The West frequently asks itself, “Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin so popular? He has harmed their economy. He has stifled the free press. He has destroyed the political opposition. We don’t get it.” Anyone asking this question exposes themselves to the criticism of short term thinking and a lack of appreciation, or ignorance, of history, even though the root cause of Mr. Putin’s popularity happened only 16 years ago.
The NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia is the genesis of Mr. Putin’s power. This article is not meant to comment on the morality or appropriateness of NATO’s actions, only the consequences within Russia. Slobodan Milošević presided over a reign of terror in several of the Yugoslav provinces; that is a fact. He used mass media to delegitimize certain ethnic groups and accused them of fascist tendencies, setting up justification for military action. Sound familiar? He turned a blind eye to genocide, especially in Kosovo, and supported ethnic cleansing of Kosovo for Serbia. He was eventually extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and died in prison of a heart attack before the trial was concluded in 2006. In 1999, NATO initiated a 2-1/2-month-long, high-altitude bombing campaign of Serb military targets in Kosovo in an attempt to halt the Serbian ethnic cleansing and mass killings of non-Serbs in the region.
However, under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia vehemently opposed NATO’s actions. In fact, Russia vetoed approval for NATO intervention at the U.N. Security Council, to no avail. The Kosovo campaign was the first time NATO had acted unilaterally without U.N. approval. Mr. Yeltsin even leaked that he had ordered Russian Strategic Rocket Forces to retarget their missiles against countries that were involved in the NATO bombing of Serb forces in Kosovo. “I told NATO, the Americans, the Germans, don’t push us towards military action. Otherwise there will be a European war for sure and possibly world war,” Mr. Yeltsin barked on Russian state television.
But alas to Russia, she was humiliated as NATO acted with impunity in a former Soviet satellite state. Russia could do nothing; its military at the time, during the economic upheavals of the 1990s, was too weak. Multiple NATO countries, using more than 1,000 aircraft from bases mainly in Italy and Germany, as well as naval forces, NATO flew 38,000 bombing missions over Kosovo. The Serbian forces were forced to withdraw from the breakaway region. Russians have long memories and they never forgot this. This new assertive alliance, acting on their border in any fashion it desired, unnerved the Kremlin.
Many times over dinner with Russian friends in Moscow, the conversation inevitably turns to politics and how NATO acted unilaterally on Serbia. The morality of the question aside, that point of view is right.
Mr. Putin learned from this lesson.
When the war in Chechnya flared up, Mr. Putin was quick to take advantage of the situation. He won the war, as well as the second Chechen conflict, brutally and effectively. He understood that Russians want a strong leader, someone who will convey strength to the world and regain Russia’s role as a great world power. Mr. Yeltsin’s actions to pick Mr. Putin as his predecessor is history.
Now let’s fast-forward to the future, to NATO expanding into Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkan states. This action further humiliated the Russian security establishment and the Russian people in general. The tipping point was the threat of Ukraine joining the alliance and the European Union. Mr. Putin had rebuilt the Russian military and was ready for the opportunity and he seized it, Crimea, or Krim, as the Russians call it.
In this one well-thought-out and efficient operation, Mr. Putin touched the humiliated soul of the Russian people and they will never forget it. That is why Mr. Putin enjoys 80 percent-plus approval ratings. That is why Russians will forgive and endure any short-term economic hardship Mr. Putin’s Ukraine adventures will cost them. That is why Russians will let go of any democratic leanings they had in the past. Democracy was not pleasant for Russia. Russians would much rather have a leader who makes the trains run on time and can stand up to perceived Western aggression. For as they say in Russia, anyone who wants democracy left a long time ago.