While there has been a huge amount of conjecture on what motivated Putin to invade Crimea and where his expansionist ambitions will take Russia, precious little evidence to support such conjecture is offered. Was this a strategic action planned long in advance, or was it an opportunistic, tactical decision capitalizing on the turmoil of the Maidan revolution? Is it an invasion that for historical reasons is limited to Crimea, as suggested by Putin, or is it a precursor of an invasion of mainland Ukraine (also ominously suggested by Putin). It’s safe to say the West is completely at a loss in trying to figure out Putin’s game plan.
However, what we do know about Putin is that the man is a student of history. While Western leaders may have very different interpretation of some historical events e.g., the collapse of the Soviet Union, other events provide a common ground of understanding. It is here where we can discover the calculus for his actions. As much as Putin wishes to re-create the power and the glory of Russia’s past, he has every intention of avoiding the disasters that brought the country to its knees.
Some would argue this would make Putin fearful of economic sanctions. That’s missing the point. Sanction losses have already been baked into the territorial decisions. However severe they might become (so far they’re inconsequential), they will be temporary. The world needs Russia’s energy. The economy will bounce back.
Nor is Putin concerned whether the Russian army will be successful in defeating any conventional military opposition in Ukraine. The fraudulent Yanukovych regime managed to do this for him by reducing the Ukrainian Army’s fighting capability to 6000 troops. With between 40,000 to 80,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops positioned on Ukraine’s border, the country would be overrun within a week.
But Ukraine isn’t a Georgia or Chechnya. It’s a country of 46 million with a land mass that is the second largest in Europe. Putin’s main worry is not whether the Russian army is successful in invading Ukraine — it’s whether it can hold it.
The bitter experience in Afghanistan is still freshly etched in Russian leadership of how easy it was to invade the country and how difficult it was to hold it. The hostile locals exacted a heavy price on the invaders . Over the course of the 10 year war, Russia, then the Soviet Union, suffered about 15,000 military deaths and over 50,000 soldiers who were maimed or injured. The total cost of the war was over 80 billion dollars. The economic consequences were instrumental in the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In spite of these sacrifices, it became apparent to Russia then, as it is for America in Afghanistan today, that victory was impossible.
The central question to which Putin needs an answer is: Will the local population be welcoming or hostile to a Russian invasion?
In the case of Crimea the answer was simple. With approximately 60% of Crimea being Russian ethnics who in large part regard themselves as Russian citizens, the Russian invading force would be guaranteed a welcoming public. To ensure that this would happen, Russian thugs and criminal elements in Crimea were organized into local militias that would physically threaten any dissident voices from the Tatar or Ukrainian ethnic minorities. Secondly, communication with the outside world was restricted to Russian propaganda informing the locals that the Kiev revolutionary government was controlled by fascists who were intent on subjugating Russian ethnics.
The situation in Ukraine and specifically in eastern Ukraine, however, is far more complicated . A Russian military invasion there has a much greater chance of following the Afghanistan script than what happened in Crimea.
That assessment is based on Ukrainian public opinion polls which strongly suggest that regardless of whether Ukrainians are from predominantly Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country, a large majority in both the east and west of the country support an independent Ukraine, not annexation to Russia. Polls conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KMIS) show that support for Ukrainian independence steadily increased from below 60% in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, to over 80% today.
A more recent poll conducted by the Razumkov Centre from December 2013 (after the Maidan protests began), showed that 95% of all respondents (including 88% in the South) perceived Ukraine as their motherland, and 85% considered themselves patriots of Ukraine. When asked specifically whether they supported the separation of their region (Western, Central, South-Eastern) from Ukraine and uniting with Russia, the poll found about 80% were opposed to this idea That hardly seems like data showing the country so divided it is on the verge of civil war, as Russian propagandists would have you believe.
That’s not to say there aren’t important ethnic/linguistic differences in Ukraine. In Western and Central Ukraine a majority speak Ukrainian. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine a majority speak Russian. But then, things quickly get complicated. Many ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian. Some speak both Russian and Ukrainian. Some ethnic Russians speak Ukrainian. Some speak Russian at home and Ukrainian at work, or vice versa.
Over the years there has been a great deal of intermarriage and socio-cultural integration between Ukrainian ethnics and Russian ethnics. While Ukrainian has the constitutional sanction as the official language of the country, the Russian language is protected by that same Constitution. On a practical level, both languages have equal standing in the country. In business, Russian is often the preferred language. Somehow over time the two languages have managed to find a peaceful coexistence with each other.
So in spite of the fact that only about 17% of the population consists of Russian ethnics, the number of Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian at home or at work is much higher (ranging from 29% to 46%). These linguistic/ethnic differences were often exploited by political parties during elections.
It is therefore not at all surprising that when looking at color-coded election maps of Ukraine one sees a country that is politically divided — just as color-coded maps of Canadian and American elections also show the countries are politically divided. Regrettably, these popular vote distributions have too often been used in Western media accounts to demonstrate a country so divided, secession or a highly decentralized central government (a splintering “federalization” in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) are the only ways to prevent civil strife.
While this “color-coded” division very much plays into the Russian propaganda motif it is, as the above polls attest, simply the wrong conclusion. The reality is that to their credit, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking citizens have been able to overcome potential divisions related to language differences and achieve a sense of Ukrainian nationhood that rises above linguistic differences.
Nevertheless, Putin and his Russian propaganda machine have decided to take these ethnic/linguistic differences one Orwellian step further. Without any evidence that could be verified by independent journalists, Putin has claimed that the Maidan revolution was taken over by fascists and nationalist Ukrainian extremists whose intention was to rob ethnic Russians of their constitutional rights — which was exactly what he did to the Tatar and ethnic Ukrainian minorities in Crimea. The only surprise was a bogus referendum showing 97% in favor of annexation to Russia and not 100%.
These extremist fabrications were spread by Russian government agitators in eastern and southern cities with high ethnic Russian concentrations like Donetsk and Kharkiv. The resulting fear and anger among ethnic Russians has produced demonstrations that have led to violence and death, exactly the pretext Russia was looking for to justify military intervention in these regions to protect the ethnic Russians .
While language issues can be easily manipulated by politicians and propaganda to inflame nationalistic or secessionary fervor, Ukrainians in both the east and the west are deeply troubled by something that can’t be easily manipulated — the country’s lack of economic growth since it became independent in 1991. Over this span of time, Ukraine’s per capita GDP has increased by only 40%, while Poland, a neighbouring country starting at a similar GDP level, has increased its per capita GDP by almost 400%.
The country’s economic quagmire has led some to suggest that a proxy for the deep divisions within Ukraine is the desire of eastern Ukraine to join the Russian Customs Union while those in western Ukraine to favor the EU. A KMIS poll from February of 2014 shows that given the choice in a national referendum, a large majority in eastern Ukraine would favor the customs union while a large majority in western Ukraine would favor the EU.
Forcing Ukrainians to choose between EU and Russia, however, is a misleading polling strategy. For many Ukrainians trading with Russia and with the EU is not an either/or choice. To flourish economically it needs both.
This sentiment is confirmed in a recent poll by the market research company GfK that found 56% in eastern Ukraine who wanted the country to align itself equally with Russia and the West. In western Ukraine the figure was 44% and 52% across the country.
Opinions such as these are anathema to Putin. Russia has managed to maintain Ukraine as a colonial state for several hundred years. If the Maidan revolution gives it the freedom to develop economic ties with Europe and the rest of the world, it’s game over for this relationship. That perhaps more than anything strikes fear in Putin’s imperial plans.
Which brings us back to the question that gnaws at Putin –What price for a military invasion and occupation of Ukraine mainland?
The invasion of Crimea has stirred a patriotic nerve among many Ukrainians who previously would not have even imagined they would volunteer to fight to keep their country free. Little did the Russian-trained secret service snipers at Maidan appreciate the events they would set in motion when they started killing the young protesters. With Ukrainians willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom, there is a very good chance of an insurgency rising to battle the Russian invaders. This would create a substantial drain potentially for many years on the Russian treasury which itself would be greatly humbled in its largesse by Western economic sanctions.
Russian public opinion on invading Ukraine is conflicted. A recent rally in Moscow protesting the military action against Ukraine drew 50,000 participants. Polls show there is no appetite among the Russian people to start a war with Ukraine — 73% of Russians in a VCIOM poll believe Russia should not interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine.
Yet for many, stealing Crimea somehow is not perceived as an internal matter but merely correcting a historical mistake committed in 1954 by Khrushchev. Putin’s popularity in correcting this mistake is riding at an all time high. According to the Russian polling company Levada it’s at 80%, although I’m not sure what this enthusiasm really means when polling a dictator in a totalitarian state. But how long would this popularity last once Russians started feeling economic pain from the sanctions and a drawn out insurgency?
In what demonstrates the utter unreliability of the polling exercise in Russia, the same firm in its latest survey finds that 75% of Russians would support its government’s war against Ukraine and 77% think it’s all Ukraine’s fault. So what happened to the 73% from the VCIOM poll two months ago who said Russia shouldn’t interfere in Ukrainian affairs?
It’s clear that much of the Russian public has been completely blinded by a massive government propaganda campaign in which most independent Russian news media outlets have been shuttered. Whatever democratic progress Russia may have made since the fall of the Soviet dictatorship has simply vanished within weeks.
While the Obama administration has been publicly coy about providing military aid to Ukraine so as not to escalate tensions, there is little doubt that if it happened, an insurgency would be fed by weaponry from the West to conduct its defensive military operations. No one need remind Putin what happened in Afghanistan when the mujahedin acquired Stinger missiles from the US. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
For all his pompous theatrics as the new czar of Russia, attempting to portray Putin’s actions as those of a man out of touch with reality is borne more out of frustration than fact. His sense of reality may not be what Chancellor Merkel (Putin is in “another world”) or President Obama agree with, but it needs to be addressed. They need to figure out what part of that reality is rhetorical BS, what could be negotiated, and what crosses that proverbial line in the sand.
On the latter point, former President Jimmy Carter in a recent interview offered President Obama some unsolicited but sage advice on how to deal with Putin’s aggressive behavior. Carter was confronted with a very similar situation when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan. To prevent any further military incursions, Carter “sent Brezhnev a direct message that if you go any further, we will take military action and would not exclude any weapons that we have.” That’s a line in the sand you could trip over.
Putin is acutely aware of the nationalistic sentiments in eastern and southern Ukraine noted earlier. He knows it won’t be a Crimea cakewalk. He knows what happened in Afghanistan. A military invasion of Ukrainian mainland, while an excellent threat to extract negotiation advantages diplomatically, is simply not an acceptable long-term strategy for Russia.
Unless events in Ukraine go terribly wrong, it is a mistake Putin will not be tempted to make.