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Explainer: Why did Putin’s regime engineer current military crisis over Ukraine?

February 21, 2022 11:07 amby Oleg Sukhov
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Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manezh exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. (kremlin.ru)

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s current saber-rattling over Ukraine has its roots both in his worldview and his regime’s authoritarian evolution. 

First, Putin is obsessed with the megalomaniac idea of having a grand historic mission, including the resurrection of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union and projecting its geopolitical might worldwide, analysts say.

Second, his regime has evolved into an unelected and unaccountable dictatorship whose raison d’etre is fighting against external enemies – real or imaginary. For such regimes, war rhetoric is a good way to distract attention from domestic problems. 

According to different estimations, Russia has amassed between 149,000 and 190,000 troops around Ukraine and in its occupied areas, while its proxies have escalated fighting in the Donbas. The Kremlin has also issued demands that Ukraine should be forever banned from NATO and that the alliance should stop its eastward expansion.

This new international crisis is rooted in Putin's old views and Russia's domestic problems.

Putin’s view of Ukraine 

Putin's views of Ukraine crystalized in the article he authored in 2021.

In it, he claimed that “the Russians and Ukrainians are one people, one whole” and argued a Ukrainian nation state separate from Russia is an artificial and stillborn entity. 

He blamed the West for dividing the Russian and Ukrainian nations and characterized this split as a “tragedy.” It echoed Putin's earlier claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” 

Ukraine was considered to be the “crown jewel” of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. U.S. diplomat and political analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski said in 1994 that Russia would cease to be an empire without Ukraine as a puppet state or a part of Russia. 

Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is also due to the fact that a democratic Ukraine integrated into the West would be seen as a model for opponents of his authoritarian regime, Russian political analyst Georgy Satarov told the Kyiv Independent. 

Ironically, Putin has contributed the most to the break between the two nations and encouraged Ukraine’s nation-building by launching aggression against the country, Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent. 

“He seeks to create the historic image of a re-uniter of Russian lands,” Oreshkin said. “What he writes is incompetent. Putin makes false conclusions based on false history but he believes in it himself.” 

Putin’s geopolitical dreams

Oreshkin argued that Putin does not pay much attention to domestic politics and the everyday management of the country anymore. He is focused on geopolitics and his delusional sense of a greater historical mission, Oreshkin said. 

“For him, (the Ukrainian crisis) is a way of inciting international interest (in Russia),” Satarov said. “Dictators tend to pay the most attention to foreign politics.” 

Analysts say that Putin desperately seeks to be seen as an equal of the world’s most powerful leaders, projecting Russia’s power in Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. By bullying Ukraine and issuing demands to stop NATO’s expansion, he is aspiring to the role of a global decision maker. 

According to one theory, as Putin pays less attention to down-to-earth matters in Russia and is more and more focused on his geopolitical projects, he is becoming increasingly out of touch with reality. This view is shared, among others, by columnist Leonid Radzikhovsky and journalist Mikhail Fishman. 

If this opinion is true, Putin may think that long-term victory in a large-scale war with Ukraine is possible – contrary to experts’ opinions. Military analysts who believe that Putin may launch a large-scale war in Ukraine include Rob Lee and Michael Kofman. 

But Oreshkin believes Putin’s irrationality has not reached that level yet. His ideas are irrational but he recognizes his limitations and will not start a large war, he argued. 

“He’s rational in the achievement of irrational goals,” Oreshkin said. “He’s rational in his quest for a mirage.” 

Why now? 

Putin has chosen the current moment to realize his geopolitical dreams now because he thinks “he has accumulated enough resources to strengthen his geopolitical positions,” Oreshkin said. 

Putin sees Biden as weak after the fiasco with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and Biden’s failure to sanction Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany, according to Oreshkin. 

The European Union has also been weakened due to Brexit and the resignation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December, he added. 

Putin has also chosen the current moment because the Russian military has been strengthened and reformed since 2014 and because Russia is in a good economic position due to large foreign reserves and surging oil and gas prices, according to U.S. military experts Lee and Kofman.  

Putin may also have decided that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had initially been willing to negotiate with the Kremlin, has changed his stance and will not concede to Russian demands unless force is used, they argued.

The Minsk accords, which could have incorporated a Kremlin-controlled entity in the Donbas into Ukraine, have not been implemented. Meanwhile, Putin’s allies in Ukraine, including his right-hand man Viktor Medvedchuk, have faced sanctions and criminal charges. 

Distracting attention from domestic problems

The Kremlin has also historically used alleged external threats, including Ukraine and the West, as a ploy to distract attention from pressing domestic concerns. 

“This way they compensate for their failures in domestic policy,” Satarov said. “And virtually Putin’s entire domestic policy is a failure.”

Based on opinion polls, Putin does have a problem at home. 

His electoral rating fell from a peak of 63% in 2017 to 32% in 2021, while his approval rating plummeted from an all-time high of 89% in 2015 to 53% in 2021, according to the independent Levada polling agency. 

Meanwhile, the electoral rating of Putin’s United Russia party has reached an all-time low. It amounted to 26% in 2021, compared with a peak of 56% in 2015, according to Levada. 

Dissatisfaction with Putin’s regime has been growing, Oreshkin argued. 

His increasingly authoritarian rule has triggered a backlash. During the rigged 2019 local elections Moscow witnessed the largest protests since 2011-2012, while the largest-ever regional protests took place in 2020 in Khabarovsk Krai after the arrest of a popular governor. 

A geopolitical or military victory in Ukraine could be a way to boost public approval ahead of the 2024 presidential election. 

Russia’s public opinion is “militarized,” and Putin’s three peaks of popularity coincided with the war in Chechnya in the early 2000s, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, Oreshkin argued. 

Problems abound

There are multiple problems from which attention is being shifted to the Ukrainian crisis. 

Russia’s economy has experienced a crisis due to sanctions imposed due to its aggression against Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Real disposable incomes plummeted 10.6% in 2013-2020. Russia’s gross domestic product fell 2% as a result of Western sanctions in 2015, then showed modest growth but dropped again by 3% amid the pandemic in 2020.

Moreover, Putin’s decision in 2018 to increase the retirement age was highly unpopular and prompted protests. 

Russian authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also been criticized. 

In 2021 Russia often ranked first in the world by the number of daily COVID-19 deaths, and the effectiveness of Russian coronavirus vaccines has been questioned. 

Repression

Putin’s increasingly despotic regime has also reached a stage when a large-scale war is possible due to the elimination of any potential opposition to it. War has also served as a justification for the existence of many authoritarian regimes around the world. 

“An external threat, the syndrome of a fortress under siege and the necessity to defend ‘sacred’ borders is the only agenda in which Putin can be the nation’s leader,” Russian columnist and satirist Viktor Shenderovich said on the Echo of Moscow, a radio station, on Feb. 17. “All other agendas have been lost and forgotten.” 

The level of authoritarianism in Russia has reached the highest level since he came to power, reinforcing the country's militarist stance.

In 2020 Putin held a rigged vote to approve constitutional amendments that let him run for two more presidential terms after his current one expires in 2024. The amendments could allow Putin, who has been in power since 1999, to remain president until 2036.

The vote on the amendments and the 2021 parliamentary elections saw the biggest election fraud in the Russian Federation’s history, according to empirical data and a mathematical analysis by election specialists. 

Meanwhile, about 20 of Putin’s critics have been killed or died in suspicious circumstances. 

Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny survived a murder attempt in 2020. German doctors said he had been poisoned with a chemical weapon produced by the Russian government.

The Insider, Bellingcat, CNN and Der Spiegel published an investigation according to which agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service had poisoned Navalny and killed or tried to kill several other opposition figures. 

The bloodthirsty hysteria reached a fever pitch on Feb. 2, when top associates of a Putin ally, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly pledged to cut off the heads of a critic of Kadyrov and his family. 

Coincidentally, Kadyrov has repeatedly threatened Ukraine, and Kadyrov’s troops have been transported to the Ukrainian border. 

Oleg Sukhov
Author: Oleg Sukhov

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.