Vladimir Putin’s triumphant speech to Parliament on March 18 included several references to the inclusion of Russia’s southern and eastern regions within the borders of modern Ukraine. This is an ominous statement about how far Russia’s irredentism might extend. Russia has massed enough troops on Ukraine’s borders to give itself a genuine military option in acquiring those regions. Having misjudged the Russian response to events in Ukraine several times in this crisis thus far, the West needs to start thinking. After going through the standard gamut of admonishments to Russia about international law and the norms of behavior in the modern international system, it is time to reevaluate the strategic context within which Russia is operating.
Russia is a power in structural decline. Its economic growth is anemic, it has an uncertain demographic future, and the state budget is highly vulnerable to any shift in oil prices. That being said, for the next several years it will have the most modern and effective military it has had since the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia’s leaders realize that right now they are the strongest they are ever likely to be, economically and militarily. Conversely, the West is at its weakest point of willpower, exhausted by crises and conflicts abroad, along with the pull of domestic agendas at home. NATO defense budgets are hardly a credible threat and will continue to decline. Even some of the Baltic states, who decry Russia as an existential threat, barely spend 1 percent of GDP on their own defense. Moscow knows that nobody wants to spend more money on defense to confront them. Putin likely calculates that if now is not the time to take on the West, then it will never come. He is rolling the dice while Russia still has dice to roll.
Although Putin’s “vertical of power” has been unable to create a responsive political system, or reform the economy, his ruling circle of elites has a distinct advantage in making decisions in the sort of crisis we are witnessing. He has the initiative and will retain it as long as Moscow keeps changing the facts on the ground. Meanwhile the Europeans and the United States must consult and coordinate every reaction in an effort to herd the Western response. The EU hardly planned for the consequences of what would happen if the Maidan won. After months of trying to keep up with events in Kiev, the West is now trying to keep up with Moscow. How did the EU and the United States walk into this rake?
Ukraine was Russia’s brightest geographical red line. It serves as a buffer state and an area of historic and cultural influence for Russia. More importantly, if Russia accepted the loss of Ukraine in such an embarrassing defeat then it could forget about being a global power, or even a major regional power. Countries that Russia influences on its periphery would quickly see this as Moscow’s resignation to terminal decline. Vladimir Putin only respects hard power; coincidentally, that is also the prevailing currency amongst most of the countries on Russia’s periphery. The West should have prepared for a serious confrontation over Ukraine instead of stumbling into it. Losing Ukraine in this manner had implications far beyond Putin’s attempt to build a Eurasian economic union. Russia always had a proclivity to influence bordering states in an effort to create buffers of stability for itself, hardly a foreign policy that Putin invented. Whether the West chooses to accept it or not, it will persist long after him.
Putin knows perfectly well that the West will never accept his vision for Russia, or Putinism, but he holds respect at a premium. He has a classical understanding of power. In his mind, if Russia is not loved, then it will be feared, but above all it will be respected. Domestic politics are a more significant influence than the international community’s response. Feeling betrayed by protests against his return to the presidency, he tightened the screws on Russian civil society and freedoms at home. After restoring fear of the state within Russia, he is now restoring it abroad.
This conflict is exactly what his administration needed. Without the annexation of Crimea, his current presidency would be defined by domestic repression and economic inertia. Now he has the glory of returning Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia in a publicity coup. There are no sanctions or punishments the West can impose that outweigh this acquisition. Land is the one thing they don’t make in Europe anymore, and Moscow just restored a Hero City of the Soviet Union to the motherland. There is little chance of Ukraine seeing Crimea return. If anything, more of Ukraine is to follow.
The West has many appropriate but few effective responses to this kind of challenge. This is why it should have thought far harder about Ukraine last year. Sending token military forces to allies on NATO’s borders signals nothing to Russia. It will only reassure those members that NATO still exists. Targeted sanctions against Russian officials and connected oligarchs will be worn as badges of pride in Russia, the butt of jokes at best. Patriotism will be measured by whether or not one made it on the sanctions list. Russia’s ruling echelons have had months to prepare for this contingency, and are likely well ahead of the game. Economic integration cuts both ways but rather unevenly in this case. The West has many more obvious ways to hurt Russia’s economy, but Russians know and expect the levers that Western leaders could pull, meanwhile nobody knows how Russia will respond asymmetrically.
For Ukraine’s sake, the West should reevaluate the strategic reality and Putin’s thinking. Moscow never wanted an “off ramp” in this crisis and it will not accept any deal on the basis of Western promises either. It is prepared to suffer the consequences. Russia is unlikely to get Ukraine back, but it can divide, destabilize and fragment the country. Much of that is already a work in progress. It can create a provocation at will, if events do not get out of hand on their own between now and the election on May 25. For the West, Ukraine is a place of momentary focus, but for Moscow this will become a personal project for as long as Ukraine borders Russia. That is probably longer than any current Western leaders will be in power.
Putin’s goal is not to win, but rather not to lose in Ukraine. The US and the EU must figure out what not losing looks like for Russia. A federalist system that gives Russian-leaning regions greater autonomy may seem like a stalking horse for the furthering of Russian influence, and eventual fragmentation, but it might also buy the government in Kiev time. Convincing Ukraine’s new government to accept such terms could prove an equally difficult task—if it’s possible at all. So far Moscow does not want to negotiate, because it is busy taking what it wants. In the interim, the West must think hard before drawing any red lines in front of Moscow to avoid embarrassment and backpedaling. A month ago few thought Moscow would be brazen enough to annex Crimea outright, or that it could do it so easily. Now that is already history. Eastern Ukraine could fall with equal speed and lack of fanfare.
Michael Kofman is Program Manager and Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.