Comments on the Russian annexation of Crimea
March 27, 2014
Russia annexes Crimea using a hastily concocted referendum as a pretext. What are we – the United States, Europe, the West – to do? Nothing. We should do nothing. We should recognize this annexation for what it is – an outburst caused by internal weakness of Putin’s regime and an attempt to salvage something from a quickly deteriorating situation – and keep firmly in mind that our best hope for dealing with Russia is, and always has been, internal political reforms, which will not come if we turn hostile. If we pursue the coercive policies that currently dominate the agenda and succeed in isolating Putin’s Russia internationally (which, incidentally, is by no means assured), we shall play into his hands: the West will become the scape-goat for all subsequent economic trouble, with this behavior constituting prima facie evidence of hostility and intent to deprive Russia and its people from their rightful place under the sun. It will be used as justification to clamp down on pro-Western elements, and will stifle the chances for political reforms. We will end up pushing Russia over the top and creating another adversary for decades to come.
Santayana famously said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our policy-makers and pundits seems to have taken that to heart, and have produced a stream of analysis and recommendations firmly rooted in the “lessons of history.” But history can be as much a prison as a guide, and if we allow ourselves to be shackled by its purported “lessons,” we will miss the opportunities for progress.
Much of current rhetoric in the West is dominated by 19th and 20th century analogies. We are told that Putin is behaving like Hitler did in the Sudetenland in 1938 when he used the supposed plight of ethnic Germans as a pretext to dismember Czechoslovakia and gobble up the rest of the country shortly after. We are told that Putin is like the Russian tsars of old, bent on conquest or at the very least fixated on ensuring unimpeded access to the Black Sea. We are told that Putin is like the communists, suspicious of the West and deeply paranoid about being encircled by hostile powers, so he is rehashing their strategy, creating a protective belt of pro-Russian states (or, failing that, enclaves) as a buffer. We are told, by the former special assistant to the President and ambassador to Russia, that “similar to the last century, the ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy has returned to Europe.” We are told that we have ourselves to blame for this, much like England and France have themselves to blame in 1938: we failed to act assertively when Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008, Putin interpreted this as weakness, and was emboldened to pursue even more aggressive designs. We are told, by our own Secretary of State, that even if we do not understand the reasoning behind it, the “incredible act of aggression” in Crimea is Putin behaving “in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Whether we should be casting this particular stone – with Iraq in our own not-so-distant past – or not, the fact remains that our response to Putin is very much shaped by the analogies we choose to invoke.
The problem with analogies, of course, is that they are not, or at least should not be, a substitute for analysis. The danger is that we accept the implicit premise of these analogy-based arguments – that they correctly describe Putin’s goals and strategy – and then fashion our response as the analogy suggests: act assertively to deter future aggression, a sort of neo-containment focused on bolstering the states that border Russia, particularly those with significant Russian ethnic minorities, isolating Russia internationally, and limiting our cooperation to areas – like Syria and Iran – where there might be common interest despite our differences. Our mistake, the argument goes, was to engage Russia (the Obama “reset” is frequently mentioned as the culprit) and in effect allow Putin to run wild. But these conclusions are only as good as the premises on which they are based, and these are a lot flimsier than the bold analogies suggest.
I am the first to admit the obvious: none of us really know what Putin thinks or intends to do. We do, however, have enough evidence to indict all of the above analogies and conclusively dismiss most of them.
Let me start with the obvious: the flimsy pretext of a Crimean referendum that nobody outside Russia could have been expected to recognize as legitimate. References to the Sudetenland and Munich notwithstanding, the Germans were amateurs at this: the Russians had been running the protection racket for centuries before Hitler. Now it is Russian-speakers (not even ethnic Russians!) who need protection, but before that there were the Slavs (against the Teutons and Hungarians). When there were no Slavs in opportune danger, there were the Christians (against the Turks). When communism made that justification a bit far-fetched, there were fellow anti-capitalist revolutionaries, who were conveniently not limited to Eastern Europe or the reaches of Christianity. In other words, there is much to the notion that Putin’s annexation of the Crimea to “protect” its Russian-speaking population from the “criminals in Kiev” is merely a fig-leaf for aggressive expansionist foreign policy.
Let us set aside the question of whether the referendum was legitimate. On one hand, it was clearly against the Ukrainian constitution, it was conducted with unseemly haste, in the presence of Russian (or Russian-backed) soldiers, and the choices on the ballot did not really allow voters to remain firmly in Ukraine. On the other hand, I very much doubt that the outcome would have been different if the referendum was held later in the year. Why? Because the Russians in Crimea had to choose between a non-democratic Russian government, and an unfriendly pro-Western and anti-Russian government in Kiev that had neither come to power by democratic means nor evinced intent to be tolerant of Russians. It would take years of good governance to assure them that it is better for them to remain part of Ukraine. A referendum is always a snapshot of current fears and desires, as any Western government that has called for snap elections to exploit a temporary spike or trough in support knows. In other words, legitimate or not, the referendum likely expressed genuine desire of the majority of the population in Crimea to detach themselves from Ukraine at the time it was held.
Now, it is exceedingly unlikely that Kiev would have trampled on the rights of Russian-speakers in Crimea, the new government’s short-sighted commitment to the Ukrainian language aside. It is improbable that Kiev would have repressed them or given them less rights than what they will now have in Russia. But none of that matters. The protectionist racket is never about those who are said to need protection, it is a pretext that is designed to be served to other audiences, international and domestic, and the choice of pretext often reveals much about the external and internal configuration of interests that is driving the actual policy. How a state chooses to motivate its actions can tell us a lot about the constraints it is working under: what foreign powers it needs to reassure or appease, what domestic groups it needs to involve or marginalize.
So why hold a referendum in the Crimea? Putin cannot have reasonably expected that it could convince a skeptical impartial observer, let alone a hostile and prejudiced West. It could be used by states who have no wish to get involved in a spat with Russia as an excuse to stay on the sidelines, but even this would not be very helpful since those that would matter most, like China or India, would not like the precedent such a referendum might set. It is, therefore, not a foreign audience that the referendum is seeking to persuade. It is, instead, aimed almost exclusively for domestic consumption.
To understand why Putin needs to legitimize the Crimean annexation on the terms that he did, we need look no further than the domestic plight of his regime. When the Cold War ended, much was promised, implicitly or explicitly, to the people of the former Eastern bloc. The decrepit communist rule was gone, and the new governments were to usher in an era of political liberalism, liberty, and economic prosperity. The Russians were no exception to this: their economy was to be integrated in the world and they were to play a cooperative part in dealing with global problems. Some countries, like Poland and Hungary, saw most of these promises fulfilled, and others, like Bulgaria, saw some hopes fulfilled but others frustrated. Russia, however, saw little of that wonderful future. Ensnared by a botched privatization that replaced communism with bandit capitalism, the economy faltered and eventually went into depression. Deprived of the military muscle of the Soviet Union, Russia not only ceased to be a threat to the West, it ceased to count for much in world affairs. In the United States policymakers and pundits bewailed the rising threat of China, a country much more deeply enmeshed with the West economically and much farther behind militarily than Russia, implicitly revealing their assessment of the hierarchy of world power. Russia had sunk to the status of a second-rate power, defeated by the West without being coopted.
Nascent liberal politics is scant consolation for this sort of economic and military collapse. Without the institutions to support a transition to a functioning market economy that could have delivered prosperity, Russia transitioned into a kleptocracy where the government or government-linked cronies provide most of the means to such prosperity. The result, as depressingly inevitable as in Bulgaria, was that a politically-connected minority that is loyal to whoever is in power will reap most the benefits, a small entrepreneurial and well-educated elite will be able to prosper in the private sector, while the rest would have to find their own way to survive. In a system where the government runs the economy more or less directly – meaning that unelected bureaucrats dispose of public money – survival for the common people meant diving head first into the sprawling morass of corruption. For elites, the new system provided an opportunity to enrich themselves as long as they remained politically loyal or at least apolitical, and for the masses the new system provided almost none of the economic and social benefits of the lost communist era while simultaneously exacerbating some of its worst tendencies.
Many Russians do, of course, recognize that the problem with the country is its unaccountable government and the network of crony oligarchies it has created. This is why they took to the streets in 2012. But the Kremlin seems to have reached the limit of what it could deliver within the confines of the system it has created. It was time for genuine reform, which would have meant going against concentrated entrenched interests of those with whom the government had formed a symbiotic mutual dependency. Genuine reforms had a snowflake’s chance in hell.
Putin’s response was predictable: blame the demonstrators for destabilizing the country, accuse the money-making elites for not contributing to its prosperity, stifle the independent media, and tighten his grip on power. The new pliant media told the rest of the country fanciful stories that implicated the West (mostly the United States) in policies that had directly resulted in these troubles. Unfortunately, it was not difficult to cite examples of Western duplicity, greed, and aggressiveness.
We like to pretend that we have done nothing to provoke this new anti-Western attitudes, but our behavior suggests otherwise.
We were quick to expand NATO to the former Eastern bloc. While some, like Bulgaria, saw membership as an essential first step toward accession to the European Union, others, like Poland and the Baltic states, saw it as a protective shield against Russia. One look at the current map of NATO member countries in Europe and a comparison with the Cold War version of that same map shows that we have shifted the Iron Curtain east. We did not even bother to rename to alliance, leaving its anti-Soviet origins to haunt its current purposes. To a Russian, the eastward expansion of NATO can only mean one thing: it is the West’s attempt to hem in the country and to curtail its influence abroad. This Russian would, unfortunately, be almost entirely correct. This is not to say that NATO should not have expanded – it should have, and I am sure there are many in the East who now breathe a little easier for it – it is merely to state what should be obvious: that this expansion looked aggressive to Russia.
We were not so subtle to stretch our defensive umbrella even further by openly planning to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. It mattered little that President Bush claimed it was there to protect Europe against Iran, the Russians could, and did, see it was bolstering Europe’s defenses against them. Why would the Europeans need that, a Russian might have wondered, and why would the United States blithely ignore our concerns in the matter? Even when President Obama engaged in the famous “reset”, the new administration did not scrap the missile defense, as is usually argued. It merely scaled it down as a sop to Russia in an attempt to gain its cooperation for sanctions against Iran.
The West has advanced eastward economically as well. Not only did the European Union open its doors to most of the former Eastern bloc, including the three Baltic states, as early as 2004, but has continued its expansion with the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia just last year. With Serbian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin membership only a question of time, the EU will essentially encompass all of Eastern Europe, including former Soviet territories. While we like to point out the voluntary nature of this expansion and the prosperity that it has brought to many of the new members, a Russian can easily see this as the West using Russia’s weakness to meddle at its doorstep. Professor McFaul might claim that “We did not seek this confrontation,” but the fact remains that our actions have contributed to the climate that has made this confrontation possible. Are we going to delude ourselves into thinking that the EU extending an association agreement to Ukraine or the West declaring clear support for the anti-government protests in Kiev would have been greeted with equanimity in Moscow?
We have essentially provided Putin with the bogeyman he needs to bolster his regime. His regime, non-democratic as it is, still needs to be legitimized with the general population or else it would require massive repression to sustain; repression, one might add, that the security forces might be unable or unwilling to engage in. The Chinese communists have abandoned ideology in favor of economic progress as a legitimation device, but Putin’s regime has lost both the ideological appeal and the possibility of delivering on economic prosperity. The only alternative to relaxing his grip on power is to satisfy the mass disillusionment with something to blame and something to aspire to. Putin has done both with a simple message: Russia has been marginalized deliberately by the West. The West, triumphant after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has used the opportunity to gain a foothold at Russia’s doorstep, luring former friends with money and coveted memberships in NATO and the EU. It has stifled the Russian economy, destabilized the country politically, and is actively seeking to relegate it to Third World status. Add to this the corrosive influence of materialist Western culture, and one can easily see how Russia could be painted as doomed in that scenario.
Doomed, that is, unless it does something about it. There is a reason why Putin has continued to invest heavily in the Russian military. It might not be as powerful as its Soviet era predecessor, but it is more formidable than anything the Europeans could muster. This investment is consistent with a strategy of rebuilding Russian power to ensure that it is taken seriously by the West. It is also likely to be popular with voters who share his assessment of Russian decline. It is also likely to make the Europeans nervous and perhaps more sensitive to Russian needs.
The other leg of this policy is renewed emphasis on Russia. Commentators almost invariably interpret this as crude Russian nationalism, but the reality is more complicated. Putin often refers not simply to Russians but to Russian-speaking people, and this is because the unifying cry is not based on Russian ethnicity but on Russian-ness, which (as in many other cases) is defined in terms of language and, to some degree, culture. The appeal to “Mother Russia” worked before the communists came, it worked (better than an appeal to communism) while they ruled, and it can work now. Despite the shrill ultra-nationalism embraced by some groups, the reality of a multi-ethnic Russia precludes any sort of mass appeal based exclusively on Russian ethnicity. It cannot be pan-Slavism and it cannot be Orthodox Christianity, for obvious reasons. This leaves the language as the defining characteristic, and incidentally explains why the new government in Kiev drafted legislation about Ukrainian as assertion of the country’s independence and identity.
From our perspective, this is good news. Putin does not expound a global ideology like communism, so he is unlikely to meddle around the world just to poke the West. In fact, such a policy would likely be seen as a throwback to the days of communism and would lack legitimacy for that very reason. He is no territorial aggrandizer: to suggest that his paranoia is driving him to re-create a security belt of Russia-friendly states is a rather fanciful and anachronistic projection of 19th and 20th century concerns onto the landscape of the 21st. In fact, it is very likely that his recent actions will have precisely the opposite effect, driving Ukraine and perhaps even Belarus into closer cooperation with the West, not to mention Poland and the Baltics making their ties ever stronger.
So why annex Crimea? To me, this abrupt annexation was desperate grasping at straws, not a coherent plan for expansion or aggression. It was an attempt to make the best of a situation that was deteriorating by the day, and likely to end up undermining the legitimacy of Putin’s own rule. It was produced by internal weakness, and is not an assertion of strength.
To see this, consider the situation in Ukraine and what it meant for Moscow. The Kremlin had blamed the West for all the country’s ills and had justified its increased repression with the argument that it was being done to restore Russia’s rightful place under the sun. When the EU offered a deal to Ukraine, Moscow naturally tried to outbid the West because allowing Ukraine to “go West” would have essentially meant that Putin was an ineffective leader according to the logic of his own legitimation. When the anti-government protests erupted in Kiev, Moscow quickly moved to prop the pro-Russian regime of president Yanukovich, hoping that he would weather the storm. But then Yanukovich lost his nerve and agreed to a compromise with the opposition. This would have been the worst outcome for the Kremlin: the new, and very pro-Western, government would come to power legitimately, would probably obtain aid from the West, and in due time Ukraine would follow the other Eastern Europeans into the warm embraces of the European Union, and perhaps even into NATO, bringing Western ships close to the Crimea for the first time since the middle of the 19th century. At this point, Putin could stand aside and let this future unfold, exposing his own impotence in the process, or he could have acted to salvage as much as possible on terms that would affirm his legitimacy.
Whether Putin had a heart-to-hear with Yanukovich at this point, I do not know, but I would be surprised if he did not. We all know what happened next: Yanukovich refused to honor his agreement, and fled instead, providing a pretext to consider the new government in Kiev illegitimate; after all, it could be portrayed as having seized power through violence. The new government also played into Putin’s hands at this point by turning overtly anti-Russian. Under the Kremlin’s legitimation philosophy, Russia had act to protect the interests of Russian-speakers against the illegitimate Western puppets ruling in Kiev. More importantly, by Putin’s own lights, he had made this bed, and now he had to lie in it. The hastily concocted referendum in Crimea could reassure domestic audiences in Russia that he was acting properly, and since the risks inherent in this action were minimal – not only the West immediately disavowed any intent to use military force but the Ukrainians themselves did – the action itself was foregone conclusion.
If this interpretation is correct, Putin’s actions in Crimea were neither a part of an aggressive scheme to expand Russian influence nor an opportunistic land grab. They were mandated by his regime’s domestic weakness, which requires it to legitimize itself with appeals to Russian greatness and a Western menace. It is these legitimation devices that impelled Putin to act, and it is not surprising that the annexation has boosted his popularity at home. This is not a prelude to more conquests in the Baltics, and is hardly the beginning of another Cold War unless we care to make it so.
So what are we to do?
First, we have to recognize that our best, and only, hope with respect to Russia is, and always has been, internal reforms. As long as Russia remains non-democratic (especially with a stymied transition to a market economy), it will remain a problem. There is no military option for externally-imposed regime change, so we must rely on the Russians themselves to change their government. We may isolate Putin internationally to our heart’s content (and it is doubtful that we will succeed even in that), but it will not change anything internally. We may impose sanctions and stimulate capital flight, but hurting the Russian economy will not only prove an ineffective deterrent but give Putin’s regime a new lease on life for it will substantiate what he had been saying all along. When the large majority of Russians consider Putin’s actions in Crimea legitimate, a Western response that is designed to undo them or, failing that, punish Russia for them would simply be taken as evidence that the West is, after all, out to get Russia. If we go down that route, we must be prepared for a further strengthening of his authoritarian rule as the last vestiges of free speech disappear in Russia. The few remaining opponents who still believe in the West will be crushed, victims of our vocal exhortations not backed up by any real action, and Russia will remain antagonistic for decades.
Second, we must admit to ourselves that we have been provocative and neglectful of Russian interests. We will have to deal with Russian assertiveness for the foreseeable future (not just in Europe, but in Asia, and the Arctic), and we will do much better if we at least make an effort to see how we might appear to the other side. We have been able to pursue an intelligent policy with respect to Taiwan, a policy that has been sensitive to China, and there should be no reason why we cannot do so in Ukraine.
In this respect, we must agree that Crimea, as part of Ukraine, is gone. Period. It is not going back. Transnistria might follow. There is nothing we can do about it, nor should we try. Unless the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia suddenly start repressing or abusing their Russian minorities, there is no chance that Putin would go after them next.
We must, however, commit to Ukraine even while realizing that this will be yet another proof of Western hostility to Russia. We must do so because the Ukrainians are desperately trying to break the stagnation of post-Soviet politics, and because we are their best chance of success. We must do so or risk the country degenerating into a Russian satellite. Without strong Western backing and aid, Kiev will have no chance of successful economic recovery, and will have to fall back on Russia for help. Needless to say, this will require political changes that will pull the country back toward Moscow. It is quite disheartening that the essential aid package has become hostage to politicking in Washington.
We must commit to Ukraine because the failure to do so will have repercussions in other countries that border Russia. When you are a small country and have a restless neighbor whose internal politics might compel its government to respond to “threats” to “Russian-speakers”, threats real, imagined, or manufactured, then you have two options. You fall in line with what that neighbor wants from you and hope that it leaves you alone, or you rely on the protection of someone much more powerful than you, someone who can deter that neighbor. Small states have always existed at the sufferance of great powers, despite our post-20th century thinking to the contrary. If we “lose” Ukraine after we did so much to stir up trouble there, Russia’s small neighbors cannot help but wonder whether we would rather “lose” them as well than risk a confrontation with Putin. While it is true that losing Ukraine might be taken here as clear evidence of Russian aggression and move the U.S. government to commit to the defense of the rest, it is also possible (and, quite frankly, more probable) that at this point it would be too late because these others might feel compelled to fend for themselves instead of relying on the tender mercies of American (or European) steadfastness.
This commitment to Ukraine cannot be limited to economic aid. It must involve military aid as well for the simple reason that in the next round of this game whoever moves first with respect to Eastern and Southern Ukraine will win. This part of Ukraine is no Crimea, but if Russian sympathizers there seize the opportunity to destabilize the region, Putin might just feel hemmed in by his own rhetoric that he would have to act. The Russian forces massed at the border with Ukraine might be there to ensure Kiev does not attempt to retake Crimea, they might be there to intimidate, but they also might be there to invade. If the Russians manufacture a pretext to intervene to “restore order” or “protect Russian-speakers”, it will be well-nigh impossible to dislodge them without a real fight, and I do not think we have the stomach for a real fight. If we do not, then neither will the Ukrainians, the government’s bluster notwithstanding. If the Ukrainians move first, with our backing, the Russians must be the ones to initiate the fighting, and I do not think they have the stomach for that either. Our goal must be to maneuver ourselves in a position where we have to fight if we are attacked, and let the Russians decide whether to attack.
At the same time, we must insist that the government in Kiev abandon its provocative attempts to marginalize the Russian language and, by extension, the Russian-speakers. It may draw on Western Ukraine for its support, but it must not forget that it has a large country to govern, and that Russia will forever remain its neighbor.
Third, we must not fret so much about Europe’s dependence on Russian oil, gas, or mineral resources. Yes, all of these can be used as political weapons, but there is a serious limit that even Putin must recognize. Russia needs these exports to support its economy and can hardly afford serious losses there. More importantly, if Putin overplays his hand, Western Europe will push harder toward finding alternatives. It will be expensive, but with clear evidence of Russian willingness to squeeze the chokepoints, Western governments will have all the popular support they need to pay these costs. They can wean themselves off Russia, and Putin will lose all non-military leverage he has. These exports are a weapon that can only be used against those too poor to have other options (e.g., Ukraine); it is likely to backfire if used on someone with the resources of Germany or France.
Fourth, we have to abandon all talk about an apocalyptic ideological struggle with Russia, about containing Russia, about the end of the post-Cold War era. The U.S. should not “lead the free world” into a global fight against tyranny or autocracy or whatever one chooses to call Putin’s regime. Despite the spike in popular support after the annexation of Crimea, Putin is presiding over a doomed regime. The diversionary foreign policy adventures cannot be sustained indefinitely; the regime must begin to deliver prosperity and real reforms or face increasing resistance and escalating need for repression. Aiding Putin in his attempts to shore up his legitimacy by providing conveniently threatening verbiage is counter-productive. Moreover, an American attempt to lead might actually weaken us by exposing fissure with Europe that right now we have been able to paper over.
We certainly have no need for histrionic denunciations of evil Russian intent or declarations of Russia as geopolitical enemy No. 1, as McCain and others have done. On the other hand, it does no good to dismiss Russia as a mere “regional power,” as the President recently did. Russia might be a regional power, but Eurasia is a mighty big region, and one where many of our financial, economic, and security interests are concentrated. Iraq and Iran are “only” regional powers, but we are rightly concerned with those. North Korea might only be a local threat (and mostly to itself), but we rightly care about that too. Russia is more important than all of these combined, and not only because of its possession of nuclear weapons or because its military is superior.
When it comes to Russia, Teddy Roosevelt had it right: we must speak softly and carry (unobtrusively) a big stick.
Branislav L. Slantchev
Professor of Political Science
University of California, San Diego