It’s probably wrong of me, but I will admit to celebrating every piece of bad news I hear about the Russian economy. And there’s certainly a lot to celebrate at the moment. You can say that sanctions are starting to bite, but it’s of surely greater importance that the price of oil has crashed from nearly $120 a barrel to just under $50 today. The Russian state is built on hydro-carbons and needs a price of $100 or more to meet its domestic commitments. It built up huge currency reserves during the boom years, but these are dwindling rapidly.
When you add together the cost of sanctions and the oil price, its perhaps hard to look past this and see the self-inflicted damage done by the years of stagnation, corruption and an over-reliance on fossil fuels. Vladimir Putin will certainly be hoping that people can’t see it at any rate.
All of this bad news highlights just how badly Putin is doing as a leader, although his apologists will blame the West and even advance the theory that Putin is being more far-sighted than the rest of us, taking the short term pain and seeing the bigger picture. This view of Putin as the arch strategist, or even the evil genius Bond villain, remains in the psyche of many people. A year or so ago the view was virtually unchallenged.
However I have long held the belief that Putin is getting this all wrong, and that although there is a high level of planning and cunning involved, he is lurching from one dangerous situation to the next, with only a vaguely optimistic view of the desired end result, and an inability to identify or take advantage of suitable exit strategies.
The peak of Putin’s powers and his popularity in Russia probably came around the time of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. It was certainly a masterstroke, particularly if you are happy to overlook any moral or legal considerations, or geo-political implications.
The annexation was largely bloodless, although the media was largely quiet on the abduction and murder of a number of prominent Crimean Tatars. Putin received international condemnation for his actions, although only minor sanctions at that stage. And there was a certain sneaking admiration in some quarters that Putin had put one over on the West by winning a scrap in his back yard, much as he had done in Georgia in 2008.
But rather than basking in the success of acquiring this particularly attractive piece of real estate at minimal cost, Putin decided to push on into mainland Ukraine, sending in his proxies (and some regular troops) to start a civil war.
So why did he do it? Why did he make that fateful step? Was it hubris? Did he really think that victory would be swift and assured? To answer these questions and to go some way to understanding Putin’s actions, we need to examine his motivations around Ukraine. We can start by establishing what aren’t his motivations. He was never concerned with protecting Russian speakers against a fascist Ukrainian junta determined to persecute them. He is also not standing alongside Russian brothers in Ukraine declaring for independence. Make no mistake, Putin engineered the war and has provided the manpower, the ballistics and the political means. There was no movement to break away from Ukraine until Putin sent in a load of agitators to foment one. I also don’t believe he is particularly worried about NATO encroachment, although paranoid insecurity about its borders is part of the national consciousness in Russia.
His actual reasons are opaque and I suspect known only to a handful. There are three main factors that have guided his hand in Ukraine – a historical perspective, a domestic imperative and an economic reality. I would stress that none of these three factors or even a combination of the three would drive a rational man or a stable nation towards war. But Putin is not rational, and he has long since ceased listening to people that are. And Russia is not a nation at ease with itself or assured of its place in the world.
Let’s start with history. Putin’s policies are certainly expansionist. He has sliced off bits of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in the last 10 years. But whether or not Putin sees his actions as expansionist in the traditional understanding is moot. Putin is a child and a product of the Soviet Union. He called the break up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geo-political tragedy of the twentieth century.” He will see his actions as reclaiming lands rather than invading them, righting historical errors. He would not dream for example of making incursions into other bordering states like Iran or Turkey. But here his world view and his historical perspective are flawed. Ukraine is not Russia and never has been. The Soviet Union was a conglomerate of member states. It was not a Russian empire, as much as Russia might have dominated with Moscow at its centre.
Putin also carries with him the nation’s paranoia about being surrounded and in constant peril. Hence the need to a strong leader to protect the populace (at virtually any cost). Uncertain of the security of its own borders the Soviet Union sought to surround itself with the compliant buffer states of the Warsaw Pact. Putin thought he had reintroduced that on a smaller scale, with Russia surrounded by the former states of the Soviet Union, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Yanukovych-led Ukraine, all with malleable and utterly corrupt leaders tied to Moscow for security, power and personal wealth.
Putin’s actions have certainly been nationalistic, but I see him largely as a man without ideology. Rather a man prepared to wear any ideological clothes that allow him to achieve his goals and stay in power. Scratch that. His goal is to stay in power. He lost the middle classes and the liberals when he rigged the elections in 2011, so now he needs to appeal to the baser nationalistic elements to give himself legitimacy.
And that ties together his other two motives. The Russian economy was heading for meltdown before the sanctions and the fall in the price of oil. Years of stagnation and corruption mean that companies cannot compete properly and do not enjoy the protection of the law unless they are in favour with Putin and his courtiers. There is a positive disincentive to invest in real industry and modernisation. What remains is a collection of oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle carving up the pie to fund their lavish lifestyle. A war every few years, and a perceived threat from outside certainly helps to take the focus away from Putin’s economic mismanagement.
But Russians will put up with economic hardship, repression, inequality and a lack of democracy. They have done many times before and some know little else. But what if their Ukrainian brothers show them there is another way. That there is nothing about the land or the people that condemns them to this sort of life. That it’s possible to live in a stable European democracy, governed by the rule of law. This is what Putin cannot stand. By their example the Ukrainian people could show up the lies and deceits of Putin’s rule. Putin would not survive this revelation, so he has declared a very personal war on Ukraine, whose aim is not military or based on land or economics. Rather it is based on the destruction of the new Ukrainian state. For Putin himself cannot succeed unless Ukraine fails.