A lot of people seem to get upset, or unusually skeptical when I tell them that the rhetoric between Russia and the West, particularly America, is largely theatre. I’m not going to say there isn’t any real political tensions between the two sides, but most of that tension is specifically designed to preserve the regime in Moscow. Its credibility hinges on the idea that Russia is surrounded by enemies who intend to carve it up, and that the only defense they have against this is a strong leader and an authoritarian society. If US administrations since 2000 had lavished Putin’s government with praise over all the benefits he brought America, both for the “war on terror” and the private sector, the farce would have been long over by now.
Obviously the recent targeted sanctions against Russia’s politicians might seem to contradict this theory, but the truth is that all the complications surrounding the question of sanctions proves a number of points which is inconvenient to all sides involved. Firstly, it shows how intertwined Russia is with the Western powers economically. Just as America relied on dictators during the Cold War, both the US and EU have been constantly whining about human rights in Russia while buying its products and investing money in its markets. This cuts both ways, because Team Russia fans who like to imagine Russia as some kind of bulwark against the “globalist New World Order” must confront the fact that what success Putin and Medvedev have had is basically tied to their success in integrating Russia into that globalized “NWO” they hate so much. In fact if this were not the case, the West could level sanctions against Russia all day and they wouldn’t face any negative consequences.
Some suggest that the fact Russia has annexed the Crimea proves that it actually is taking a stand. Hardly. By taking Crimea just before Ukraine has a presidential election in May, Putin has hobbled the opposition to the junta in Kyiv. It’s unlikely that the Party of Regions or the Communist Party of Ukraine, the two parties which kept nationalism in check in elections, will be able to mount a strong campaign in May. That may explain why they are pushing for federalism and more autonomy in their affairs in the South and East of the country. They know they will lose in the elections for the central government, therefore they are pushing to have more local control. Maybe they would have had more of a chance if somebody hadn’t taken about 1.5 loyal anti-Kyiv voters out of the electorate.
What this goes to show is that aside from all his posturing, Putin pretty much realized he was beaten in Ukraine. To him the writing was on the wall, and nothing can be done to make a majority of Ukrainians support Russia on their own, since that would require actually doing something different in terms of propaganda, economic policy, and politics. As humiliating a loss as it seemed, he saw a way he could snatch something in return. An easy opportunity unlikely to provoke consequences, yet just daring enough to make it look like Russia has truly “risen from its knees.” So he snatched Crimea because he could, and he knew he would get away with it. He’s taken his ball and he’s going home.
The problem with this is that it only puts off the inevitable for a limited amount of time. Annexing the Crimea will have to be paid for out of Russia’s budget. Ordinary Russians will have to pay for the luxurious summer homes and elite resorts which will no doubt be built along the coast of the peninsula. Meanwhile Russia has written a check its military simply cannot cash. However unfair it might seem that some countries can get away with bullying their way around the world with military force and economic arm twisting, that’s the world we live in, and it’s the world Russia’s leaders chose to be a part of. What that means is that if you’re going to play the role of a superpower aggressor, you need the military and the economic foundation to back that up. The US has it, China has it, but Russia doesn’t have it, not by a long shot.