Why did Putin decide to pick up the offensive now? The explanations offered are diverse. First, there is the general interpretation, saying that the Kremlin embarked on invading Ukraine in order to give a boost to the current Moscow regime which was beginning to lose legitimacy. Flip through newspapers from 2013 and you’ll see headlines about manifestations of chaos in Russia. This was the year of first indications of economic slowdown, even though oil prices stood at USD 110 per barrel. Putin’s popularity ratings in spring 2013 measured about 30 percent.
The Sochi Olympics probably did not suffice as a boost, as it was then that, according to some experts, Putin held a meeting of a small group of the power elite. The Russian ruler then asked whether the country’s economy could withstand probable sanctions if Moscow annexed Crimea. The answer was yes.
Capturing Crimea and trampling on every single treaty Russia ever signed on respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity resulted in a counter-intuitive upsurge of patriotism among the Russian population and Putin’s own ratings sky-rocketed. The regime beefed up its legitimacy and the Russian public focused its attention on Ukraine, where the Americans were allegedly attacking Russia. The Kremlin’s propaganda has been doing a good job so far – sociological survey data released in January show the majority of Russians are convinced that the Americans are interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs.
The Kremlin desperately needs this siege mentality, hence the intensification of military action in eastern Ukraine which is meant to keep ordinary Russians focused on the enemy, i.e., the Americans, because there is little news to grab their attention, let alone delight, in domestic politics. Kremlin-run TV stations cannot report on rising prices, closing down of hospitals, discontinued suburban train services.
This explanation, however, is countered by an argument that domestic situation in Russia is not nearly as tragic to justify diversions like military action in Ukraine. Russians have so far experienced only a small fraction of what awaits them, since inertia is a strong factor in economy. Negative economic trends made themselves felt in the last quarter of last year and their consequences will be visible only in spring. For instance, USD 151 billion left Russia in 2014, with 73 billion, i.e., almost half, fleeing over the last quarter.
Therefore a more convincing explanation is that military action in eastern Ukraine is the Kremlin’s way of not dealing with domestic problems but rather implementing its geopolitical ambitions. Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky believes this is Vladimir Putin‘s reaction to indignities he experienced from the West over the last several weeks. The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine were scheduled to discuss developments in Donbass on 15 January, but the meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, was called off. Moreover, Putin was not invited to the 70th anniversary of Auswitz liberation ceremony, even though he was the star of the event ten years ago.
According to Belkovsky, Putin wants to show Western leaders in no uncertain terms that war and peace in Ukraine is up to him. In order to force Western leaders to the negotiations table and treat him like an equal partner, Putin can resort to extortion – say, start a military adventure towards Kharkiv or Crimea.
Unfortunately, while Putin is playing bloody geopolitical games, Russia’s economy is going to the dumps. The Kremlin can deceive its own citizens, but the markets won’t be fooled. Capital would not be fleeing a country if it could make money there.
Is it not fears of Russia’s economic collapse that inspire talks in the European Union of easing the sanctions? But if so, doesn’t it mean that Putin’s blackmail is working?
Vytautas Dumbliauskas is political scientist. The commentary was read on LRT radio.