Russia's Misstep: How Putin's Ukraine Adventure Backfired

Has Moscow overplayed its hand?

Russia is winning” the Ukraine crisis, or so goes the conventional account. This claim has elements of truth to it—narrowly conceived, Russia has gained much in the last year. President Putin has boldly returned control of the Crimean peninsula to Russia. He has crippled Ukraine through a new “hybrid warfare” that the West seems unable to counter. Moscow has demonstrated its resolve and resilience in the face of Western sanctions, even as President Putin has watched his domestic approval ratings skyrocket. And the Kremlin has reminded the world that Russia is determined to control its neighborhood, and that it remains a great power worthy of respect.

But Putin’s short-term victories should not blind Western policymakers to the significant costs that Russia has racked up. In particular, through its annexation of Crimea and subsequent policies, Moscow has ensured that Ukraine will no longer act as a buffer state and will instead gravitate to the West for the foreseeable future. What’s more, Russia’s security situation has continued to deteriorate amidst a series of missteps and predictable backlashes from the international community. And worst of all, the Kremlin cannot reverse its error and must instead rely on additional, costly policies in order to mitigate the fallout from its initial mistake.

From the end of the Cold War until early 2014, Ukraine acted as the quintessential buffer state. Both Russia and the West wanted to integrate the country into their respective spheres of influence, but Kiev remained independent and largely neutral.

Ukraine’s demographic make-up offers at least a partial explanation. Samuel Huntington dubbed Ukraine a “cleft country” based on its relatively even divide between pro-Western voters in the west and pro-Russian voters in the east. Indeed, this east-west divide had characterized every presidential election since the country’s independence, and it explained why control of Kiev oscillated back and forth between pro-Russian and pro-Western leaders. Thus, in 1999 and 2004, the western oblasts took Kiev, while the eastern oblasts won in 1991, 1994, and 2010.

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Most importantly, the swing of the electoral pendulum was bounded. So long as Ukraine remained a democracy, there was never any serious risk that the country would become permanently ensconced in either the Western orbit or the Russian constellation. To do so would risk alienating half the country. Thus, by default, Ukraine adopted a self-correcting policy of nonalignment. Kiev would sometimes lean toward the West, and other times toward Russia, but there was always an electoral check on permanent alignment with either geopolitical pole.

To be sure, this situation was not ideal from Moscow’s perspective. Russia had to contend with occasional turbulence in its relationship with Ukraine, as well as Kiev’s sporadic moves toward the West. The Kremlin would have much preferred the strategically superior alternative of a firmly eastern-oriented Ukraine, a throwback to the days of the Warsaw Pact. But the situation was tolerable, not least because Russia obtained some measure of strategic depth against significant encroachment by NATO and the West.

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Then came the Maidan revolution. Moscow saw a repeat of the 2004 Orange Revolution, where pro-Russian Yanukovych had “won” a rigged presidential election, only to have the results annulled by the Ukrainian Supreme Court acting under popular pressure. In the second round of balloting, Yanukovych had gone on to lose to pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko by a substantial margin, sealing Russia’s “defeat.” (Never mind that the pendulum swung back in 2010, when President Yushchenko and other pro-Western candidates lost the presidential election to a revitalized Yanukovych.) Wanting to avoid Part II of the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin saw an opportunity to reclaim the Crimean peninsula in late February 2014.

This was a mistake. By annexing Crimea, President Putin thrust what remained of Ukraine into the arms of the West for the foreseeable future. First, the annexation disrupted the country’s delicate electoral balance. Before, control of Kiev vacillated back and forth between roughly even blocs of pro-Western and pro-Russian voters. But by taking Crimea, Russia annexed not only the peninsula, but also more than a million largely pro-Russian eligible voters.

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