difficult choice. Go west if you like but you are going to lose Crimea, and perhaps even more provinces in the eastern half of the country. Or you can stop challenging Moscow and we let you keep your country. When Moscow says jump, you say how high? Putin may be hoping that this kind of leverage will suffice to keep Ukraine in the fold, a big Belarus that understands its place in the universe.
The alternative is that Putin has written off Kiev and western Ukraine but is determined to salvage something from the debacle. Stephen Walt argued that revolutions attract predation from the international system, viz. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. When states are weak, as they are in the aftermath of revolutions, aggressors pounce. Ukraine is certainly weak now, and determined to throw off Russia’s yoke. An all-out invasion of Ukraine to restore Yanukovych may seem prohibitively costly, but liberating the Russian-speaking provinces may appear more practical and achievable. It would certainly send a signal that crossing Moscow is very dangerous, and it would bring direct tangible benefits by bringing home Russian territory and populations while greatly weakening the rump Ukraine. Putin, the recoverer of lost territories! Putin as Bismarck!
These two options are related of course. The willingness to pursue the partition strategy is what gives the bargaining strategy its credibility. Putin may be unsure how reasonable the future Ukrainian leadership will be. He may prefer a unified Ukraine under Moscow’s sway to a partition, but be unsure if he can get it. Or he may prefer partition. In either case, Kiev has some real choices ahead.