One side-effect of getting a Master's Degree in international affairs with a specific focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union is whenever something important happens in that part of the world, your friends all ask for your views on the event. This has been happening recently with the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Questions about the sanity of Vladimir Putin have been coming up a lot lately, along with the definitive statement that “Putin IS crazy” over his (and by extension Russia's) actions with Crimea.
He may be cold, calculating and cunning, but crazy? No. But he is very much playing by a different set of rules than the global community and is being driven by a different set of impulses. One quote that has been brought up quite often in the commentary about the Ukraine is Putin's statement that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical mistake of the 20th century”. His seizure of the Crimean then is an attempt to rebuild the old Soviet Union, right? Not exactly. Rather Putin's Crimea gambit is not so much an attempt to restore the glory of the Soviet Union as it is trying to ensure that Ukraine continues to falter.
To better understand what's going on today, we need to take a very quick look at Putin and both Russia and Ukraine following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Quite simply, Russia in the 1990s was a mess: a country rocked by economic turmoil, with a crumbling infrastructure and inept leadership in the form of the old, ailing and occasionally drunk Boris Yeltsin. When Putin took over from Yeltsin in 1999, he had the unenviable task of rebuilding both the country and in reestablishing the role of government in the country. Putin tackled this problem in two ways: the first was personal. The images of Putin bare-chested in Siberian rivers, flying in fighter jets, throwing opponents on the judo mat, diving in submarines, and occasionally hugging a fuzzy puppy, have become a staple of late night comedy shows in the US. But rather than expressions of odd personal vanity, these are carefully crafted images meant to portray Putin as a muzhik, a Russian term for a “real man” - a strong and virile leader, a counterpoise to the tottering Yeltsin.
Putin's second method was to strike a deal with the oligarchs – the class of businessmen who became fabulously wealthy and powerful in the chaos of the 1990s. Putin agreed to let them have their business empires, so long as they didn't challenge his political authority. The one oligarch who was seen as breaking this covenant – Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the oil conglomerate Yukos and once Russia's richest man – was quickly jailed on dubious charges, his assets seized. The rest of the oligarchs either fell in line or left the country; their media empires reinforced the image of Putin as a strong leader. Of course Russia's citizens knew this was going on. But under Putin the ruble stabilized, consumer goods became more available and affordable, life, for most, became more comfortable, so, for the most part, Russia's citizens went along with the deal.
Ukraine experienced a similar economic chaos after the end of the Soviet Union. But for Ukraine, things didn't get better, the economy continued to falter, a small elite took advantage of corrupt leadership to become wildly wealthy. In 2004 the people had enough; the mass public protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution swept aside the existing government. But the new government formed by the Orange Revolution's leaders Viktor Yushenko and Yulia Tymoshenko was consumed by infighting between their two rival factions. The economy continued to falter, so much so that Ukrainians would eventually reelect President Viktor Yanukovich, the very man the Orange Revolution drove from power. Yanukovich continued to rip off the state, while cozying up to to Putin and moving Ukraine closer to Moscow, which sparked off another round of public protests, the EuroMaidan, that again drove him from power.
Putin's fear now is that this time the new leaders of Ukraine might get it right – that they could set Ukraine on the path to development and prosperity. It is not an idle fear. While things are much better in Russia today than they were in the 1990s, the country still lags far behind most other European countries. The average monthly salary in Russia is just $500 a month, far lower than in much of Europe, especially western Europe. Again, Russians are aware of the disparity, many Russians have friends or family who live in the “West” (the United States, Great Britain, Canada, etc.), so they know that other countries have higher standards of living, less corruption, better infrastructure, and so on. But these positives are balanced out by statements of the problems with these foreign societies: the Americans are too driven by careers; the British are too fussy. When those stereotypes fail, the fall-back argument is while these societies may work fine for their native ethnicities, they would never work in Russia because they fail to understand the ever-mysterious “Russian Soul” (which contrary to Russian belief isn't all that mysterious); Russia as a nation may have its short-comings, but the society has “soul”.
But this argument would hall apart should Ukraine follow a path like Poland and transition to becoming an open and prosperous (relative to their position at the end of the Cold War) society. Another frequently made point over these past few weeks is how the Russian and Ukrainian people are “brothers”. The Russian identity started not in Moscow, but near Kiev, 1,000 years ago; Kiev, and Ukraine, still hold a mythic place in the Russian imagination. Ukraine already has a much more open press and has staged far freer elections in recent years than Russia. If this were paired with economic growth, should Ukraine's per capita income surpass that of Russia, then the theoretical underpinning of Putinism – that Russia is such a complex society it needs a “strong” leader – would be swept aside. This is what keeps Putin awake at night, the thought that Ukraine might succeed in a way that Russia has not and that the Russian people would take notice. This is why Putin is determined to undermine the provisional government in Kiev and the one that will take office following the scheduled May elections. Ukraine cannot be given the chance to develop outside his shadow and in a way that may surpass his creation.
The situation in Ukraine will remain highly volatile. While it is unlikely that Putin wants a war, he does benefit from the perception that a war could happen and the instability that brings to Ukraine. Putin does not believe that the West, particularly the United States, will take any meaningful action to stop him, in large part because Russia faced no serious repercussions following their conflict with Georgia in 2008 and because Europe is dependent on energy supplies, particularly natural gas, from Russia. This is a recipe though for miscalculation. The longer that armed and angry men are kept faced off with each other, the chance for an accident that sparks off a conflict grows. And if Ukraine is invaded or otherwise drawn into a conflict, the US and European Union will be compelled to act in reply, whether they want to or not.
So while Putin is not crazy, he is currently smug, arrogant and over-confident in the strength of his position, which is almost just as bad.