The question can be risky. When a Moscow historian who compared Putin to Hitler for invading Ukraine posed it in a newspaper column last Sunday, he was fired from his job at Russia’s most prestigious university. Elsewhere, however, many now believe it has become reasonable to ask.
Has Vladimir Putin lost his grip on reality?
How can pushing the country on Russia’s southern border to the verge of civil war benefit Russia in the long run? That’s not to mention blackening Moscow’s reputation for staging the kind of invasion of an independent European country many believed had ended during the previous century. (Or at least the previous decade, when Russia invaded Georgia, another neighbor.)
As the United States and its European allies debate a response to Moscow’s headlong rush to annex Crimea, there can be little real chance of pressuring him to withdraw his troops from the Ukrainian peninsula without addressing that and other questions about his motives.
Putin’s mental health is difficult to assess because what would appear demented to many Americans can actually be based on practical motives — not Western ones but his own. His behavior reflects the logic of Russia’s political culture as opposed to our reasoning and values.
He took the risk of attacking Crimea primarily because he sees Westernization in Russia’s southern neighbor as an existential threat to his regime, if not in the way the Kremlin formulates it.
Putin doesn’t really believe Russian claims that the West was behind the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow leader Victor Yanukovych last month. Nor, as he sometimes argues, that Washington wants to overthrow the Kremlin and plunder Russia’s natural resources.
In fact, he’s afraid of the example rebelling Ukrainians have set for Russians, specifically of the danger that the development of rule of law and other Western attributes in Ukraine would erode the foundations of his governance at home. He wants Ukraine to continue serving as a bulwark against Westernizing reform so that Russia’s hugely corrupt system of crony capitalism—the merging of business and politics for the good of the ruling elite—will survive.
How does that system work? The conventional wisdom is that Putin has been able to rule for two dozen years because of his unwritten social contract with the Russian people. As long as living standards continue rising thanks to the country's vast energy wealth, the Kremlin is free to be as authoritarian as it likes.
In fact, corruption provides much of the real glue binding Putin’s regime to the people. More than just enrich Putin and his cronies, bribery affects almost everyone, from drivers who pay traffic police to get out of all sorts of real and invented infractions to business owners who pay the tax authorities to ensure they won’t be investigated.
As Russia’s de facto system, corruption coerces people because it enables the authorities to prosecute almost anyone it chooses to. At the same time, it coopts vast numbers by giving them a sense of owning a stake in the system that gives them something in return. The corner store owner who pays the local police to ensure no harm comes to his business feels he has a leg up on the competition a few blocks away. That’s one of the ways the Kremlin exerts a degree of top-down control over a vast, unruly country, and preserving it is among Putin’s overriding goals.
Among other reasons for invading Ukraine, Putin’s claim to be restoring Russia’s greatness distracts the population from the injustice and inefficiency his system perpetuates. That’s popular among a population that tends to resent the more prosperous and efficient West, especially the dark version of it disseminated in the propaganda that passes for news on Russian state television channels.
As Western leaders debate how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some are urging caution by arguing that the Crimean crisis has many deep historical causes, a confusing array of participants and is playing out on many levels: not only as a dangerous geostrategic game between Russia and the West but also as an internal struggle between pro-Russian eastern Ukraine and the European-looking west. However, that shouldn’t cloud the debate about what to do.
Forcing a confrontation between advocates of democracy and openness on the one hand and the Kremlin’s plundering authoritarianism on the other, Putin’s actions present a serious crisis for the West. Beyond Ukrainians’ ability to decide their own future, Western countries’ capacity for promoting their interests and values is at stake.
One of the differences between Putin and Western leaders is his making decisions in his own interest, not his country’s. Although controlling Crimea — which includes Sevastopol, the base Moscow has leased from Ukraine to house the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet — is strategically important for Russia, it’s not enough to justify the many negative consequences of invading Ukraine.
Russians would gain most from a prosperous, stable Ukraine that shares friendly relations in addition to language, culture and history. Putin, however, would rather see Ukrainians descend into bloody civil war than allow them to gravitate toward Europe.
Some of the blame lies with the West. Failing to respond to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 — after which Western countries put more effort into making up with Moscow than censuring it — prompted the Kremlin to perceive its action as a great victory.
Calling on Putin now to withdraw his troops from Crimea won’t work because creating a crisis for the West is precisely his aim. Like his Soviet models, Putin believes that to be feared and loathed means to be respected. More than simply a waste of time, hoping Moscow will listen to reason — as Secretary of State John Kerry lamely did this week — plays straight into the Kremlin’s hands.
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Only a bold, unified effort to isolate Putin economically and politically would have any chance of proving effective against a regime that welcomes conflict because it stubbornly sees foreign affairs as a zero-sum game. That must be done by pressuring Putin in the kind of language he might understand, making clear that remaining in Crimea would incur consequences that would damage his rule at home.
That means isolating the Kremlin politically and economically with all available peaceful means: expelling Russia from the G8, curtailing the purchase of natural gas from Gazprom when possible, freezing the assets of Russian officials and businessmen close to the Kremlin, boycotting Russia vodka, enacting visa restrictions against a large swath of Russian officialdom — and continuing to do so until the last Russian soldier leaves Crimea.
Russians, too, must be prompted to ask whether their leader has gone around the bend. He’ll remain impervious to Western pressure as long as he can portray himself as the restorer of Russian greatness.
GlobalPost Europe Editor Gregory Feifer’s new book "Russians" was published last month.