There is more to Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine than geopolitical calculations. The wave of patriotic fervor Putin’s invasion has unleashed in Russia reminds us that “wag the dog” scenarios are not confined to western democracies.
The Russian people are ready for this. The loss of empire following the breakup of the Soviet Union has rankled Russian nationalists for two decades, and now that Putin seems in an ascendant position — especially over the American president — there has been a burst of support for the Russian president and a wave of sympathy for Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
If the status quo established in the last few days holds, with Russian forces already in charge in Crimea, he can hope to have won back Crimea without a shot being fired in anger or the necessity of taking on another drain to the state coffers.
Even if a pullback is forced on him, Putin will still portray himself as the defender of national interests and those of Russians abroad. In the eyes of many voters, he hopes, he will not have given up Ukraine without a fight.
While he has been busy defending national interests, his lieutenants have been lambasting the West over Ukraine, accusing it of manipulating events and working with a government chosen by gun-toting “extremists”.
Combined with an orchestrated wave of nationalist indignation over attempts to limit use of the Russian language and persecute Russians in a country many consider an extension of their own, Putin’s stance plays well at home.
His insistence that Ukraine’s new leaders stick to the terms of a European Union-brokered political agreement last month with Yanukovich goes down well.
This month, his popularity ratings have bounced back to almost 70 percent, according to an opinion poll by independent pollster Levada.
“Putin has not forgiven the fact that the agreement was not fulfilled and that is one of his greatest motivations. He considers he is acting in a symmetrical way,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.
“I think that the authorities think it’s very helpful that people are getting themselves worked up about this… And the majority feel in a patriotic mood about Crimea and Ukraine. I think it’s positive for the Kremlin. They won’t refuse action.”
But there is a risk Putin could be forced into action over Crimea by the nationalist thinking that he has let loose – and this would be particularly risky if he were pushed into action to defend Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
The decision to seek authorization to send in troops looked less like a prelude to war and more like a threat aimed at getting Kiev and the West to cut a deal, Professor Mark Galeotti from the Center of Global Affairs at New York University wrote on his blog.
“As the language toughens and the troops roll, though, it’s getting harder to believe that common sense is going to prevail in the Kremlin.”
A climb-down by Putin at this point doesn’t seem likely. At the very least, to satisfy the nationalist emotions he has unleashed in Russia, he would have to “liberate” the Crimea by bestowing independence, or, best case scenario for the west, work out a negotiated settlement with Ukraine that would expand Crimea’s autonomy.
But there is a danger that the pro-Russian eastern provinces, encouraged by success in the Crimea, might initiate their own separatist movement. Would Putin feel himself obligated to support such a movement with troops already in the country? On such questions might rest war or peace.