Five Ways the Kremlin Has Weakened Itself at Home and Abroad
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in Moscow and the West are explaining and justifying his invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in various ways and celebrating the divisions and weaknesses of the West that it has highlighted, but in every case, they are treating it as a geopolitical victory for the Kremlin. They could not be more wrong.
There are five reasons for what may seem to many a counter-intuitive conclusion, each of which must be kept in mind in the face of the bombast coming out of Moscow and the apologetics in some Western capitals for this latest example of Russian bad behavior. [They also affect] the ensuing arguments for not taking serious actions that would inflict a real punishment on Putin — even and often because none contemplated could immediately reverse what he has done.
First, by invading Ukraine, Putin has guaranteed the rise of a far more anti-Russian state there than anyone could have imagined only a few weeks ago and the appearance of other anti-Russian states around Russia’s perimeter. A few may be intimidated by Putin for a time and all would prefer to live in a more cooperative relationship with Russia, but Putin has made that impossible: in his world, Russia’s neighbors must be its clients and subordinates not free independent countries.
Indeed, the Kremlin leader has done two things that he said he wanted to avoid: he has radicalized Ukrainian nationalism, which from now on will be far more anti-Russian than it was in the past. Andhe has created the kind of cordon sanitaire of anti-Russian countries that he and his foreign policy minions routinely rail against. Unless the West is totally supine and tries to force these countries to cooperate with Moscow, he will “achieve” something that is a Pyrrhic victory at most.
Second, by demonstrating that for him, ethnicity is more important than citizenship, Putin has created problems in the non-Russian countries. He has unintentionally invited nationalists in some of these countries to look askance at ethnic Russians there, the overwhelming majority of whom are loyal to the governments of the countries on whose territories they live. Putin may be pleased to have tensions between ethnic Russians and non-Russians increase if what he wants to do is to engage in more aggression. But the practical consequence of his actions will be further Russian flight and the increasing ethnic homogenization of the countries of the region. That will reduce Moscow’s “soft power” influence.
In doing this, Putin appears to have forgotten, if indeed he ever knew, that one of the forces that tore apart the USSR was the increasingly large share that members of non-Russian nationalities formed in the union republics. Instead of learning from that and trying to retain and integrate people who may be predisposed to have a more positive view of Moscow, Putin is doing exactly the opposite.
Third, Putin is also sending a message to the citizens of his own country that ethnicity is more important than citizenship. On the one hand, that message completely undercuts his earlier efforts to promote a non-ethnic civic nationality (“rossiisky” rather than “russky”) and ensures that the non-Russians who now form at least a quarter of the population – and not the fifth that Putin and his people claim – will feel like second-class citizens or worse. Many of them already feel that way; Putin has ensured that the rest will follow.
And on the other hand, Putin’s ethnicity over citizenship message is already affecting the non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation. The outflow of ethnic Russians is likely to continue and even accelerate with many of these republics becoming increasingly homogeneous and thus ungovernable except by the application of force. The non-Russians in an increasing number of them are likely to become ever more responsible to those who argue that they and their territories have no future in the Russian Federation. To the extent they do so, historians may ultimately record that Putin was not “the in-gatherer of the Russian lands” he so desperately wants to be known as but rather a second Gorbachev who presided over the next round of the devolution of the Russian imperial state.
Fourth, Putin’s approach in Crimea is already having echoes not only in these non-Russian places but in ethnic Russian areas of the Russian Federation as well. And these could prove to be an even greater challenge to his rule. Many Russians do not define Russia and Russian as the Kremlin leader does: they look to different and more democratic traditions. Some already are asking what must be a troubling question for the Kremlin: how come Putin is concerned about the ethnic autonomy of Russians in Crimea in neighboring Ukraine but not about the ethnic autonomy of Russians in Siberia or Novogorod or Ingermanland [Ingria]? To ask those questions is in a certain sense to answer them, and those answers call into question a Moscow-centric state of the kind to which Putin is so committed.
And fifth, Putin’s invasion of Crimea is forcing the West to revise its opinions of the Russian leader and of Russia as well. This process is not proceeding quickly or without backtracking. As several people in England told this writer last week, there are quite a few Chamberlains and Hoares and Halifaxes; there are no Churchills. But the failures of the former opened the way to the rise of the latter, although many will object that this is the wrong analogy.
To date, much of the debate in Western capitals, to the extent that it doesn’t treat Crimea as a small place far away about which we know nothing, has taken the form of accepting a peculiarly Russian version of history of Crimea or suggesting, as is always the case, that there are so many issues where we are cooperating with Moscow that we mustn’t let Ukraine get in the way. But as Russian aggressiveness and arrogance have continued, more people are coming to see that something must be done.
That has thrown the debate back to one between those who are pressing for tough measures and those who say that the tough measures wouldn’t be enough or might restart “a new cold war.” It is almost certain that if Putin doesn’t care about his relations with the West or the future of his country – and there is growing evidence to support both propositions – there is very little that the West can do to force him to retreat from his latest act of aggression. But that is not an excuse to do nothing, nor are complaints that any critical action will restart “a new cold war.” Such complaints, it should be noted, are always made by those who don’t want the West to do anything regardless of what Moscow does.
Government officials at least in the United States are routinely told that their job is to give decision makers the broadest range of choices possible rather than leaving such leaders with the option of doing nothing or blowing up the world. Among the literally hundreds of steps that might be taken and taken easily are the following: expanding Magnitsky lists, freezing assets, cancelling visas, expelling Russian diplomats, reducing the size of Western embassies in Moscow while increasing them in Ukraine and elsewhere, trips by foreign leaders to the region which go to Kyiv and Tbilisi but not to Moscow, dropping all talk of a G8 and going back to a G7, and ensuring that any Russian act of aggression be labeled as such on government maps, just as the US did with regard to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, until they recovered their de facto independence in 1991. Some of these ideas are already on the table; all of them and more need to be.
A half-century ago, the great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that “happy is that country in which the despicable will at least be despised.” A corollary is that countries who are outraged by a violation of law and morality by others must not keep quiet. They have a duty to themselves and to the victims of aggression to speak out. Such statements and actions may not lead to the quick reversal that their authors very much want, but they set the stage for such a reversal, especially when a leader like Putin is taking steps that undermine everything he has said he favors and that make it likely that he and the country he rules are going to find themselves in a far worse position in the future than they did before invading Ukraine.
Paul Goble is a career scholar, analyst and author on the ethnic history and politics of the former Soviet Union. He served in the State Department, the CIA and at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He published this essay on his blog, Windows on Eurasia.