Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters A Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, March 1, 2014.

Putin's Play

What Happens After Russia Intervenes in Ukraine

A week ago, I wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to lose “all his geopolitical marbles” to try to “break off bits of Ukraine,” such as Crimea. If this weekend’s events are any indication, he has. Russian troops have invaded Crimea, and Putin has declared his right to keep them “on the territory of Ukraine until social-political conditions in that country normalize.” In other words, Putin claimed that he can send Russian armed forces ­anywhere in the country, not just Crimea, and that he may leave them there until his definition of normalization is met -- which might be never.

The international community, caught off guard by Putin’s move, must now try to grapple with why he did what he did, and with what comes next. The question of why he invaded Crimea is complicated. Just before the move, experts had been skeptical about his resolve. By marching into Ukraine, the thinking went, Putin would be initiating a new Cold War with the West, precisely at a time when Russia (and its stagnant economy) needs good ties with the world. And annexing Ukraine’s southeast, in particular, would mean taking ownership of an industrial rust belt and hundreds of loss-producing coal mines. Even more, it would invite Crimean Tatar resistance and could lead to the subsequent radicalization of some within that community. Finally, unilateral annexation of Russian-inhabited territories in Crimea could provoke similar moves against Russia. China, for example, might be interested in those sections of the Russian Far East that have large Chinese migrant populations.

In other words, destroying or dismembering Ukraine serves no country’s interests, least of all Russia’s. After all, it is in Russia’s interests to have a stable, prosperous, and friendly Ukraine on its borders. The only thing the move could serve is the megalomaniacal Putin. Like other empires that collapsed at the peak of their power, today’s Russia is still coming to grips with the humiliation of losing its imperial holdings and superpower status in 1991. Putin is a charismatic strongman who has systematically dismantled Russia’s democratic institutions while legitimizing his rule through neo-imperialist promises to reclaim Russia’s place in the sun by “reintegrating” non-Russian states. He has consistently questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign state, disputed Ukrainians’ separate identity from Russia, and claimed that pro-Western Ukrainian democrats are really fascists in the pay of Western imperialists. And now he has turned his words into action, hoping to enhance his legitimacy and teach the unruly Ukrainians a lesson.

For Ukrainians, the question of what comes next mainly centers on whether Putin’s aggression will be confined to Crimea. Soon after he arrogated the right to deploy armed forces anywhere in Ukraine, there were reports that Russian troops were out in force in Zaporizhzhya province, just to the northeast of Crimea, and Kharkiv province, on Ukraine’s northeast border with Russia. Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mykolaiv -- eastern cities in which pro-Russian activists have seized government buildings, hoisted the Russian flag, and called for Russian assistance -- could well be next. If Putin heeds their calls and moves into those regions, he might not stop until Kiev. Ukraine has already placed its military on call and Ukrainian policymakers have called for a mass mobilization, but it is unclear whether they could stop a determined Russian assault. To be sure, it may seem overly alarmist to speak of the possibility of an attack on Kiev (and, one hopes, it is). But, given Putin’s past statements and the leeway he has afforded himself now, Ukrainians cannot ignore what could be a direct threat to their state’s survival.

The other puzzle is what the West will do next. U.S. President Barack Obama warned Putin that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” but failed to specify just what that might entail. Europeans have enjoined Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, but have not made specific plans for enforcing it. And the UN Security Council is holding an emergency session to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Given Russia’s veto, however, the body will probably be unable to respond to the crisis in any meaningful way.

Although getting involved in a Russo-Ukrainian war cannot be appealing to the West, Western leaders must appreciate the fact that Putin has fundamentally challenged the international order. At the very least, the West should convey to Russia that it will suspend business as usual until Russian troops exit Ukraine. In addition, the West can make symbolically important gestures to support Ukraine. Obama might say that the United States is considering sending a small contingent of U.S. troops to protect the Kiev airport. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, like his European counterparts, could board a flight to the Ukrainian capital and express solidarity with Ukraine. European policymakers could call for Ukraine to begin discussions over accession to NATO. And both the United States and the EU could vow to impose severe travel and economic sanctions on Russian officials responsible for the aggression.

Instead, the West has not done much more than express vague criticism. And so Ukraine is alone. If it tries to fight Russia’s superior armed forces to retain Crimea and its southeast, it will be defeated. Worse, armed conflict with Russia could spark a bloody civil war nationwide, one that could easily result in atrocities. Given the thuggish recent displays of some Putin supporters in Ukraine’s southeast -- in Kharkiv, they beat up one of Ukraine’s best poets, Serhii Zhadan -- it is easy to imagine a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to rid Russian-occupied territories of all pro-Western Ukrainians.

If Russian troops advance into Ukraine proper, Kiev’s only course of action may be to state, unilaterally, that Crimea and the southeast are no longer parts of Ukraine and then deploy its army to the borders of those eastern provinces that are solidly pro-Ukrainian. In this kind of worst-case scenario, a desperate Ukraine might just succeed in holding the line or, if the road to Kiev is clear, the West might finally intervene forcefully to protect the international order. One must hope that Putin appreciates that an attempted Anschluss would result in a bloody war, the costs of which would be inordinately high. He was “mad” to try to annex any part of Ukraine; he’d have to be madder still to march on Kiev; and he’d have to be positively insane to send his tanks all the way to Ukraine’s eastern border with Poland and thereby threaten NATO. Unfortunately, by invading Crimea, Putin can no longer be interpreted in exclusively rational terms.

Putin’s geostrategically irrational muscle-flexing might enhance his legitimacy at home and stabilize the system he built for a while. But, over time, it will be Putinism’s undoing. Imperialist behavior will make Russia a rogue state and Putin persona non grata. Boris Nemtsov, a liberal Russian politician, described the consequences of Putin’s folly well on a Facebook post. “This bloody madness,” he wrote, “will have high costs for Russia and Ukraine: once again young boys from both sides will die, mothers and wives will weep, and children will become orphans. Billions, tens of billions of rubles will be taken from senior citizens and children and thrown at war, and afterwards still greater resources will be needed to sustain the criminal regime of the Crimea.” But that, Nemtsov continued, is just what Putin desires. “He cannot hold on to power any other way. The vampire needs war. He needs the people’s blood.”

Today, the international community, the European Union, and the United States face the greatest threat to world peace since the Cold War. After all, if Putin can get away with Ukraine, why would he stop there? If the West will not respond forcefully to such imperialism in a country as large as Ukraine, it is unlikely that it would be ready to stop him on behalf of tiny Estonia and Latvia. The world should have learned from World War II that stopping aggression before it spreads is the best way to prevent geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophes. The West cannot close its eyes to fascistoid imperialism. It must express its full support of Ukraine and tell Putin, in no uncertain terms, that only an immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops can forestall Russia’s transformation into a rogue state. 

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