How Far Will Putin Go?

Russia's leader is acting impulsively -- and full-scale war may be next.


What began as a localized crisis in Crimea has now become a de facto state of war between Russia and Ukraine. After pro-Russian forces seized control of the Crimean parliament and government last week, Russian troops began occupying strategic sites throughout the autonomous republic on Friday and Saturday. On March 1, President Vladimir Putin escalated the conflict by submitting the following appeal to the Russian parliament:

In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation… I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.

Needless to say, the Council of the Federation gave its approval immediately. The extraordinary aspect of this request is that it gives Putin carte blanche to deploy Russian troops, not just in Crimea, where "citizens of the Russian Federation" are supposedly under threat, but "on the territory of Ukraine" — that is to say, anywhere "citizens" might be under threat. Insofar as actual or alleged Russian citizens can be found everywhere in Ukraine, Putin has now arrogated to himself the right to deploy Russian troops in, and in effect occupy, all of Ukraine. And since he will be the one to define when "the social and political situation in that country is normalised," that occupation could last as long as he likes — possibly resulting in permanent annexation.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that pro-Russian forces have seized administrative buildings and called for Russian assistance in a variety of Ukraine’s southern and eastern provinces: Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiv, and Dnipropetrovsk. Whether they represent anyone beside themselves is unclear, but there is no doubt that pro-Russian sentiment does exist among many ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in these provinces. More often than not, locals want an expansion of their regional powers and more cultural-linguistic autonomy. These are the normal demands made by regions and minorities in most contemporary states. If Putin were not a factor, authorities in Kiev should be able to hammer out some deal that would satisfy the rebellious provinces.

If, however, Putin decides to intervene militarily in Ukraine’s southeast, the tussle between Kiev and the provinces automatically will become a question of separation, dismemberment, and Russian aggression. Both Moscow and Kiev know that Russia’s military is superior to Ukraine’s. Russian armed forces number about 750,000 troops; Ukraine’s about 150,000. Russia has been aggressively spending on its military in the last decade, while Ukraine has actually been cutting back. In any armed conflict, Russia would win. Ukraine’s only hope would be to threaten to inflict enough casualties to affect Putin’s calculation of costs and benefits. And the farther Russian troops march into Ukraine, the more popular resistance they will encounter — and therefore the more civilian casualties they will inflict. Is Putin willing to start a war over all or most of Ukraine, or will he confine himself to annexing Crimea or, say, a few southeastern provinces?

The costs of a military incursion beyond Crimea would rise with the extent of the incursion. Annexing Crimea would outrage the Ukrainians and Central Europeans, but might, with some finessing, escape the ire of Brussels, Berlin, and Washington. Invading Ukraine’s southeast would be a naked imperial land-grab that would probably usher in a new cold war and shut off Russia from the international community. Launching a full-scale war with numerous civilian casualties, massive human rights violations, and possible ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians from the southeast would transform Putin into a pariah and earn him the reputation of a war criminal. Russia, meanwhile, would be completely isolated and possibly subjected to increasing claims on its own territory, by non-Russians within the country and by large powers (such as China) on its borders.

If one considers Russia’s interests, none of this — the armed intervention in Crimea, the claimed right to intervene anywhere in Ukraine — makes sense. Putin’s arguments simply do not hold water. As objective observers will confirm, there is absolutely no threat to Russian citizens anywhere in Ukraine. There may have been a diminution of overall law and order following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovich’s regime, but that affects all Ukrainian residents equally. Nor is the Kremlin’s claim that putative "fascists" from Western Ukraine are about to descend on Crimea and the southeast even remotely true. By the same token, intervention, war, international isolation, and the like will not enhance Russians’ living standards or their sense of well-being. There may be a temporary spurt of excitement at seeing the Russian tricolor hoisted in Donetsk, but that enthusiasm will quickly fade when Russians realize that these regions will impose an enormous economic liability. And, finally, there is no way that a truncated Ukraine’s transformation into a hostile anti-Russian state and a permanent occupation by Russian troops of potentially rebellious provinces — after all, there are also large numbers of pro-Western Ukrainians in the southeast — could possibly serve Russia’s interests.

There is only one reason Putin has embarked on what Russian democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov calls "folly": flexing his military muscle enhances Putin’s authority as a strongman who will reestablish Russia’s grandeur and brook no people-power in former Soviet states.

Putin’s incursion suggests that he must fear Ukraine — so much so that he is willing to risk Russia’s prosperity and stability. Putin the rational Bismarckian geostrategist has clearly given way to Putin the irrational and impulsive leader — possibly as a result of the triumph of the democratic revolution in Ukraine. This may be the only ray of light in an otherwise catastrophic picture. Bad leaders make bad mistakes and, when they do, their power often disintegrates. Unfortunately, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians may have to die before that happens.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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