As events have unfolded rapidly today, I find myself perplexed over why Moscow is preparing for war on Ukraine. I could understand Putin seizing the Crimean peninsula over the naval base — note well I say I could understand it, which is not the same thing as saying it is justified. But if Putin sends Russian troops into the Ukraine mainland, he would be harming his own nation’s interests gravely. I think it would be fairly easy to take over Ukraine in conventional military terms, but impossible at this point for Russia to pacify it and subdue it. Russia would make itself despised on the world stage, and cost itself plenty on the economic and diplomatic front. Plus, the war Russia would begin, and that would last for a very long time (re: the guerrilla resistance that would no doubt arise) would devastate Ukraine.
And for what? Nobody in the West really cared what Moscow did to Chechnya. But Ukraine is different. Nobody in the West is going to take up arms against Russia over Ukraine, but this is bound to cost Russia — and should cost Russia — far more than it will have been worth.
Putin is a shrewd, ruthless man. His wits appear to be failing him here. Is there something I’m missing? Join the discussion.
UPDATE: A New York Times analysis says that Putin doesn’t have much to worry about from the West. Excerpt:
Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too powerful even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.
We didn’t think Putin would do this. Why, exactly? This has often puzzled me about Western analysis of Russia. It is often predicated on wholly Western logic: surely, Russia won’t invade [Georgia, Ukraine, whoever’s next] because war is costly and the Russian economy isn’t doing well and surely Putin doesn’t want another hit to an already weak ruble; because Russia doesn’t need to conquer Crimea if Crimea is going to secede on its own; Russia will not want to risk the geopolitical isolation, and “what’s really in it for Russia?“—stop. Russia, or, more accurately, Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat. Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin’s next steps.
Pessimism always wins. One of the reasons I left my correspondent’s post in Moscow was because Russia, despite all the foam on the water, is ultimately a very boring place. Unfortunately, all you really need to do to seem clairvoyant about the place is to be an utter pessimist. Will Vladimir Putin allow the ostensibly liberal Dmitry Medvedev to have a second term? Not a chance. There are protests in the streets of Moscow. Will Putin crackdown? Yup. There’s rumbling in the Crimea, will Putin take advantage and take the Crimean peninsula? You betcha. And you know why being a pessimist is the best way to predict outcomes in Russia? Because Putin and those around him are, fundamentally, terminal pessimists. They truly believe that there is an American conspiracy afoot to topple Putin, that Russian liberals are traitors corrupted by and loyal to the West, they truly believe that, should free and fair elections be held in Russia, their countrymen would elect bloodthirsty fascists, rather than democratic liberals. To a large extent, Putin really believes that he is the one man standing between Russia and the yawning void. Putin’s Kremlin is dark and scary, and, ultimately, very boring.
Incidentally, I sometimes wonder if the unhinged nationalistic rantings of America’s only transsexual Bolshevik babushka — I’m not actually making that up — are an accurate guide to how many Russians think. If so, it would explain a lot.