When Russian president Vladimir Putin seized Crimea in late February 2014, in one stroke transforming the post–cold war diplomatic calculus, many Western statesmen and a good number of my colleagues, angry and disappointed, not only criticized him, bemoaning the return of a new harshness in East-West rhetoric; they also threatened economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Putin’s gamble in Crimea (and it was a gamble) was reckless, even dangerous. Why had he acted so impulsively, so Russianly?
An international border was, after all, an international border, not to be violated by a powerful neighbor when it suited his interests. The Helsinki Accords of 1975, signed by Russian and Western leaders, specifically stated that Europe’s borders would henceforth be regarded as “inviolable.” More relevant, perhaps, ever since the Soviet Union and its creaky East European empire disintegrated in late 1991, Russia has signed a string of solemn agreements with the West guaranteeing the “territorial integrity” of all of the newly independent nations in Eastern Europe, those that were formerly component parts of Moscow’s communist empire. Yet, despite these agreements, Putin gobbled up Crimea, and, in short order instigated a pro-Russian rebel insurrection in the southeast corner of Ukraine. One felt the chill of a new cold war.
For a time, with the demise of the Soviet empire, many of us, in a blush of naivete, hoped that a new dawn in international cooperation was rising, one in which Russia would play a positive role. From Western capitals came well-intentioned invitations to Moscow: opening doors and opportunities to this and that, even to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), constructed, ironically, to repel Russia. But from the Russians, sadly, came only an occasional, and obviously reluctant, acceptance. Putin clearly had a different agenda in mind, framed by a deep distrust of Western intentions and an even deeper sense of national grievance: ever since the Soviet collapse in 1991, which he labeled “a major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century,” Russia had been wronged in many ways, he felt, and he was determined to right those wrongs.
Putin built a kleptomaniacal autocracy, which he has ruled like a modern mix of Stalin and Peter the Great. He cracked down on the media, narrowed the field of play for all foreign companies operating in Russia, and made it painfully clear that he would tolerate only gentle domestic criticism of his problematic policies. He pursued an ultra-nationalistic foreign policy. He basked in the glory of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and while strutting around the world like a spoiled Hollywood star, he yearned at the same time for Russia again to be recognized and respected as a global player. His brash diplomacy was often a convenient cover for Russia’s traditional insecurities.
But, in late 2013, things changed. Massive anti-Russian demonstrations began to rumble in Kiev’s Maidan Square, threatening the position of Putin’s client, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and posing an appealing, democratic alternative to his autocratic rule. Putin worried not only about his own grip on power but also about Western encroachments into his backyard, his “sphere of influence,” what Russians call the “near abroad.” Then, in late February 2014, only a few months later, a frightened Yanukovych fled from Kiev, angry mobs barking at his heels. Putin blamed this dramatic turnaround on the West, on NATO, on the United States—all of them aligned, he charged, in an anti-Russian conspiracy and determined to stage a pro-Western “coup.” In Putin’s rear-view vision, Ukraine was losing its Slavic soul.
Chto delat’? “What’s to be done?” as Lenin famously asked. Putin’s answer was to seize Crimea, a low-hanging fruit that had been a part of the Russian empire since 1783, when Catherine the Great took it from the Turks. Actually, Crimea had been in and out of Russian hands for more than a thousand years; one of the out periods was from 1954 to 2014, when it officially was part of Ukraine. Putin’s pretext was that the Russians who lived there, roughly 60 percent of the population, had to be protected from Ukrainian oppression. Far more likely, though, Putin imagined that the coup leaders in Kiev, whom he described as “fascists,” were secretly plotting to occupy the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Russia’s only warm water port. And if the “fascists” did occupy Sevastopol, he feared, then NATO would not be far behind. Sevastopol was, for Putin, as for any Russian leader, a vital national interest, and, like the Russians living in Crimea, it too had to be protected.
Suddenly, as though on cue, “little green men” operating in uniforms without insignia appeared at Crimean airports, railroad stations, and radio and TV stations, and, within a matter of days, took effective control of the entire peninsula. A short time later, the same “little green men,” by this time identified as Russia’s elite special forces, showed up in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where many Russian-speaking Ukrainians lived. Again in uniforms without insignia, as in Crimea, they swiftly assumed administrative control of Donetsk and Luhansk and then, like throwbacks to the Soviet era, proclaimed themselves “People’s Republics.” The West pointed an accusing finger at the Kremlin, but Russian leaders pretended they had nothing to do with these rebel uprisings. This all happened with an unSlavic efficiency, as though the Russians had miraculously become Prussians. The world had turned a scary corner.
On Sunday, September 27, at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, Marvin Kalb will be discussing his latest book, "Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War."
For more information on the book, please visit the Brookings Institution website.
The book is available for purchase on Amazon.