The crisis in Ukraine has dominated world headlines for the past few months, and for good reason. The political and social upheaval in the country featured a diverse and dramatic cast- Viktor Yanukovych as the fatuous, corrupt villain, Yulia Tymoshenko, the freed princess of the Orange Revolution, Vitaly Klitschko, the handsome, commanding pugilist, and a Greek chorus of self-defense militias, neo-fascists, and well-meaning citizens – all set against the dramatic background of EuroMaidan, a city square turned rebel headquarters.
After Yanukovych fled for parts unknown, and surfaced in Russia, a new character took the stage. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, inserted himself into the dramatic cast, more overtly than he had in the past. Using the protection of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as subtext, Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea, the autonomous republic within Ukraine. Russian troops are now massed along Ukraine’s eastern border, as a referendum on Crimean secession looms. The world fears intervention on Russia’s part, and rightly so.
Theories abound about Putin’s motivation for such a brazen show of force and possible land grab. Some point to Putin’s long patronage of Yanukovych. Some point to the gas pipelines running from Russia, through Ukraine, into Western Europe. Others have attempted to divine Putin’s personality, ambitions, and designs on the world stage – even going so far as to link the Crimean situation to Hitler’s 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland.
Most of these have been disproven. While allies of convenience, Putin has publicly rebuffed Yanukovych, and knows his utility has ceased. Ukraine needs Russia’s natural gas as much as any European country, and the pipelines are safe. Finally, Putin is not Hitler, and most everyone who has drawn that comparison has walked it back. I propose a simpler concept: what if Putin is simply using Crimea and the Ukraine as a way of shifting the focus from Russia’s own troubles with modernity, democracy, and corruption?
Putin’s Russia has retained much of its informal power structure from the Soviet days, which controls the government and industry both vertically and horizontally. The elite, both bureaucrats and businesspeople (often the distinction is useless) are fully in charge of a “selectively capitalistic kleptocracy.” Graft, theft, kickbacks, tax evasion, influence peddling, and insider trading are rampant.
Power is concentrated in the executive branch. President Putin suggests candidates to parliament, and if they are not confirmed he retains the power to dissolve the legislature. Laws concerning the NGOs make registration so difficult and oversight so omniscient that organized dissent is incredibly difficult. Media, police conduct, and human rights markers are similarly bleak. Over the last few years the voices of dissent have grown for unified and increased in volume. Putin needed something to dominate headlines, and only needed to look a few years back for an easy parallel.
Russia’s conduct in Crimea harkens back to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Like Crimea (or Ukraine), Georgia posed no strategic threat to Russia, nor offered any real material gain. The danger Russia faced from Georgia was ideological, embodied in the liberal and modern agenda of then-Georgian president Mikhael Saakashvili. In Ukraine, where a corrupt, oligarchic, undemocratic leader was deposed by a frustrated populace and united opposition party, Putin sees a similar ideological threat to his rule in Russia. Saber rattling on Ukraine’s eastern border undermines the new Ukrainian political structure and bolsters Putin’s image at home, where the nationalism and warrior mentality of the USSR still lingers. Putin hopes to thrust Russia into the national conversation as a way of improving his country’s stature and restoring a national pride that he feels is still damaged.
Putin on a horse. Putin diving for artifacts. Putin shooting guns. Laughable to some, these images are calculated, well timed, and beneficial to the Putin machine. Russia’s President knows how to blend military might, bravado, and posturing as a dramatic distraction from the real issues that threaten his presidency.
Once again, Putin is playing his role, laughing all the while, masterfully.