The Front Lines on Russia’s Home Front

Vladimir Putin didn't invade Ukraine because he could. He did it because he had to.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In every country, all truly important foreign-policy choices are, at their core, ultimately about domestic politics. And it’s not just about creating a "rally ’round the flag" effect, or distracting from pesky domestic issues, although these are definitely relevant considerations for decision-makers. The right foreign-policy move at the right time can boost a leader’s ratings and the regime’s popularity. This is doubly true for authoritarian regimes that lack democratic legitimacy, and it is true for Russia today.

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as one top pollster told me in Moscow a few weeks ago, "foreign policy is pretty much the only thing that works." What he meant was that, with the country’s economy slowed to a crawl, and with the regime facing near-universal revulsion over the corruption, thievery, and incompetence of officials at every level, racking up foreign-policy successes has become vital to maintaining Putin’s popularity — which, in turn, is key to the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the "party of thieves and swindlers," Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage — from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto — to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands. This is why the Sochi Games were important enough to spend $50 billion on. It wasn’t just about showcasing the new, strong Russia to the world; it was, even more so, about what that showcase meant for Putin at home.

The so-called Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics was supposed to be one of those foreign-policy successes — perhaps the most spectacular of Putin’s career, the crown jewel in his efforts to create a new Russia-dominated counterweight to the West. When Ukraine, the linchpin in this future Union, was on the brink of distancing itself and moving toward the European Union, Moscow openly and heavy-handedly injected itself in an effort to push Kiev away from the European path. And when this backfired and protests broke out against the Yanukovych regime, the Kremlin propaganda machine went to work, framing Ukraine’s crisis as yet another instance of the West’s assault on Russia’s interests and security — and thus another opportunity for Putin to cast himself at home as the defender of the motherland, the only one who could thwart the designs of Russia’s implacable enemies. Russian lawmakers openly accused the United States and Europe of "support for violent protests." Most recently, Putin has even claimed that protesters in Kiev had been specially trained at camps in the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania.

With the vicious inevitability of Greek tragedy, the Kremlin’s strategy has brought about precisely the outcome that Putin feared most. When, on the Maidan, those who were willing to die outlasted those who were willing to kill — when the revolution triumphed, after almost three months of a deafening propaganda campaign, this triumph could not be interpreted domestically other than as a victory for the West, Russia’s strategic defeat, and a blow to the Putin regime’s domestic legitimacy. The huge wound needed to be cauterized. A revanche and recovery effort became a key domestic political imperative; the fate of Ukraine — a country of 46 million — is merely the means to that end.

Hence the seizure of Crimea, Ukraine’s political Achilles’ heel. If anywhere could help whip up a wave of patriotism large enough to wipe away the damage done by Putin’s handling of the Ukrainian relationship that spawned the Maidan protest, it is the peninsula. Crimea has been a target of Russian populist, nationalist, and Communist politicians for years, with its large Russian naval base and a majority-Russian population, including some fervently patriotic Soviet military retirees. It had all the hallmarks of an easy sell: Father Putin, protecting the "compatriots" in a place where Ukrainian sovereignty has been contested in the minds of many Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union.

And yet, perhaps this time, Putin may have overestimated the effectiveness of his propaganda — or misjudged his own people. In a recent poll, only 45 percent of Russians seem to have been persuaded that protests in Kiev were caused by the West "seeking to pull Ukraine into its political orbit." Even more troubling for the regime is that 73 percent said Russia should not interfere in Ukraine.

Following the weekend’s spectacular demonstration of decisiveness and effectiveness — two hallmarks of the image Putin strives to project at home — the Kremlin has now hit the pause button. The troops have landed but the guns are quiet. Putin is assessing the price the West is prepared to have him pay for the Crimean excursion before going any further.

The readout, at the very least, is likely to be anxiety-producing. The Russian stock market plunged 12 percent after the invasion. The ruble, which has been losing value all year, fell further against the dollar, despite the central bank ploughing billions into efforts to defend it, making the imports on which Russians have come to depend considerably more expensive. (Both the ruble and markets have since regained some of that lost ground.) If Putin decides to double down, say, by in effect annexing Crimea (as the scheduled March 16 "referendum" on whether the peninsula should join Russia seems to indicate), or by sending Russian troops to other parts of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union may begin freezing financial assets, banning travel by the political and military elite and their families, and barring Russian banks from doing business with Western financial systems.

These measures, in turn, will test the strength of Putin’s control over Russia’s elites. Individual targeting of those members of the Ukrainian elite "with blood on their hands" appears to have been effective in bringing about Yanukovych’s downfall; many of them started jumping ship in droves. Will Russian elites prove more resilient — or more afraid — and less affected by their status as international pariahs? Will Putin risk testing this proposition? And for how long?

As for other costs, there is little doubt that the G-8 Sochi summit is off. Russia’s membership in the G-8 is at serious risk as well — and this may provide Western leaders more leverage than many think. Even during the Cold War, being treated as an equal by the leaders of key industrial democracies — especially the United States — has always been an important legitimizing factor in Soviet politics, a means of reaffirming great power status and respect. Like the Soviets before him, Putin has managed to combine hostility toward the West with regular summitry that projects an image at home as an accepted and important international player. Failing to maintain this status quo will almost certainly hurt him in the eyes of the people at large.

In turn, Western leaders need to understand the lens through which the Kremlin views this one-man-generated crisis. Those who claim Putin commits acts like seizing Crimea simply because he can are wrong. He does these things because he must — because, as leader of a morally near-bankrupt regime at a time of a sharp economic decline, a major foreign policy defeat is something he cannot afford, and a spectacular assertion of power is almost all he has left. Putin launched himself into the very risky, open-ended Ukrainian adventure for largely domestic reasons; those seeking to bring it to an end would do well to remember this when figuring out how to honorably untangle the mess Vladimir made.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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