What in the World Is Putin Doing in Crimea?
The global community has been stunned by recent geopolitical decisions by Vladimir Putin. How can we make sense of Russia’s actions in Ukraine?
“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke these words at a news conference on March 4, 2014. The president’s words sum up the global reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he has the right to send Russian troops into Ukraine. Western leaders see the invasion of Crimea (a sovereign region of Ukraine) as a clear violation of international law.
The global community is asking: What is Vladimir Putin thinking?
Overtones of the 20th century
Mr. Putin’s bold seizure of the Crimean Peninsula has shocked the world because such actions evoke shades of 1914 and 1939.
Putin’s recent actions seem to be based on testing the resolve of Western leaders. This former KGB agent understands the power of exploiting weakness. Weakness and lack of action will embolden him to maintain his position and go farther next time. What we are seeing is a classic case of geopolitical brinkmanship.One hundred years ago in 1914 the world descended into one of history’s bloodiest conflicts—World War I. The Great War began with an ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe that involved Russia supporting a minority population of a larger nation (the Bosnian Serbs under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Russia, under Czar Nicholas II, had similar motivations to those Russia has today under Vladimir Putin—to expand Russian influence and to be seen as the regional protector of ethnic Slavs in Eastern Europe.
It is amazing to see, 100 years later, this same basic cultural and political tug-of-war continuing today.
And 1939 was the beginning of World War II. The territorial ambitions and aggressions of three nations—Germany, Italy and Japan—set in motion events that engulfed the world in six years of bloody conflict. It is easy to view Mr. Putin’s actions—culminating in his recent actions in Ukraine—as the moves of a leader intent on extending his nation’s dominance, even through seemingly irrational military invasions.
But the similarities do not end there. Mr. Putin’s actions can also be likened to Russia during the Cold War era. Cold War Russia, in addition to having the goal of spreading communism around the globe, maintained dominance over Eastern Europe as a form of security against the Western powers.
We should also note that Russia’s historical and current thinking includes seeing itself as the leader and protector of those of Slavic ethnicity (particularly Russian-speaking) in Eastern Europe.
How do we make sense of Putin?
This is the million-dollar question the world is asking right now. Can we make sense of this man and his decisions?
In fact, the answer to understanding Vladimir Putin’s actions is summed up in one of Winston Churchill’s famous quotes about Russia:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Amazingly, that statement, made in 1939, could be spoken by any Western leader today and perfectly describe the recent actions of Vladimir Putin.
They are shaped by national interest.
Russian leaders like Putin often take seemingly irrational steps to accomplish their overarching national goals: to restore the national glory of past Russias (whether the Russian Empire under the czars or the Soviet Union as a global superpower) and to have a buffer zone to protect the motherland from enemies.
These motivations drove the czars, Soviet leaders like Joseph Stalin, and now Vladimir Putin.
A part of restoring that national greatness is renewed dominance over the Eastern European countries (like Ukraine and Georgia) that used to be puppet governments of the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.
The Economist reported: “Ukraine is essential to Mr. Putin’s ambitions of creating Russia’s own Eurasian Union, a diminished version of the Soviet Union that was” (“Sochi or Bust,” Feb. 1-7, p. 17). Putin has been trying to create that through close economic and political ties with nations like Ukraine. But he has now shown that he is willing to resort to military force if he feels Russia’s regional dominance is being seriously challenged—especially by the West.
Vladimir Putin cannot be dealt with as if he were like any other democratically elected leader. Mr. Putin has almost total control over the gears of power in Russia. He is not truly accountable to an electorate or a skeptical media. The Russian government closely controls both. He is also not fazed by a sluggish economy or economic sanctions. Putin does not view national progress in the same way Western leaders do. His world view is very different and is based on a Stalinesque view of Russian national greatness.
Life, Hope & Truth has reported and warned about Vladimir Putin’s ambitions before. Read our past blog “The Syrian Crisis: Putin to the Rescue?” for more insights into this man and what he is doing.
What will happen now?
Right now, the world seems to be holding its breath and waiting for what will happen next. Putin’s Russia has been in effective control of Crimea for four days now. Over that time, world leaders have been fighting a war of words. While Western leaders, like President Obama, are plainly saying that Russia has invaded Crimea, Putin is countering that claim by saying he has not invaded Crimea. While the West calls his actions “aggressive,” Putin counters by calling his actions “protective.”
The situation is more bizarre because the armed soldiers occupying Crimea wear no national insignia on their uniforms, wear masks to conceal their identity and even refuse to give their full names. Russian flags now fly over government buildings in Crimea—but have been placed there by locals supporting the Russian regime. But, regardless of what Putin claims, Russia is now in firm control of Crimea.
Meanwhile, Putin is ratcheting up the situation even further by test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles in the midst of this crisis. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently said, it seems that Vladimir Putin is living in another world. He is operating as if he is leading the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. His actions defy logic and rationality to the West.
Mr. Putin’s recent actions seem to be based on testing the resolve of Western leaders. This former KGB agent understands the power of exploiting weakness. If he senses weakness and lack of action against him, he will be emboldened to maintain his position and go farther next time. What we are seeing is a classic case of geopolitical brinkmanship.
The question is, Who will blink? Vladimir Putin or the West?
The key player (other than Putin himself) in this situation may be Angela Merkel. She is the de facto leader not only of the European Union (leading its most powerful nation), but also Germany, one of Russia’s key business partners. Germany imports billions of dollars of Russian natural gas and is Russia’s No. 2 trading partner (behind China).
If Angela Merkel is willing to sacrifice her nation’s short-term economic stability by imposing serious economic sanctions on Russia—possibly even cutting off all German gas imports—Putin might well stand down and de-escalate. But it is certainly open to question whether Merkel, whose successful leadership is based on German economic strength and unemotional rational leadership, would be willing to go that far to check the actions of Putin’s Russia.
What we could well see is the Western nations coming to an agreement with Russia to either:
- Let the Crimean Peninsula stay in his hands as a territory of the Russian Federation (possibly using the veneer of an election by the people of Crimea to decide for themselves to secede from Ukraine and join Russia).
- Let the Crimea become an autonomous nation independent of Ukraine, but maintaining strong political, economic and military ties with Russia.
The coming days and weeks will be crucial.
What is certain is the continuing development of the end-time geopolitical situation prophesied in the Bible. What we are seeing inexorably develop in our world today is exactly what the Bible reveals will happen:
- A strong and powerful Russia and China emboldened to challenge the West.
- A Europe led by Germany that is rising in geopolitical and economic power.
- A weakening of the English-speaking nations on the global stage.