Russia has irretrievably lost its empire, and Vladimir Putin is angry. The United States is still the world’s unquestioned leader, and Vladimir Putin is bitter. Russia is weak domestically and abroad, and Vladimir Putin is anxious and very insecure.
It is a toxic emotional brew, and makes Vladimir Putin a very dangerous man to contend with.
The minute the Red Army began to leave its garrisons in Eastern Europe, every single one of Moscow’s former Warsaw Pact allies began making plans to apply for NATO membership. So did all three of the Soviet Union’s historically European republics.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have all irreversibly escaped Moscow’s orbit and joined the EU economic bloc and the North Atlantic military alliance.
For Vladimir Putin, this is an incomprehensible puzzle of history. He literally can’t understand why Czechs and Hungarians and the rest of Eastern Europe’s peoples would prefer freedom, democracy, and prosperity to Soviet occupation, political repression, and economic stagnation.
Ukraine is the last piece of Russia’s once vast empire that seemingly can be kept in the fold.
This is why he is so determined to keep Ukraine in its place as a vassal state.
In the ex-KGB colonel’s worldview, everything is subordinate to the power and prestige of the Great Russian state. The problem is that Russia is desperately short on both. Russia’s economy is dangerously dependent on oil and gas revenues and its industries utterly uncompetitive on world markets. Its military is weak and suffers from poor morale and antiquated equipment while its higher educational system is falling further behind the rest of the world.
And Russia itself is rent by internal divisions. The subjugation of the tiny Russian republic of Chechnya was a close run affair, and only after a decade of a horrifically bloody war did Moscow just barely bring the province under its nominal control. Tatarstan enjoys effective sovereignty, subordinate to Moscow only in foreign affairs and monetary policy. And separatists on its southern flanks are conducting a persistent low grade war against central control.
In the international arena, Russia is equally weak. Its only truly reliable allies are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, minuscule statelets recognized by virtually nobody other than Russia. Ranged against Russia is America’s global system of alliances and relationships with virtually every major power center in the world. Russia is a banter lightweight with heavyweight pretensions, nourished only by its nuclear arsenal and UN Security Council seat.
To mask these deep weaknesses, Putin needs successful little wars. Thus, in 2008 he launched a war against his Caucasus neighbor Georgia, a country thirty times smaller than Russia. His “conquests” were laughable, two backward provinces whose combined territory is smaller than Connecticut.
Maybe setting his sights higher, Putin has now annexed Crimea, smaller than West Virginia and much poorer economically. He managed to grab this bit of real estate from a weak neighbor militarily unable to defend its territorial integrity, and aided by a local population whipped up with pro-Russian rhetoric and propaganda.
Reversing Putin’s “victories” to date is probably not feasible with mere diplomacy, and America rightfully is not prepared to sacrifice blood and treasure for Crimea or Abkhazia. To date, Putin’s conquests are pathetically insignificant. But under Putin, Russia is a revanchist regime, intent on suborning its immediate neighbors and where possible annexing their territory. It is not inconceivable that the Kremlin has further territorial ambitions in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and possibly even dreams of reconquering the Baltics.
As long as Russia is incapable of achieving the power and prestige it craves by other, more civilized means, it must be constrained. And right now Ukraine is on the front lines.
The United States should make every possible effort to help Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, especially militarily. Ukraine, with financial aid to stabilize its economy, and genuine military aid to bolster its defenses, can resist further Russian encroachment.
America, in return, would gain a valuable and loyal ally in a critical region in Eastern Europe, and demonstrate to Putin that aggression as geo-politics will not succeed.
Mark Nuckols is a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, based in Moscow.
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