Putinology 101: The Kremlin's Real Strategic Goal in Ukraine

It's not what you think.

Russia doesn't normally want to start wars. The state's economic and political weakness usually constrains its foreign policy. But on February 21, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, voted to impeach president Viktor Yanukovych under pressure from the protesters in Maidan Nezalezhnost (Independence Square) and confronted the Kremlin with an existential threat to its own fragile legal order. The wave of uprisings that have transformed political systems in the Middle East suddenly washed up on Russia's own shores. The world around Russia changed dramatically.

Yet recent attempts to assess Putin's ultimate purpose in Ukraine as a form of revanchism regard Russia's behavior as remarkably new. That's because they assign too much significance to the late-February invasion and occupation of Crimea. The invasion was a dramatic, but merely tactical and limited application of military force. In order to understand Putin's long-term foreign-policy strategy, one must look at Russia's response to the Rada's decision to impeach Yanukovych and dramatically overhaul the government, not the invasion of Crimea.

Putin's long-term strategic goal in Ukraine is to protect the Russian state's legal order, not further military expansion. In Putin's conception of Russian statehood, foreign policy is determined by the needs of domestic order. From his 1999 political profession of faith, usually referred to as the "Millennium Message," to the March 18 celebration of the Crimean referendum, Putin has demonstrated a remarkably consistent commitment to the defense of standing legal systems as bulwarks against domestic social and political anarchy. For that reason, any policy responses from North America or Europe should focus on diplomatic engagement. Military containment or confrontation could drag Russia, Europe and North America into a long and costly military and economic confrontation. A destabilized region could also attract Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists to "defend" the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority in the newly annexed territory.

Revanchist Russia: Overstating the Strategic Significance of the Annexation of Crimea

The revanchist explanation of the Russian Federation's military incursion into Crimea understandably focuses on the novelty of Russia's use of military force. Russia was really motivated by the allegedly self-evident great-power interests of territorial expansion and increased influence in the domestic politics of other states: the Economist's April 19 cover showed that the insatiable Russian bear had returned, and a May 4 New York Times' editorial argued, "Putin displayed his true colors by invading Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine."

Focusing on the military incursion makes intuitive sense. From the perspective of North American and European governments, Russia's continuing threat to use military force and an aggressive media campaign designed to generate support for its actions seem to be the crisis's most salient features. In the aftermath of CIA and DIA failures to forecast the invasion, Congress has put political pressure to bear on the military incursion. But even proponents of the revanchist consensus note that this operation has too many economic drawbacks in the long run to make the Crimean annexation or any further military incursions viable. Moreover, far from systemically criticizing the international legal order, Putin has justified the incursion in terms of international legal principles. So, what other pressures are part of Putin's calculus of Russia's interests?

Training our eyes on Russia's response to the Rada's potentially illegal decision to impeach President Viktor Yanukovych starts to bring these forces into focus. Justly or not, the Kremlin saw that event as the latest in a series of Western violations of sovereignty and legal norms stretching back to the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999. The appearance of a threat to Russia's sovereignty and constitutional order in a state with complicated historical and cultural ties to Russia threatened to embolden Russia's own political critics. After all, the Duma that was elected in December 2011 and the start of Putin's third term in March 2012 were greeted by public protests that Russia hadn't seen since the 1990s—echoes of the Arab Spring in Eurasia.

Domestic Legal Order: Promoting Russian Statehood since 1999

Putin, himself, has said as much in some underreported lines from his March 18 speech celebrating the Crimean referendum. He criticized NATO's armed interventions in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya as well as the "Color Revolutions" and "Arab Spring" that have resulted not in "democracy and freedom" but "chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals.” Underlining his criticism, Putin claimed, "the 'Arab Spring' has turned into the 'Arab Winter.'"

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