LVIV—Russia has committed a major military aggression against Ukraine. What is Mr. Putin so afraid of that he is willing to risk his strategic alliances, reputation, and the Russian economy in order to invade Crimea and perhaps other eastern parts of Ukraine?
The massive protests in Ukraine have shown the power of the people to choose their leadership, bring down dictatorships, and determine their own future. Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv) has been a focal point of a powerful pro-democracy movement and popular civil resistance for more than three months. All of this is happening at Russia’s doorstep. After President Yanukovych fled the country last week and was voted out by the Parliament of Ukraine, Putin lost again. The first time he lost during the Orange Revolution.
Having a democracy in Ukraine, with such close proximity to Russia, is very different from having one in Norway or Finland. If Ukraine is able to hold on to its nascent democracy it will mark the beginning of a major transformation of the the post-Soviet space. Gradual and steady erosion of the former Soviet Union domain will become irreversible.
Under such conditions it is difficult even for Mr. Putin, who controls all branches of the Russian government and all major media outlets in the country, to contain democracy. Ukraine is still financially and politically volatile, but already at this point it can become a contagious democratic example for the people of the Russian Federation. The media environment in Russia is carefully groomed by Mr. Putin, but even the supposedly omnipotent Russian president seems to be afraid of letting in any hope of a prosperous democracy take root in a post-Soviet state.
For this reason, Putin’s propaganda machine has been portraying the democratic protests in Ukraine as a mutiny by allegedly Nazis, fascists and extremists who are ardent haters of Russian speakers and Russian citizens — none of which is true. Ukraine’s chief rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich has already attested that Russia is blowing things out of proportion and is even involved in false-flag provocations in which Russians dress up as Ukrainian nationalists to discredit the entire pro-European movement.
Today, Putin has violated major international agreements, including the treaty on friendship, cooperation and partnership of 1997, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the UN charter, and bilateral agreements regarding the stationing of the Black Sea Fleet — all of which guarantee the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders. Can there be trust in Russia as an international partner for anyone in the international community after Crimea? Will Russia’s hand in inflaming and orchestrating potential Crimean secession from Ukraine lead to separatism across Russia’s enormous, porous borders, especially in the volatile North Caucasus region? Now, having violated the territorial integrity of a major European country at the immediate borders of the EU and NATO, even if Russia pulls out, can anyone ever look at it the same way?
Putin’s decision to move troops into Crimea might be seen in a wider context of building a so-called ‘protection belt’ or ‘buffer zone’ against the West. But was Putin’s emotional, hot-headed, and messianic decision caused by the failure to suppress Maidan? There doesn’t seem to be any gains for Russia to be had in this maneuver. Russia will not be able to bring prosperity to Crimea with gas money; it will not last. Crimea, as break-away region, will lose most of its tourist appeal. Potential international political and economic sanctions will gravely undermine Russia’s already frail economy. The Russian stock market already plummeted 11 percent when fears of a full-scale invasion were running high. What will happen to its market if Russia does invade?
Russia’s economic success might be seen only on Russian television and temporarily in Sochi. At the moment, Russia makes up about 0.2 percent of the world economy. It is highly dependent on oil and gas exports and requires structural reforms. The pervasive corruption, including the Olympic 50-billion dollars price tag, and excessive military spending will quickly eat up even that.
Repercussions to Putin’s image will now be permanent. The fact that Russia’s Cold War game is back on is beyond doubt. Its deranged dictatorship is out of control and can no longer be trusted. Too much power has concentrated in the hand’s of one person, who after 15 years in uncontested power, has become irrational. Russia’s blatant and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine is going to be a fatal move for him. In the medium to long term the first serious confrontation of the 21st century means check and mate for Mr. Putin. He will never be able to regain his credibility. With Putin in charge, autocratic Russia is headed toward being a pariah state with nuclear weapons.