Putin’s Pyrrhic Victory in Crimea

The table is set, and the cards are stacked. President Putin’s Russia will soon formally annex an appendage of Ukraine called Crimea, thanks to a referendum now scheduled for March 16, 2014–a result already denounced by the West as “illegal” and a “violation of international law.” But in this respect, Putin’s victory will almost certainly be pyrrhic, likely to be seen in retrospect as the first step in the ultimate demise of his regime.

After the spectacular success of his Sochi Olympics and the subsequent rise in his personal popularity, partly as a result of his ultra-nationalistic policy toward the Ukraine crisis, such a conclusion might seem, at best, to be problematic, even dead wrong. But let’s think about it.

Putin is acting like a modern Tsar, a Peter the Great striding across the steppes of eastern Europe like a leader determined to get his way: he wanted Crimea, and he took it. He may even decide that he wants the eastern half of Ukraine, and he has already established a pretext for taking it, too. And, who knows? He may play hardball and seize all of Ukraine, including Kiev, arguing fancifully that he had to protect frightened Russians from marauding bands of neo-fascist hooligans. Who would or could stop him? In the short time, no one and nothing.

Germany’s Angela Merkel, after a recent conversation with Putin, told aides that she was “not sure he was in touch with reality,” that he seemed to be “in another world.” But Putin is not “in another world”; he is very much in his world, but it is an old-fashioned KGB world of narrow nationalism and limited vision. Putin is really an egotistical, stubborn autocrat, who wants it both ways: he craves global attention and legitimacy and yet feels he can act in defiance of global rules, laws and etiquette, and get away with it.

What Putin apparently forgets is that Russia is no longer the Russia of Peter the Great, with its pinnacle of nobility ruling ignorant peasant masses, nor even the Russia of Josef Stalin, where communism was the false god of popular dictatorship. Today Russia is in a different place, struggling to find its way in a new world of instant communication and hyped expectations, where an action in the Black Sea can have immediate consequences along the Potomac. It is a Russia still absorbed with its age-old dilemma of east versus west, of the pull of traditional authoritarianism versus the rising appeal of democracy and the open marketplace of goods and ideas. It is a Russia slowly recognizing that with the exception of energy production, which produces the profits and pays the bills, it is a backward country likely to remain backward unless it catches up to the west in industrial production, artistic creativity and quick, unafraid, open-minded management of its interactions with the rest of the world.

When Russia triggered the Ukraine crisis, its stock market cratered, the ruble fell to new lows and Russia’s emerging middle class cannot help but wonder whether Putin is following a sensible policy. They lost a lot of money. Putin also has to worry now about America’s use of its new shale gas boom as a way of influencing the market in Europe. The U.S. is on the edge of supplanting Russia as the world’s biggest producer of natural gas. In a short time the U.S. will be in a good position to help Ukraine (and Europe) fight Russia’s dominant control of its natural gas supplies. Who loses in this fight? Russia’s economy loses, and Russian diplomacy will have to find a new way of managing its relations with the West.

When Russian thugs, following Putin’s orders, beat up Pussy Riot performers at the Olympics; when liberal, anti-Putin politicians get thrown into prison or house arrest for criticizing Putin’s policies, which only encourages others to stand up and complain; when Russian oligarchs find they need special visas to travel to western Europe and the United States because of global outrage at Putin’s policy in Ukraine; when middle class Russian businessmen run into newly imposed banking rules and regulations, imposed after Putin seized Crimea, frustrating their ability to trade and make money; when young Russians, students and intellectuals, now used to living in an open Internet world, find that the outside world is cutting them off because of Putin’s policy in Ukraine—when all of these problems surface, creating newer problems, they will collectively raise serious questions about the wisdom of Putin’s policies, not just in Ukraine but in Russia itself, and begin to undermine the solidity of his regime. I impose no timetable on this process, but it will happen.

Putinism in a growing anachronism in modern times. Putin may think of himself as a 21st century Peter the Great, but he has a lot of Leonid Brezhnev in him too. It took the Politburo two years to kick Nikita Khrushchev out of power after his Cuban missile crisis miscalculation, and it may take the Russian people that much time to change their leader. But Putin’s days are numbered, and it is his own fault.