A popular argument holds that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a big mistake.
Because of Putin’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, Ukraine is more likely to look west and prosper. Russia will be increasingly isolated and grow poorer. And Moscow will be stuck with responsibility for Crimea.
This is a comforting theory, which can easily become an excuse for avoiding hard decisions: If Putin is losing, why should we go to all the trouble and financial pain of, say, rallying the West to impose sanctions that bite?
Unfortunately, it misunderstands what is important to Putin.
It is true that Russians would be better off in the long run if Ukraine – and, for that matter, Russia – were to integrate economically with Europe. Russians would be better off if the Kremlin stopped trying to control its neighbors and accepted, as the West has earnestly explained for the past quarter-century, that geopolitics is no longer a zero-sum game.
But the long-term welfare of the Russian people is not Putin’s primary concern. Nor is recovering Russia’s greatness or restoring the Soviet empire, though he talks about those a lot and no doubt regards them as desirable.
Putin’s first goals are to stay in power, preserve access to Russia’s riches for himself and his inner circle and crush any democratic sprouts in Russia that might eventually force a reckoning for his misdeeds. He is an accidental leader, a former KGB agent whom Boris Yeltsin anointed as his protector in the feeble twilight of his presidency. Now, like a Mafia boss, he cannot contemplate retirement; it is rule or be ruled.
How does the scorecard look from that perspective?
We can’t know how things will end up. But consider one plausible scenario:
Crimea becomes a de facto protectorate of Russia. Western leaders, grateful that Putin has not – for now – extended his incursion further, deplore this fait accompli but do little to reverse it. Some officials are denied visas to the United States, a few meetings are canceled. In six months or a year, these sanctions are forgotten and the West welcomes Putin back to business as usual.
In the meantime, from his perspective, Putin will have accomplished quite a lot. He will have reminded NATO that extending security guarantees to former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations is not a game; the West might actually have to fight for Georgia or Moldova if it makes such a promise. The West does not want to fight Russia, and it would, after making noises about partnerships, be reluctant to expand.
He would have dismembered a third former Soviet republic (after Moldova and Georgia), all of which would now be partially controlled from Moscow. That would deliver a useful warning to nearby countries that are smaller and weaker than Ukraine, such as Armenia and Belarus.
He will have positioned himself to interfere further in Ukraine’s affairs. Ukrainians will have to keep this in mind: If the formula worked in Crimea, it may work again in the industrial, Russian-speaking east. If Putin can get away with an actual invasion, how likely is it that he can be deterred from more covert, but no less effective, manipulations of Ukraine’s upcoming elections?
At home, wielding the media that he has subjugated into tools of state propaganda, Putin will have reinforced the message that anyone who speaks out for democracy is a tool of the CIA, or a fascist Nazi agitator, or both.
To think that Crimea would be a burden assumes that Putin cares about the standard of living there. Ask the people of Abkhazia (a piece of Georgia that he oversees) or Transnistria (Moldova’s exclave) about that.
This scenario isn’t inevitable. On the one hand, Putin might go further, sooner, seeking to destabilize the new government in Ukraine by actively promoting “spontaneous” rebellions in the east.
On the other hand, it’s possible that his actions in Ukraine will hasten the day that Russians find his rule unsupportable at home. His actions have certainly pushed Ukrainians toward Europe – and led Europe to embrace Ukraine with more aid than it was willing to extend only weeks ago.
It’s also possible that the United States will decide to lead its allies to impose a serious cost on Putin for his occupation of Crimea. That would be hard to do, though, and it certainly won’t happen if we convince ourselves that we can sit back and wait for Putin to outfox himself.
Putin’s move is a blunder, in other words, only if the West helps make it so.