Writing about Ukraine in April, I said that if then-pending sanctions from the United States and Britain ever arrived it would be “much too little, much too late.” Those sanctions did arrive, but I still stand by this judgment.
There has been much gloating in the last few weeks about the damage the sanctions have done to the value of the ruble, including a rather strange episode when President Obama adopted the third person to deny that he had been “rolled” by Vladimir Putin, and to take credit for the “financial crisis” Putin was now faced with.
The damage is real enough. There had been a joke going around about the ruble, the oil price, and Vladimir Putin hitting 63 next year. While the ruble is not quite there yet—it has lost a fifth of its value in the last three months and is trading at just over fifty to the dollar (it had been thirty in the spring)—the price of oil has fallen below this. The inflation rate in Russia is now above nine percent, and the Putin government has itself announced that the economy will retract by close to one percent next year.
The problem is that for the Kremlin, politics comes before economics, and calculations on that front do not at all lead in the direction of de-escalation. “Mirroring” was a big problem in Western analysis of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, an inability to comprehend that Moscow just doesn’t judge things the way Westerners do. The Soviets, for example, knew full well they were wading into a disaster when they conquered Afghanistan in 1979. They did it anyway, killing nearly 15,000 of Soviets and more than a million Afghans for precisely nothing. In the present case of Ukraine, however, there is nothing esoteric about the Kremlin’s calculations: Putin’s actions are wildly popular among ordinary Russians.
One survey found that while a majority of Russians do not believe there are any Russian soldiers in Ukraine, forty-five percent added that if there were Russian soldiers in Ukraine they would support them. Polling from the outset of the crisis has consistently found that most Russians accept the Putinist narrative that the West betrayed an agreement made at the conclusion of the Cold War to prevent the former Warsaw Pact States joining NATO, and instead moved aggressively into Russia’s sphere of influence when Russia was debilitated, moving uncooperative governments out of the way with “colour revolutions” and “encircling” Russia. By this logic, Putin seizing Crimea and attempting to set up a buffer zone in southeastern Ukraine is defensive. This narrative has been pushed by Western commentators too, from journalists like Ross Douthat and Peter Hitchens, to ostensibly more scholarly sources like Stephen Walt and Stephen Cohen.
This is nonsense of course. Despite a selective Russian reading of the diplomacy surrounding the end of the Cold War, specifically German reunification, NATO never did pledge to keep the former COMECON States out of NATO. Moreover, NATO is a voluntary association, explicitly defensive in nature, and has gone out of its way to reassure Russia. The idea that the “colour revolutions” and the Euromaidan protests that brought down Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February were really CIA operations or otherwise covertly guided by the West is, to put it charitably, unsubstantiated. It is also untrue that the Association Agreement offered by the European Union to Ukraine was intended to make Kyiv choose between East and West. The Agreement would have preserved Ukraine’s non-aligned status.
The irony of this is that the Kremlin’s actions have brought about the very things it least wanted: a Ukraine openly aligned with the West and a real sense of Ukrainian national identity—and both things largely defined against the Putin regime. Ukraine now has abandoned its non-aligned status, and while the Kremlin will no doubt use any sign of Ukrainian national feeling as evidence of the “fascists” and “Banderaites” it claims were behind the “coup” against Yanukovych, patriotism is a healthy thing. (Of course, while the Kremlin has claimed Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were the leaders of the protests, the Kremlin has also claimed that Ukraine is an invented country that is really part of Russia.)
But these facts do not change the view from Russia. The currency woes will prevent the oligarchs enjoying so much of their ill-gotten gains on the international markets, but most average Russians have little involvement in international trade. While inflation can wipe out savings, most Russians didn’t have many savings to start with. And while the population believes Mother Russia is the victim of Western economic warfare, against which Putin is standing firm, they will stand with him. Russians have had worse times than this, and resisting the godless, decadent West—bent on subjugating and homosexualising Russia—is high motivation.
Among the reasons the Russian population has been so supportive of Putin’s actions in Ukraine is that the regime has stirred up a nationalist frenzy by claiming that it is protecting ethnic Russians from Ukrainian fascists—and there is irony to spare in playing with hyper-nationalism inside Russia to fight largely-imaginary fascism in Ukraine. These are not the kind of furies that can be just turned off.
Russia is not a democracy and is basically under the control of the “special services,” the FSB above all. But Putin’s authoritarianism is not invulnerable to public opinion. Peter Pomerantsev has described the Putin regime as a “postmodern dictatorship” with a “liquid, shape-shifting approach to power” that “works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist”. This is not the “‘hard’ totalitarianism” of the Soviet Union, but something more on the model of Turkey or Venezuela where the formal institutions of democracy remain in place, and where the regime’s manipulation of the economy and the flow of information mean that it probably could (narrowly) win a free election, but where rule is arbitrary and individual rights are abridged.
The passions Putin has incited inside Russia to justify what he has done in Ukraine have taken on a life of their own: Putin cannot simply walk away from Ukraine now that he has made it an existential struggle for ethnic Russians against the descendants of the Third Reich’s collaborators. Public opinion matters enough that this is now an existential matter for Putin’s regime, too, which means that abandoning the insurgency in Ukraine, which is wholly under Moscow’s control, is not on the cards
The public statements from the Kremlin also indicate that it is not looking for an off-ramp: they sense weakness and indecision from the West, and a chance to avenge the Cold War by breaking NATO, showing its security guarantees to be hollow. Frontline States, Poland most notably, are acting in ways that indicate that they do not believe in the credibility of NATO (which is to say American) security guarantees, and in the wake of the “red line” debacle in Syria, where Washington was decisively out-pointed by Moscow, it is easy to understand why this administration’s credibility is so low.
To put it simply: nothing short of raising the cost in blood for this aggression in Ukraine will stop Putin’s regime in Ukraine, and prevent Moscow—by accident or design—triggering a wider war in Europe. Sanctions, always a blunt instrument, are insufficient on their own to stop Putin, but they might be enough to have him lash out. What is needed is conventional deterrence in the other vulnerable States—the Baltics and Poland especially—and helping the Ukrainian government militarily turn the tide. The Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) that Kyiv launched in April had some success over the summer, and indeed for a time it looked as if the pseudo-entities in Donetsk and Luhansk might unravel altogether, but the insurgency, with Moscow’s assistance and direction, hung on. Restoring Kyiv’s control over its territory, and preventing Putin establishing another frozen conflict, as he did in Georgia, which gives Moscow de facto control over parts of foreign States, should be NATO’s priority.
There is a risk: as the insurgency goes down, it will face the Kremlin with the straight choice of letting it collapse or openly invading to rescue it. The risk of overt invasion is real, but it is also an option with a lethal trapdoor for Putin. Moscow’s policy in Ukraine is popular with Russians while the price for it falls on Ukrainians; it will not remain popular—and thus the Putin regime will have difficulty sustaining it—if large numbers of Russians start getting killed. Dangerous as machtpolitik of this kind is, it is the least worst option at this stage.
The Ukrainian government should be given all necessary means to restore order and its writ: this means not just weapons but intelligence and diplomatic support as the inevitable short-term increase in casualties begins and the Russian propaganda about atrocities by the Ukrainian army is disseminated. The increased loss of life is a tragedy, but the number of lives saved by stopping this now, before it engulfs the whole region, might be uncountable. The sanctions have annoyed and maybe even panicked the Kremlin, but they will not stop it, and might well provoke a reckless escalation that leads to something truly terrifying in Europe.