Putin’s seizure of Crimea appears to have been an improvised gambit, developed under pressure, that was triggered by the fear of losing Russia’s strategically important naval base in Sevastopol.
NATO’s enlargement remains a sore point for Russian leaders, and some in the Kremlin certainly dream of restoring Russia’s lost grandeur. Yet the chaotic manner in which the operation in Crimea unfolded belies any concerted plan for territorial revanche. Although this might at first seem reassuring, it in fact presents a formidable challenge to Western officials: in Putin, they must confront a leader who is increasingly prone to risky gambles and to grabbing short-run tactical advantages with little apparent concern for long-term strategy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to Russia's Federal Assembly — the Russian equivalent to the U.S. president's State of the Union address that, as such, carries a great deal of significance. This year, however, Putin's speech was markedly different from past addresses in ways that reflect both a shift in Russia's view of the world and the challenges that Russia now faces.
In Putin's two previous addresses since returning to the presidency in 2012 for his third term, the Russian leader opened with optimistic remarks about progress and the advance of reforms inside the country. This time, however, Putin began in a markedly different tone, focusing instead on battle. According to the president, "This year Russia faced trials that only a mature and united nation and a truly sovereign and strong state can withstand. Russia has proved that it can protect its compatriots and defend truth and fairness."
This year certainly has been a tumultuous one for Russia. It started with the uprising in Kiev that ousted the pro-Russia government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in favor of one looking to tighten integration with the West. The struggle over the future of Ukraine fueled the Russian annexation of Crimea and, in turn, led the West to impose a series of sanctions on Russia. These sanctions have exacerbated the country's sharp economic decline. Now Russia is teetering on the brink of recession — or perhaps something worse.
Putin blamed these hardships entirely on the West, primarily the United States. The president explained that whenever Russia seems too strong or independent, the West implements a broad policy of containment and that this strategy has been used for centuries. He asserted that even had the events in Ukraine not taken place, the United States and its allies would have devised another excuse to contain Russia's growing capabilities. Moreover, Putin accused the United States of influencing Russia's relations with its neighbors and said that it had become unclear "whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors."
This was not an idle diatribe, but instead a shift in Putin's view of the United States and of U.S. power. Over the past few years, Russia has considered U.S. power to be the summation of U.S. President Barack Obama's capability and bandwidth. This discounted the vast networks and resources that the United States commands beyond the institution of the presidency. Under this assumption, Russia took bold and provocative steps to undermine the United States internationally by co-opting negotiations over Syria and then by granting sanctuary to U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. Moscow advanced the notion that it was a major international player on par with the United States.
The events of this past year in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions and other economic pressures have proved Moscow's initial assumptions wrong. Putin's speech acknowledged this fact and gave the United States responsibility for much of what is negatively affecting Russia.
As it would happen, Putin's speech came shortly after a major gunbattle between security forces and militants in the Russian region of Chechnya — the first in years. The fighting left 19 dead and raised the prospect of a revival of the Chechen insurgency. Such a development would deal a major blow to the Kremlin, particularly if it came amid Russia's ongoing borderland conflict, tensions with the West and an impending economic crisis. One of the sources of Putin's continued popularity with the Russian people is his success in quelling the separatist and terrorist movements in the Northern Caucasus after two wars in the region.
Putin's speech acknowledged the attack in Chechnya and accused the West of previously celebrating such militants as freedom fighters. He said that in the past separatists have received information and political and financial support from "across the pond," referring to the United States. The speaker of Chechnya's parliament, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, suggested that the militants behind today's attack in Grozny could be fulfilling orders from the United States and NATO to politically and economically weaken Russia.
It may not be a coincidence
that pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine have eased their attacks on
Ukrainian positions in recent weeks, particularly since the latest cease-fire
was agreed to Dec. 5. Also, Russian officials have toned down their rhetoric,
with some going so far as to say that the status of the breakaway territories
may be up for negotiation — which is a far cry from the broad support of the
independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk
"people's republics" and their possible incorporation into Russia.
The de-escalation of the fighting
and softer rhetoric out of Russia have also coincided
with growing concerns from Europe about sanctions against Russia. The Russian
economy is so weak that there are fears of contagion into Europe at a time when
the European Union is still mired in its own financial crisis. For example, the
managing director of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and
Commerce stated that one in three German companies doing business with Russia
will have to fire employees or cancel projects. Many officials from EU
countries, including France, Austria and Bulgaria, have called for the bloc to
ease its sanctions against Russia.
In fact Putin now has
more reason than ever to support the de-escalation of fighting in eastern
Ukraine, as any major military moves could prove too costly and undermine his
strength at home. These factors could provide the context of the recently
intensified diplomatic activity regarding the Ukraine crisis. With EU sanctions
set to automatically expire in various phases next year, and with Russia now
less aggressive than it was just a few months ago, these circumstances could
pave the way for further de-escalation on the Ukraine issue.
Still, this does not mean that a broader deal between Moscow and the West over Ukraine is imminent. For that, Russia would need to pull its military and financial support for the separatists completely and agree to resume political and economic ties between the breakaway territories and Ukraine proper — something that it has not yet proved willing to do. But Moscow's tenuous financial situation likely will make it more flexible in dealing with these issues and less willing to act aggressively in Ukraine, and the West in turn could soften its own demands on Russia. In this way, the rise of one crisis between Russia and the West could tone down another.
We also should note that the way that the American media has put it out there is that Russia is being the aggressor, and instead we're seeing Russia be very reactive instead. NATO starts to build up, then Russia starts to build up. The United States helps support the revolution that took place in Ukraine this past year, Russia then takes Crimea and goes into eastern Ukraine. So it really is a reaction to what is taking place out of the United States and out of NATO.