Lately I’ve been reading a lot of chicken little articles about how Putin is “doubling down” in the face of sanctions, a conclusion based on claims that the Russian military presence on the border with eastern Ukraine has either not receded or that it is increasing. One particularly alarmist headline suggested that Putin was willing to go to war over Ukraine.
Indeed, in the past few months I’m afraid to say that the last rational person in the Russian government might have been deluded into believing his own propaganda. I still think there is another interpretation for Putin’s actions however, namely that he knows his balls are in a vice and he’s trying to extricate himself from the corner he’s painted himself into.
To this date, Putin and his media flacks have spoken about the need to defend Russia’s interests and protect Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the government has vehemently denied supporting the rebels. So they have an imperative to defend these poor people, yet they aren’t defending them. Okay. A similar thing occurred in the Crimea where Russia had to send troops, who were not there, but were authorized to be there if they were, but they weren’t- all in order to protect people who were under threat of…something. The fact that there are plenty of Russian speakers well within government-controlled Ukraine, in fact many Russian speakers supporting the nationalists, didn’t matter. Russia had to send soldiers to protect people in the Crimea, coincidentally a territory Russians have pined about for years, but rest assured those Russian soldiers weren’t there. You know George W. Bush sure bullshitted the American public back in 2002-03, but at least he had enough respect for the American population to admit that they were invading Iraq. I would have put my fist through my TV set had I seen a White House spokesperson telling me with a straight face that those Abrams tanks rolling into Baghdad were operated by anti-Baathist rebels.
Why do I bring all this up? Because this illustrates the difficulty of the situation Putin has found himself in. Playing the patriotism card helped silence much, if not most of the opposition from 2011-2012. Obama’s bungling of the Syria conflict certainly gave Putin some currency as well. But the problem is that those in Russia who deferred to Putin in hopes that he would grant them their dream of a strong Russian empire expect him to do it. Numerous news stories have shown grumbling, even from the rebels themselves, that Putin has abandoned them. In is entirely possible that this military build up on the border ultimately means Putin has accepted the inevitable, and it’s obvious that the only way they can secure the border and stop the flow of rebels is with the military. Of course saving face means finding a way to do it without making the betrayal obvious.The journalistic chicken littles are talking about Putin staging a “peacekeeping” intervention, but even if he did venture that there’s always a possibility that the real aim of such a move would be to quietly and carefully extract the rebels and carefully screen them. Remember that if many of these rebels do indeed have ties to the Kremlin, it is not in the Kremlin’s interest to let these people fall into the hands of the Ukrainian forces.
Another major disincentive to military action on Putin’s part is the possibility of NATO, worst of all American, military intervention. Putin’s popularity right now is based on the false notion that he has “raised Russia from her knees,” which of course means that she is a military superpower, the only measure of a country’s greatness which most Russians know. It is by no means patriotism which compels me to say that a battalion of Rangers and maybe some US Army Special Forces would easily mop the floor with the rebels, ex-spetsnaz or not, and with far less civilian casualties than the incompetent Ukrainian army incurs. The chest-beating, militaristic culture in Russia relies heavily on the fact that the military confrontation between Russia and the US, which they are constantly fantasizing about, has never happened and thankfully is unlikely to happen. But to paraphrase Nasreddin, if it does happen, Putin can kiss his support from nationalists and Cold War nostalgists goodbye forever. The claim about raising Russia from her knees will be rendered utterly null and void for the current regime.
Putin’s seemingly immovable stance on the issue is most likely indicative of the terrible dilemma he has created for himself. Crack down on the rebels, make peace with Ukraine, and it’s undeniable betrayal. Stay involved and risk a military engagement or stiffer sanctions which will expose how impotent new Russia really is, and it’s humiliation and 1990’s conditions all over again, and tradition says the blame will fall squarely on Putin. This is not an enviable position to be in to say the least. Still, before we assume the worst and assume that Putin is planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt, understand the difficulty of his situation even if it is of his own making, and hope that he is returning to reason.