Mr. Putin and the Art of the Offensive Defense: Ukraine and Its Meanings (Part Three)

Editor’s Note: In part three of her series on Vladimir Putin’s thinking, Fiona Hill examines the messages his Ukrainian play is sending to international actors. Also read Part 1 on the building blocks of Putin’s political and international thought and Part 2 on Putin’s attitudes on foreign policy.

Beyond engaging in an offensive defense of Russia’s interests. Vladimir Putin has had some other important goals in responding to events in Ukraine. From his perspective, the softer methods of persuasion and intimidation he deployed before the EU’s November Vilnius Summit did not work. They did not completely deter Ukrainians and others from pursuing closer relations with the EU, nor did they halt Europe’s efforts to consolidate relations in the neighborhood.  So now, he has to take harsher measures to ensure that no-one will ignore Russia’s interests. The EU Association Agreements are now a red line for Putin, and this line has been crossed. Georgia crossed a similar line, as far as Putin was concerned, in 2008 when it persisted in pushing for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), and when Tbilisi then launched its own military intervention against separatist forces in South Ossetia. In 2008, Russia moved swiftly to punish Georgia militarily—in Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia. Russia attacked Georgian territory beyond the administrative borders of these two entities, refused to back down in the face of potential US and Western sanctions, and ultimately recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

For Putin the EU and NATO are equally threatening to Russia’s interests, even if they are presented in the seemingly innocuous, lesser form of an Association Agreement or a MAP. Putin’s current play in Crimea and Ukraine is the Case Officer’s blunt messages directed at multiple actors:

To the European Union and the West: “You finally have to stop trampling over Russia’s interests. Do you not get it? How long are we going to play this game? We thought we made it very clear in Georgia in 2008 that we are prepared to stand up for our interests, take the risks of military intervention. We can suffer sanctions and deal with any political and economic pain you can inflict. We have a higher threshold for pain than you do. Have you forgotten our national narrative and the siege of Leningrad? Do you want to go to war over Ukraine? We don’t, but we’re ready to if you don’t back down and back off!”

To Ukraine and the prospective new leadership in Kyiv: “We’ve warned you and your predecessors repeatedly. What were you expecting when you said you were going to continue with the Association Agreement? We took action against Georgia in 2008 over MAP. We would have taken action against Ukraine too in 2008 if you had kept on pressing like the Georgians, and you know it. Russia is the decisive factor in any major political and economic decision here, not the European Union, not NATO, not the United States, not the West. As you saw with Georgia in 2008, they will not and cannot protect you. Now Crimea is gone. Eastern and southern Ukraine could go too—unless all of you in Kyiv start to take Russia’s interests into consideration first and foremost. We will keep a grip on these territories to make sure this is crystal clear at all times.”

To Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and all the other states that used to be part of the Soviet Union: “We hope you’ve really got the message now. If you’re thinking of transitions and new deals with other great powers, like Association Agreements, think of us first. We have plenty of levers we can use against you, and you know what they are. Remember––nothing really belongs to you, not even your own territory or all of your population, and you will always have to pay your tribute to Moscow.” There is a special message embedded in here for the Baltic states: “You may think you have escaped and are safe beyond the EU’s and NATO’s red lines, but can you be sure they can protect you? Remember you still have lots of Russian speakers inside your borders …”

To the domestic Russian Opposition: “Those of you who took to the streets in 2011 and 2011, don’t get any more ideas. If you mobilize outside of scheduled elections and start protesting again, like they just did in Kyiv, we’ll come down on you hard. And it won’t just be the lawbooks we throw at you. Nasty business with those snipers on Maidan … so much for peaceful protests.”

To the Broader Russian Population: “The Ukrainians just couldn’t get their act together. See what poor governance and then protests bring. They bring complete chaos, loss of life and property, and outside intervention and manipulation; and they push extremists to the top. You have protection at home and abroad.  Would you want to trade what you have now for that? If you want to avoid what’s happening in Kyiv, you’d better stick with me, Vladimir Putin, the statist, the survivalist––the man who restored the state and Russia’s great power status after the disasters of the 1990s; the man who has given you 14 years of stability and prosperity!”

« Part II —
Approaches to Foreign Policy