The Russian annexation of Crimea, which has already started, presents the international community with the need to give a firm response to the Kremlin. Russian author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek notes the West’s responsibility for having strengthened Vladimir Putin’s regime in the first place, and warns of grave consequences if the Kremlin’s plans for Ukraine are allowed to succeed.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea virtually means the start of a war between two European countries. The fact that there have, as of yet, been no active hostilities or casualties suggests that Vladimir Putin does not need to launch a full-blown war and that Kiev has neither the political will nor a capable army to stand against the aggression.
Some believe that the best tactic for the Ukrainian military in Crimea is to remain unprovoked. It is widely thought that the only thing the Kremlin needs to justify bringing a “limited contingent” of troops into the country and launching active hostilities is a pretext. Those who believe this think too highly of the current Russian regime. A pretext is immaterial to the Kremlin’s plans.
Moscow’s pretext for intervening in Ukraine’s domestic affairs in the first place was not just far-fetched, but entirely engineered by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine—that is, by the Federal Assembly and state-owned TV channels. The mythical “oppression of Russians” in Ukraine that has been offered as an explanation for the aggression can only be sold to the domestic Russian audience, which receives information about current events from state-controlled television news. Realizing that such an explanation is unconvincing to the rest of the world, the Kremlin is hastily handing out Russian passports to Crimean residents in order to make it look like Moscow is “protecting” not just Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but citizens of Russia.
The search for pretexts for aggression is of secondary importance to the Kremlin, though. The current Russian authorities are so cynical that they will use any pretext at all and can, in fact, easily do without one. It is naive to believe that the Russian troops do not open fire because they are waiting for a pretext for doing so. The truth is quite simple: Putin prefers to annex Crimea with as little effort as possible. Why should he complicate the situation if it’s possible to conduct a “velvet occupation” without any military clashes? After all, the outcome will be the same. If, however, the need to open fire arises, Putin will not hesitate, as he demonstrated in Georgia in 2008 and in Chechnya before that.
Another advantage of the “velvet occupation” approach is that it gives the Kremlin an opportunity to test the reaction of the West. This reaction has until now satisfied Putin. The threats of economic sanctions and Russia’s political isolation do not alarm the Kremlin. Such a scenario would be unpleasant, but not catastrophic. Russia’s current authoritarian regime has reached a point where Kremlin leaders not only have no fear of the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, but actually long for it. Their wellbeing is based on power, and in order to maintain this power they are prepared to let Russia suffer all manner of hardships—especially given that their own wellbeing is unlikely to be compromised by such hardships. Moreover, they believe—and with good reason, unfortunately—that the sanctions will be temporary. Even if imposed, the sanctions will eventually be lifted, whereas the Kremlin’s plan will be implemented no matter what. Suffice to recall what happened to international sanctions imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square events of 1989.
Putin’s past experience in dealing with Western leaders probably adds to his confidence. For all the years of Putin’s presidency, Western leaders have been willingly turning a blind eye to the repressive nature of the Russian regime, while accepting the Kremlin’s assurances of its allegiance to democracy. Through this irresponsible policy, the West is guilty of encouraging the growth of an authoritarian monster in Russia. Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization, the G8, and other political clubs has become more than a luxurious perk for and an expensive gift to Putin; it has also created a favorable environment for him to grow and gain strength.
For all the years of Putin’s presidency, Western leaders have been willingly turning a blind eye to the repressive nature of the Russian regime. Through this irresponsible policy, the West is guilty of encouraging the growth of an authoritarian monster in Russia.
The hour of reckoning has now arrived for the West; the time has come to sum up the results of this long-term policy of perks and appeasement. Some politicians have suddenly realized that Putin is not quite in touch with reality and lives “in another world.” Of course, it’s unlikely that he changed overnight. His Western colleagues have just preferred to ignore these peculiarities until now.
The West is now consolidating, taking joint diplomatic steps, expressing its common position, and preparing potential sanctions. These are all good measures, but they are rather overdue. This should have been done back in 2008, when the Kremlin occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And such measures would have been even more appropriate during the war in Chechnya, when Russian troops were killing their own people. If the West had set this precedent years ago, Putin would have probably thought twice before invading Ukraine, and would have expected more than silence from the West.
Although Russia’s expansion can still be stopped, the window of opportunity has narrowed considerably. The situation has been neglected for too long. Ukraine’s options are limited: it can surrender in Crimea or put up a fight, involving the help of international forces in containing the aggressor. Although the global community has provided a start, the measures it offers are ones that should have been taken long ago. Today, Putin will see diplomatic steps and economic sanctions as proof of the West’s weakness in the face of open aggression. There is no surer way to bring on catastrophe than by appeasing an aggressor. Unfortunately, this is a truth only more or less clear to those who live in aggressive states. Putin has no use for the negotiations with his regime or the peace-support missions in Crimea that the West has been offering to conduct. Even if he chooses to accept these measures, he will do so only in order to play for time and participate in the international game. In reality, an aggressor only needs negotiations when he is destroyed and his position is beyond hope.
The potential destruction of the regime is the only thing that can contain an aggressor. As soon as the U.S. aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, along with two dozen U.S. warships, appeared in the Mediterranean, Putin ordered his forces in the Western and Central military districts to end exercises and return to their bases. The movement of Russian troops to the country’s Ukrainian borders has apparently been put on hold.
Further development of the situation in Crimea directly depends on the West’s willingness to offer Ukraine military assistance in stopping the Russian intervention. Just one explicit demonstration of willingness would help avoid bloodshed. And vice versa; the West’s virtual capitulation in the face of aggression and Putin’s victory over world public opinion would encourage broader Russian expansion into surrounding territories. As the French say, “l’appetit vient en mangeant” (appetite comes with eating), and Putin’s appetite with regard to neighboring countries has never been poor.