As I’ve talked to people, read more, and really looked at Russia today, I realize that I was completely wrong in the last post in thinking we should consider allowing Ukraine to be divided. Eastern Ukrainians, especially the youth, do not want to join Russia and see themselves as Ukrainian, even if they are ethnic Russians. They want to look westward, not towards being part of a Russian dominated region likely doomed for authoritarianism and poor economic growth.
Putin became President at midnight on January 1, 2000. He has been in office long enough to get used to power and the perks that come with it. He has no intention of giving that up. That was evident in 2008 when he hand picked diminutive Dmitry Medvedev to become President when the Constitution did not allow him to serve three consecutive terms. Medvedev dutifully named Putin Prime Minister, and Putin continued to dominate.
However, comparisons of Putin to Hitler, or even old Soviet bureaucratic leaders like Brezhnev don’t hit the mark. Putin is more ambiguous. He quit the KGB on the second day of the KGB sponsored 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he sided with Yeltsin, not the old guard. He has sought to integrate Russia into the global economy and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era. He may even still see a democratic modern Russia as his ultimate goal – though a Russian democracy, not one imposed by or reflecting the culture of the West.
Yeltsin and Putin represent a sad cycle of post-Cold War Russian policy. Yeltsin went all out for reform and democracy, but didn’t realize that Russia was not prepared for that. Instead a class of oligarchs arose that acted the way the Communists said capitalists act: conspicuous consumption, massive wealth, and a disregard for the poor. As a small class got exceedingly wealthy, many more become impoverished or suffered under hyperinflation followed by stagnation. Add to that low oil prices in the 90s, and Yeltsin’s Russia fell into crisis and turmoil.
Putin, a surprise pick for Prime Minister in 1999, had been in politics only a decade. He worked his way up in rather minor roles until joining the Presidential staff in 1997. His responsibilities increased, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister. He was part of a group of advisers that pressured an increasingly out of touch, drunk and unhealthy Yeltsin to sacrifice power to those who wanted to end the experiment in out of control wild west capitalism.
In his first two terms he was immensely popular. He took on the oligarchs and re-established the dominance of the state. Higher oil prices helped, and Russian incomes rose for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Cities like Moscow started to glisten, and it appeared that Russia was finally on the right path. Growth was 10% in Putin’s first year, and hovered at near 7% until 2008. Putin seemed to want to finally connect Russia with the global economy.
By 2014, however, Russia’s economy is stagnating despite high oil prices. The 2008 global economic crisis made clear that Russian growth had not been due to the construction of a sustainable economy, but primarily to high oil prices and speculation. Putin’s intentions may have been good, but since he didn’t see things through to real, stable reform, Russia is drifting towards weakness and internal dissent.
In that light, the loss of Ukraine put Putin and his inner circle in a position they found intolerable. Rather than keeping Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly broadening it, the Ukraine uprising meant Russian influence was suddenly drastically limited. The Customs Union connecting Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan was meant to be a beginning of rebuilding a Russian led zone outside the EU.
The Soviet Union had consisted of 15 Republics, with Russia the largest. On January 1, 1992 all fifteen became independent countries (light green and blue represents former Soviet Republics, the yellow and light yellow were independent states in the Soviet bloc):
A look at this map shows why Russia intervened in Ukraine. If the Ukraine moved toward the EU, the Russian “zone” in the West would be simply Belarus. Moreover, with new fracking technology, the Ukraine threatens to develop its own natural gas industry, competing with Russia. If Putin had succeeded in connecting Ukraine with the Customs Union, the Russian zone becomes much more formidable.
Taking Crimea may have been a step towards at least trying to divide Ukraine, but all the evidence I’m finding, including talks with Ukrainians, suggest that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine aren’t keen to join Russia or be independent from Kiev. Indeed, the biggest pro-Russia demographic are the older folks – the ones whose thinking reflects Cold War experiences. The youth are looking West – that might be the only way for Ukraine to get out of deep economic difficulties.
I strongly doubt Putin will give up Crimea. It is of strategic importance on the Black Sea, and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954. After the USSR collapsed there were conflicts about the future of Crimea, and it joined Ukraine as an autonomous Republic with considerable rights of self-governance.
The Crimean referendum scheduled for March 16th is bizarre – there is no option to stay in Ukraine, just to join Russia immediately, or be autonomous from Ukraine (though worded trickily). Clearly the powers in Crimea and Russia want to be sure that the days of Crimea being Ukrainian are over.
So what should the US and EU do? Keep the pressure on Russia over Crimea, but recognize that it’s probably a lost cause. An autonomous Crimea is a better outcome than Russian annexation because the possibility would remain that it could someday rejoin Ukraine. The key is to prevent any other parts of Ukraine from leaving, and nip Russia incited nationalist protests in the bud. Then the US and EU need to do whatever they can to help the Ukrainians rebuild their economy and show eastern hold outs that life in Ukraine holds more promise than in Putin’s Russia.
Putin is no Stalin, perhaps a moment of weakness will convince him that true strength comes when one embraces the flow of history. He can try to cling to power in an ever weakening position, or he can become a true leader that guides his country to real reform.