The world should brace itself for a Putin strike to prevent Ukraine from turning towards the West.
For those in doubt, suffice to recall President Putin’s statement in 2006 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
Ukraine firmly anchored in the Western system, on its way towards membership of the EU in due course, or even worse, a member of NATO—these are outcomes he will never tolerate. It would be the final straw in dismantling Russian attempts to extend its influence over the ‘near abroad’—those parts of Central and Eastern Europe that escaped domination by Russia in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Putin has several times invoked Russia’s right to influence, labelling the ‘near abroad’ strategically vital for Russia. Giving up, especially under such circumstances as these, would be tantamount to a humiliating defeat more than wiping out his diplomatic triumphs (Syria, for example) last year. And the domestic strongman image Putin has carefully cultivated cannot be reconciled with being outmaneuvered by the West and sidelined by a large part of the Ukrainian population.
From Putin’s perspective, this is not only a question of geopolitical power, but an omen of what may happen to Russia’s own political system. If the Ukrainian people can topple a president propped up by Russia (to the tune of cheap gas prices and a USD 15 billion credit line), the same can happen inside Russia. Consequently, it may be that for Putin no cost is too high to prevent such an outcome in Ukraine. People power and the lure of the Western system must not prevail. What is happening in Ukraine is synonymous with a looming threat to his own power.
What can he do to forestall or prevent it from happening?
Economic measures as higher gas prices and restrictions for Ukrainian exports to Russia will hardly do the trick. It may even stoke animosity towards Russia, not only among those already distancing themselves from the big neighbour up north, but also among those in doubt. This kind of bullying has nourished the sentiment that the West is the better option.
And a “wait and see” approach is also not a very attractive option for Moscow. The coming elections will produce a Ukrainian leadership that will most likely lean West, and whose legitimacy will be in little doubt. Russian intervention will be harder to justify; not the least because a new Ukrainian government will say, “yes, of course we want good and friendly relations with Russia.” Signing an agreement with the EU like the one on the agenda last year does not stand in the way of pursuing that goal. So Russia and Putin would be back to square one, only facing an even more difficult situation than they do now.
This leaves the option of some kind of intervention. Over the last couple of days Russia has indeed warmed up to do exactly this. Prime Minister Medvedev said on February 24 that he doubted the legitimacy of Ukraine's new authorities and that those now in power had conducted an "armed mutiny." The West should carefully weigh that statement. Maybe the most important part is that it comes from Medvedev who—erroneously—is seen by the West as a ‘better guy’ than Putin. He is not. He is as much part of the system as Putin. By using him to deliver the message, Moscow is signalling unity in the Russian leadership—and determination, too. If the Ukrainian government is seen as without legitimacy by Moscow the door is open for playing the card of Russian majorities in the east of the country and/or in Crimea.
It could be done in several ways. Rumours about suppression of Russians could be spread—there have already been such rumours on the internet, but without anybody knowing whether they are rooted in truth or planted to serve a purpose. One further step would be to encourage the eastern parts of the country or Crimea to declare that they do not recognize the government now sitting in Kiev. They might then establish their own government. Moscow could then hasten to recognize them announcing a de facto split of Ukraine. There would be no obstacles for doing so, as Moscow has already cleared the way by denouncing the sitting Ukrainian government. The only real barrier is the inability so far to find prominent leaders in the the East to spearhead such a move. The opening moves of this scenario may already be playing out, given the rising tension in Crimea and Yanukovych’s flight.
It is anybody’s guess what the endgame might look like. Having watched and analysed the U.S. stance vis-à-vis Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons programme and Syria, Putin cannot be under the impression that the Obama administration has the stomach for some kind of military confrontation. The ill-timed announcement of drastic cuts to the U.S. military only reinforces that judgment. So does the ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan. And the Europeans are not capable of doing much on their own. So in Putin’s equation the military risks would be negligible. Nothing happened in 2008 when Russia sent its military into Georgia and South Ossetia. In fact Georgia-South Ossetia 2008 might serve—with some modifications—as a blueprint.
The main risks would be economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. They may hurt—the Russian economy is troubled of late, with a falling ruble auguring capital outflow. But Russia can respond by cutting gas and oil supplies to European countries that still depend on them. One uncertainty is the Chinese reaction, which Russia can hardly ignore in view of Russian-Chinese energy deals. China has invested heavily in Ukraine. A split may endanger some of those investments. Both how firmly China might react and how much weight Moscow might give that reaction are difficult to judge.
Seen from Putin’s and Russia’s point of view, the downside risk of playing the secessionist card may be less than the political costs of a Ukraine on course to join the Western camp. Worse, Putin may bet that a weak Western reaction would further enhance his image as a strong player who would refrain from nothing in safeguard Russia’s interests as he sees them. Succeeding there might turn a potential disaster into a victory.
Presuming that leaders to set secession in motion can be found, the decisive factor for whatever decisions Russia’s leaders take may well be domestic politics. Will Putin’s supporters endorse his gambling on a weak Western reaction? Are there political forces among Russia’s population that will turn against him and start a turn of events similar to what has been seen in Ukraine?
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, a former state secretary with the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry, is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and an adjunct professor at Singapore Management University and Copenhagen Business School.