Russia is going head to head with the West in a geo-political crisis over Ukraine and its future that is set on a path towards escalation. Putin sees the crisis over Ukraine as a test of strength, and as
a confrontation of prowess and prestige. The West sees it as either a disaster in the making that is not worth the trouble, causing them to avoid confrontation, or as the beginning of a Second Cold War. So far Russia has come out on top, making Putin a Russian hero, as he drowns out domestic dissidents and pushes for yet more gains and concessions from the international community. Scheming Bond Villain or Mad Demagogue depending on the outlet, Putin is at the center of the events in Ukraine and no one can tell what he is going to do next.
There is no economic disaster that is pushing Putin to distract the Russian public, though the Ruble has suffered since the start of the Crisis.
He wasn’t struggling in opinion polls and did not need to inflame the latent nationalism that supports his strong man personality, though the crisis has driven his approval rating to 80%. Given the international economic and political costs that have arisen since events in Ukraine began, it certainly isn’t about some new urge to intervene and reincorporate Russians into the Mother Country. Further, simple revenge for the Ukrainian refusal of the Russian Customs Union shouldn’t have extended to territorial annexation unless there were larger goals or principles involved. So what is driving Putin?
Part of the problem in understanding his motivations is that Putin is so distant from anything the Western political elite and media are accustomed to dealing with. He isn’t a former military man who overthrew the government through brute force. He isn’t a mad man making implausible threats and crying wolf. Instead he is the appointed successor of Boris Yeltsin, with experience in the Russian Counter-Intelligence Service, the KGB, during the Cold War. He has a degree in law, served a term as assistant director of International Relations at Leningrad University and has a PhD in Economics. More than that, he is a man of confrontation and combat, having five-decades practice of Judo and other martial arts. With such a varied experience in intellectual pursuits and in the Intelligence Service, all guided consistently by the lessons of a mastery of personal combat, he has amassed a wide reaching pool of lessons to follow.
One of those lessons is how to keep his enemy confused and cautious. The target of these lessons is both Ukraine and its supporters in the West. They defined themselves as enemies when they interfered in Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine, which is much more precious to him than Russian contacts and relations with Libya or Syria because of its historic, geographic and ethnic ties to his own country, real or fictitious. So, to keep these enemies paralyzed with confusion he is opening many doors, suggesting possible courses of action that fit under a common plausible theme which is probably unrelated to his larger goals. It’s why Russia is keeping thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border. It’s why Russia has expressed concern about Estonia’s Russian minority, just like they did about the minority in Crimea. It’s why they’re looking at breaking a Ukrainian blockade on the breakaway Transdniestria region of Moldova that wants Crimea-style annexation. It’s why Russian troops deployed in Crimea originally did not identify themselves, and why the recent stir of pro-Russian fervour in Eastern Ukraine is being supported if not actively triggered by Russian agents. All of this is about keeping the West uncertain, and in the dark.
Obviously, confusion is a natural tool to employ against the West before Putin makes his next move. So what insight does this really offer? It is possible that the disinformation also serves another purpose apart from distracting the West. It’s possible that it is being used to cover up the fact that events have already progressed beyond Putin’s original intentions or even that Putin is moving through uncharted territory. The implications of either of these is more concerning than if Putin is simply preparing for his next move, because it means no one is in control of the situation, no one has a sense of direction, and the risks of confrontation will continue to rise as neither side sees a way to back down. But what does the evidence, conflicting though it is, suggest?
History shows Putin’s support for renewed Russian hegemony over Soviet Eurasia through the Russian led Customs Union. However, advances with Ukraine in this project were slow and have stalled entirely after former President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled amid protests and Ukraine instead rejected the Russians in favour of the Euromaidan pro-European Union movement. After distributing a round of economic punishment on Ukraine, annexing Crimea and drastically increasing Ukraine’s energy costs, it would have seemed that the punishment for refusal was dealt. Even so, it was a double edged sword and the costs of integrating Crimean infrastructure will be substantial in addition to Western sanctions on Russia itself. Now however, a showdown over Eastern Ukraine seems increasingly likely and with it, the likelihood that Putin will be unable or unwilling to back down – meaning that any military conflict may well see Russia push for regime change Kiev, if not outright annexation of the entire country. In the meantime, Ukraine itself is unable to unite in the face of Russian aggression, and Putin is ready to make his next move.