Russia’s willingness to violate Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty is the gravest challenge to the European order in over half a century. The conflict pits a vast nuclear power against a state equal in size to France, an autocratic regime against a revolutionary government. The Russian intervention in Ukraine raises questions about the security guarantees that the West made to Ukraine after the country gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, and it flies in the face of many Europeans’ belief that, in recent years, a continental war has become all but impossible. The end result may be the emergence of a third Russian empire or a failed Ukrainian state at the center of Europe.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should not be understood as an opportunistic power grab. Rather, it is an attempt to politically, culturally, and militarily resist the West. Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change, not because it had no other options. Indeed, it had plenty of other ways to put pressure on Kiev, including through the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, the Ukrainian city in which the force is based; playing with gas prices; demanding that Ukraine start paying off its government debt to Russia; and drumming up anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Ukraine’s sizeable Russian population. Further, senior American figures had already noted that the Ukrainian crisis could not be solved without Russia, and European leaders had expressed their unhappiness about a new (and unfortunate) law that Ukraine’s transitional government passed soon after it was formed, which degraded the status of the Russian language. In other words, resorting to force was unnecessary.
It was also dangerous: Ukraine is a big country, and its public, still in a revolutionary mood, is primed to fight for a patriotic cause. Moscow’s intervention will provoke strong anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine and will perhaps bring what’s left of the country closer to the EU and NATO. Military intervention in Ukraine also risks unleashing a real humanitarian crisis within Russia. According to Russian sources, nearly 700,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia over the last two months. Around 143,000 of them have asked for asylum. A war in Ukraine could triple these numbers. Finally, it is easy to foresee that Moscow’s use of force will increase Russia’s political isolation. It has already resulted in some economic and political sanctions, which could be a knockout punch to Russia’s stagnating economy. By some estimates, the direct costs to Russia of a war in Ukraine could reach over three percent of Russian GDP (over $60 billion).
Yet Putin decided to throw caution to the wind. Anger is one of his reasons for doing so. Putin was defeated twice in Ukraine: first during the 2004 Orange revolution, which brought to power a pro-Western coalition led by Yulia Tymoshenko, and second during the recent protests, which booted President ViKtor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician, out of office. Moscow had bet on Yanukovych and had tried to hold him hostage to its own interests. For example, it pressed him to refuse to sign an Association Agreement with the EU (his failure to sign was what first sparked the protests in Ukraine) and loaned Ukraine nearly $15 billion, thus making the country dependent on Russia. But it was really Putin who became hostage to the increasingly unpopular Yanukovych and his hapless cronies. When Yanukovych lost power, Putin suddenly and unexpectedly lost his strategic partner. Putin’s escalation, at least in part, is an attempt to cover up the failures of his Ukraine policy.
For now, Moscow wants to topple the new regime in Kiev, which it views as being made up of radicals who won’t survive more than several weeks in power. By pressuring the regime with an invasion and by heightening the fears of the Russian speakers in Ukraine’s south and the east, Putin will likely get what he wants. His strategic goal is not to cut off Crimea, as recent events might suggest, but to bring about a constitutional crisis that will remake Ukraine into a confederate state with a very weak center, the eastern part of which will be more integrated with Russia and the western part closer to Poland and the EU. Realizing that he has lost Kiev, in short, Putin seems to want to move Ukraine’s center of power elsewhere.
The worst part of all this is that Putin knows that he can likely get away with it. “What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was a top U.S. intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war, in a recent interview with The New York Times. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”
But maybe the rest of us should. The Putin of 2014 is not the Putin of 2004, or even the Putin of 2008. He is no longer simply the ruthless operator who is interested in power and money, the one who dreams of getting Russia back on the global stage. He is interested in ideas. He presents his advisers with the writings of Ivan Ilyn, the Russian philosopher and ideologue of the Russian All-Military Union. He personally directs the writing of history textbooks. In the last few years, and particularly after the explosion of protests in Moscow in the winter of 2011–12, Putin has come to view himself as a last bastion of order and traditional values. He is convinced that liberalism is contagious and that Western mores and institutions present a real danger to Russian society and the Russian state. He surely dreams of the pre-1914 days, when Russia was autocratic but accepted, revolutions were not tolerated, and Russia could be part of Europe while preserving its distinctive culture and traditions.