Vladimir Putin’s newest display of talent is his excelling in theatrics. He recently elected to play Macbeth or Richard III. Having nothing left to offer Russia as the indices of immiseration pile up, Putin’s recourse to imperial theatrics has dramatically accelerated. But ultimately this performance, like those of his predecessors on stage and in reality, ends with the political or physical death of the tyrant and a new king or in Russia’s case, tsar.
Specifically, we refer to the most recent example of Russia’s “passportization” strategy. On the heels of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election as president of Ukraine, Putin has enacted a new decree providing Russian passports to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. (A few days later, he said he is considering giving Russian passports to all Ukrainians.) This time-tested Putin strategy was connected to the instigation of hostilities in Georgia in 2008. Ostensibly solicitous about the humanitarian crisis in these provinces that his arms and soldiers have inflicted, Putin has now taken a major step toward including these provinces as part of Russia, like he did with Crimea.
Second, as many have pointed out, this decree creates the legal basis for new invasions of Ukrainian territory allegedly to protect Russian citizens, an option we saw in Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and Moldova and one that is actually enshrined in Russian law. Here Putin stands in a long line of Russian autocrats, including Stalin, who used this pretext to annex what is now western Ukraine in 1939 from Poland. And this was Hitler’s argument too, a comparison that undoubtedly enrages Moscow as an example of lese-majeste since it cannot come to terms with its own history.
Third, this is a warning that despite five years of failure the dreams of the Russian World (Russkii Mir) and Novorossiia have yet to be buried for good. Indeed, for the last 6-12 months, Moscow has attempted to expand its territory and population further by making all kinds of economically if not militarily coercive moves against Belarus. Both Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev who played nefarious roles in the 2013-14 Russo-Ukrainian crises have now been moved to work on Belarus. We should expect consistent and expanding pressures upon Minsk in the immediate future.
Fourth, although this decree constitutes a legal-political basis for another invasion, it also implicitly recognizes that if Putin is to stay in power he has no choice other than to incorporate these territories into the Russian Federation and keep proclaiming that Russia faces constant threats. If large-scale conventional war is no longer a viable option because the consequences are too unpredictable and potentially protracted, then this is the best Putin can hope for. Like those aforementioned Shakespearean monarchs, Putin is “in blood so steeped that sin shall pluck on Sin” or that it would be as tiresome to go “o’er as to go back.” He cannot renounce the occupied territories and Crimea and leave them to Ukraine as he would lose his job and the support of his entire entourage who would have been left to suffer the consequences of an outraged public that has had to suffer immeasurably for their fantasies of wealth and power.
For Putin, there is no negotiated solution available and we and Zelenskiy should realize that. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has again voiced the idea that the West should forget about Crimea’s reversion to Ukraine. Like these ill-fated monarchs, Putin has no choice but to apply pressure and either threaten or launch a new war. This calculation should make Ukraine and NATO’s (not just Washington’s) policy decisions easier. While Ukraine must reform and strengthen its overall economic, political, and military capabilities, the West must not only maintain but increase its support, not least militarily. This does not mean merely reforming the defense establishment and providing weapons, but also supporting efforts to sustain Ukraine’s presence in the Sea of Azov (including the Kerch Strait).
Ukraine and NATO should enter into a new Lend-Lease deal giving bases there to NATO in return for the transfer of usable but surplus naval and other capabilities that Ukraine’s armed forces can use effectively. Certainly this response to Putin’s new test of Zelenskiy to force him to address Moscow on its terms would demonstrate Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington’s resolve. Moscow will not attack NATO ships in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov for all its bellicosity. Besides those responses, we should further ratchet up sanctions on Russia to impose more costs on Putin and his regime. Existing sanctions have already forced a slowdown in defense spending and generated some unrest due to worsening economic conditions. Striking at Putin’s capacity to wage war and his pretensions to annex more territory and pose as a Tsarist-like gatherer of Russian lands must be stopped before it leads to a larger and more disastrous war for Russia and Europe. But even so, as Macbeth and Richard’s histories indicate, Putin’s enemies are steadily bringing Birnam Wood to Dunsinane or Bosworth Field and that Russia cannot continue to bear the burdens of his theatrics.
Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.