- - Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea adds fuel to the analyses that dominate current thinking, which say Russia is a resurgent power and the West is at a loss of how to deal with the challenges that Mr. Putin presents.

These are all interesting arguments, seemingly presaging imminent doom for the West and the international order, but they are misplaced. Rather, the Crimea thrust may well spell the end of Mr. Putin’s rule.

In his arrogant outburst of power politics toward Ukraine, the Russian president may well have unleashed the forces that will bring down his regime.

Mr. Putin’s goal is to weaken Ukraine, politically and economically, so that it will act as a pliant member of the Russian orbit. It appears that his success depends on two points, both of which have floundered.

First, he believes that Ukraine is rife with ethnic strife that can easily be exacerbated to his political advantage. Instead, he, like many in the West, misread what is actually occurring in Ukraine.

Ukrainian society is marked by intermarriage of Ukrainians and Russians, generational divisions and blurred ethnic lines. The young in particular see their futures as lying with the West, rather than with an autocratic Russia.

A recent poll shows that a majority of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, for example, opposed Russia taking over Crimea. Mr. Putin’s assumption revealed its hollowness when he had to use troops and import provocateurs into Crimea to stage the crisis.

In eastern Ukraine, he also had to send provocateurs to start rallies against the Ukrainian government. Without the presence of Russian troops, these demonstrations have been handled by the Ukrainian authorities.

Mr. Putin’s second assumption appears to be that Ukraine’s military would roll over and stage mass defections. Instead, Ukraine’s military has stood fast and will fight if a Russian invasion takes place into the Ukrainian mainland. This immediately raises the stakes, making it unlikely that he will start a military invasion.

The result is that Mr. Putin may control Crimea, but he has lost Ukraine, which is moving toward the West as quickly as it can. In addition to the huge economic costs of maintaining Crimea, Mr. Putin will be faced with explaining how he lost Ukraine.

His political standing, which rose in Russian polls since he was seen as standing up against the West, will eventually take a beating at home.

The Crimean issue is most likely to give new vigor to the democracy movement in Russia itself. Outside of the desire to control Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s goal was also to stifle any successful democratic movement in the fear that it could spread to Russia.

The thinking of Russian democrats now is if Ukraine can succeed, so can we. Mr. Putin has faced popular opposition against his increasingly authoritarian rule, and the Crimean action has given the pro-democracy movement an additional cause.

Last weekend, there was an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow expressing opposition to the Crimean aggression, which drew thousands of people, many of whom carried the Ukrainian flag. The weakness of the Russian economy as seen by a declining level of real disposable income will only feed the political discontent.

Owing to the current crisis, foreign investors will be cautious about investing in Russia, and Russian businesses will encounter difficulties in getting credit from foreign lenders. Europe is now also seriously examining alternatives to its dependence on Russian gas supplies, which, when eventually implemented, will further damage Russia’s economy.

Mr. Putin has also managed to cause Russia to be ostracized and undercut in its credibility and role in the international community. This will take the sheen off Mr. Putin within the Russian ruling circles.

For various bureaucracies and individuals, contacts with the outside world are important, and they will chafe under restrictions that are now in place, such as the suspension of Russia’s bid for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The newly announced sanctions will also contribute to this concern.

On Monday, both the United States and the European Union announced targeted sanctions against individuals that involve visa bans and freezing of assets, affecting several individuals close to the president.

Mr. Putin has also succeeded in galvanizing Europe into realizing the potential threat Russia poses to other states, such as the Baltics nations, which also have ethnic-Russian populations. Thus, in seeking to enhance Russia’s role and image, he has actually diminished both.

In bullying Ukraine and the international community, Mr. Putin appears to have opened the door to a host of pressures and may have laid the foundation for a political revolution in Russia and for his own eventual exit. Mr. Putin’s KGB tactics may have served him well, but they will fail in the end for the same reason that terror eventually fails everywhere: The people stand up against it.

Roman Popadiuk served as the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and is currently a principal with Bingham Consulting in Washington.

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