The psychology and evolution of the Kremlin’s regime mean it’s no longer about whether there will be the escalation of Ukrainian conflict. The question is how soon.
Will Russia move into southeastern Ukraine? While President Vladimir Putin has taken a pause waiting for the west to respond to Crimea, one has time to analyze his thinking and whether, in fact, there is any. On closer examination, three elements of Putin’s regime—ideology, social base, and economic motivation—might push him into continuing his Ukrainian adventure.
First, the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s actions is a KGB-style Cold War mentality mixed with a so-called “conservatism” (or whatever Putin believes “conservatism” to be) of early twentieth century religious Russian thinkers (Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin). While Ilyin serves to emphasize the enmity of the West against Russia, Berdyaev is instrumental in synthesizing the orthodox mindset with socialist legacy. Berdyaev, who himself at some (short) point converted into communism, is the author of an awkward and seemingly contradictory mixture of mysticism, orthodoxy, and socialism. Such mixture is exactly what a religious former KGB officer with messianic calling needs to unite the legacies of both the Russian and Soviet Empires into a solid path-dependent ideology. This ideology roughly assumes that Western countries (or NATO) spread some liberal and deleterious values fundamentally hostile to Russia’s tradition, and intentionally aim to ruin Russia’s historically unique culture that combines autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Slavic brotherhood. Hence, it’s a must for any self-respecting patriotic leader to protect the (very loosely understood) historical Russian borders from such civilizational challenge.
Kremlin adviser Sergey Markov recently reconfirmed the same idea by picturing Ukraine’s integration into the European Union as a competing political project alien to the Kremlin’s interests. His essay shows that the Kremlin is deeply scared that “Russia's opposition movement will surely want to … carry out their own revolution in Moscow” in order to “install a puppet leadership that will sell Russia's strategic interests out to the West.” The Kremlin does its best to destroy successful democratic undertakings in the post-Soviet space, like when it attacked Georgia in 2008. But contrary to Georgia, Ukraine’s ethnic and cultural similarity to Russia is much stronger. And as Markov openly acknowledges, the success of newly democratized Ukraine may teach Russians some unwanted lessons. As Akos Lada shows in his recent Monkey Cage post, for exactly the same reason “both hostile acts and wars are more frequent between two countries which share identities but have different political institutions.”
Is Crimea enough to secure “a buffer zone” between Russia and the hostile West? To Putin, it’s absolutely not. Russia has a long “unprotected” 2,000 km land border with Ukraine. Plus, according to Putin’s 2008 speech in Bucharest (which drafted the currently implemented plan), the south of Ukraine consists of “Russians alone” whose interests need to be protected. It hence makes sense for Putin to continue restoring the “Russian world” by linking together the currently isolated “enclaves” of Pridnestrovie and Crimea through a mainland channel along the south of Ukraine. So there is little doubt that the Kremlin’s attempts to “secure the border” and protect the “brotherly” east and south will continue.
The years that Putin, as a teenager, spent in Leningrad’s streets—a jungle ruled by survival-of-the-fittest, where criminal ties are common—had a formative influence on his character. The street thug in Putin still shows today through his taste for music (Grigory Leps—his favorite singer—is known to be strongly linked to the criminal world), his vocabulary (lots of vulgar and half-obscene expressions with multiple sexual connotations), the criminal-bureaucratic system he built in Russia, and his bold and aggressive behavior on the international stage. The street thug image has strong support among many social strata in Russia. Because of Soviet history, many Russians come from families with a criminal background, which, when combined with lower incomes and post-imperial syndrome, creates an explosive mix. Putin’s appeals to restore Russia’s might, his aggressive international stance, and his obscene vocabulary target directly those social strata, who are increasingly mobilized by the events in Ukraine. And in the event of war, this mobilized underclass, which is prevalent in the military, will fight for Putin’s sacred mission. Putin's thuggish mindset does not favor negotiations; it’s the logic of ultimatums and aggression. The aggressive rhetoric cannot be used groundlessly for a long time. Thus, in the absence of adequate Western responses, Putin will continue escalating into the Ukraine’s south-east.
Finally, the Russian system itself makes it hard for Putin to stop. Absent legitimation through free and fair elections, autocrats secure it through economic growth, anti-West nationalism, or war. Putin enjoyed oil-induced growth throughout the 2000s, but in the post-2008 economic stagnation he has been reorienting toward both nationalism and military conquest. But once a conflict escalates, a country becomes very vulnerable to economic openness and investments leave the country. Economic sanctions further slow down economic development. To maintain support, the regime further escalates war tensions. Refer to Slobodan Milošević's case in Serbia for further details.
Kremlin advisers like Sergei Glazyev who concerned about Russia’s economic vulnerability in case of war are encouraging the Kremlin to move toward more protectionism and economic closeness. Mikhail Leontyev, one of the Kremlin’s leading ideologists, has recently described the liberal-minded economic policy-makers in Putin’s government as “national betrayers” who should be sent to a tribunal. But the protectionist measures, once implemented, will further deepen the economic stagnation; hence more legitimation through nationalist conflict will be needed, and a vicious cycle will keep reinforcing itself.
Conflict escalation is likely to continue due to regime’s own logic and ideology, and the Kremlin’s latest actions also point in that direction. As southeastern Ukraine is destabilized by randomly emerging pro-Russia activists and mobs, the Kremlin continues concentrating large amounts of armored vehicles near Russian-Ukrainian borders, Russian authorities are preparing to seize the property of foreign citizens and institutions, and the country is threatening not to repay banking loans in economic sanctions are imposed.
Such escalation is unlikely to be peaceful. Putin lives in another world and fails to realize that Russia is far less welcome on the Ukrainian mainland than in Crimea. Southeastern Ukraine is split in between pro-Russia and pro-West Ukrainians, surveys show, and if Kremlin aggression continues into the mainland, the anti-Russian Ukrainians are likely to counteract. In other words: war.
How can the West avoid such a result? The “decentralization” of Ukraine, which some U.S. academics advise will only further push southeastern Ukraine under Kremlin influence in the near future; the pro-Kremlin media is already quite effectively brainwashing Russian-speaking populations in the southeast. Local demand for federalization has always been relatively weak. Rather the opposite is true in light of a new, distinctly civic brand of Ukrainian nationalism in the face of an external threat. Targeted sanctions against some of the Kremlin’s officials, although necessary, won’t fundamentally alternate the behavior of ideologically driven Kremlin decision-makers; Kremlin elites are strongly tied to the West, but people within Putin’s closest circle most likely don’t own many assets abroad.
The best deterrent would be severe, Iran-style sanctions against Russia’s state-owned corporations, combined with a concerted Western effort to decrease oil prices. Similar economic sanctions imposed on Iran proved very effective, and will likely keep Putin's thuggish, imperialistic ambitions in check. But leading NATO nations can't seem to agree on the issue, which means there might really be a war in Ukraine after all.
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Maria Snegovaya is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University, and a columnist at Vedomosti.