Putin, Tilting at History

In his first public comments since ordering Russian troops into Crimea, Vladimir Putin gave a long and characteristically pugnacious explanation for his actions on Tuesday. Much of what he said was fanciful; some of it was acute. Bits of it were reassuring; other bits were threatening. All in all, the Russian leader gave the impression that he is comfortable with the situation his forces have established on the ground, that he is unlikely to buckle to Western protestations, and, ultimately, that he is tilting at history.

The morning news from the Kremlin was that Putin, at least for now, has ruled out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and has ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops who were on exercises near the Ukrainian border back to their barracks. But Putin did not rule out further military measures. “We will not go to war with the Ukrainian people,” he said. “If we do take military action, it will only be for the protection of the Ukrainian people,” and it will be “the very last resort.” That was enough to calm the global financial markets, which are more concerned with the immediate prospect of violence than with whether Putin was lying when he described the heavily armed soldiers patrolling Crimea as local self-defense forces.

Seated with a Russian flag behind him and staring intently at the dozen or so journalists present, the Russian leader didn’t deliver an opening statement. Instead, he took a series of questions. Then he gave his version of the February revolution in Ukraine. As was to be expected, he described the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych as illegal and unconstitutional. But he also made clear that he believes Yanukovych is finished, and that he wasn’t surprised by the popular uprising:

The ordinary Ukrainian citizen, the ordinary guy suffered during the rule of Nicholas II, during the reign of Kuchma, and Yushchenko, and Yanukovych. Nothing or almost nothing has changed for the better. Corruption has reached dimensions that are unheard of here in Russia. Accumulation of wealth and social stratification—problems that are also acute in this country—are much worse in Ukraine, radically worse…

I understand those people on Maidan, though I do not support this kind of turnover. I understand the people on Maidan who are calling for radical change rather than some cosmetic remodelling of power. Why are they demanding this? Because they have grown used to seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another.

As an example, Putin cited Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian billionaire who has just been named the governor of Dnipropetrovsk province, in south-central Ukraine, by the new interim government in Kiev. “This is a unique crook,” Putin said.

“He even managed to cheat our oligarch Roman Abramovich”—the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club—“two or three years ago,” Putin continued. “Scammed him, as our intellectuals like to say. They signed some deal, Abramovich transferred several billion dollars, while this guy never delivered and pocketed the money. When I asked [Abramovich], ‘Why did you do it?’ he said, ‘I never thought this was possible.’ I do not know, by the way, if he ever got his money back and if the deal was closed. But this really did happen a couple of years ago. And now this crook is appointed governor of Dnepropetrovsk. No wonder the people are dissatisfied.”

It is hard to imagine Barack Obama, who delivered a measured rebuke to Putin’s claims later on Tuesday, calling a prominent citizen of a neighboring country a crook, or referring to an American billionaire as an oligarch. But that is part of Putin’s appeal to ordinary Russians, particularly those who are older and less educated: he speaks the language of the common people, and appears to share their concerns and their prejudices.

For more than a decade, Putin has been embarking on a campaign to restore what he—and his people—regard as Russia’s historic greatness. Attempts to depict him as a leader in the Soviet mold are misguided: he isn’t a Communist, he’s a Russian nationalist. Consider some of Putin’s most audacious moves: jailing some (but not all) of the oligarchs who had looted the Russian economy; crushing the Chechen separatists; invading parts of Georgia, and effectively taking control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; crushing internal dissent; cultivating ties with former Soviet allies, such as Syria; hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi; and now unleashing his forces in Crimea. It’s all part of the same game plan: restoring to Russia whatever power and pride could be grasped from the wreckage of the nineteen-nineties.

And, indeed, Putin’s Russian revanchism has enjoyed some success. From the outside, at least, Russia looks like a wealthier and more stable country than it did in 2000. A decade of economic growth, albeit unevenly distributed, has led to rising wages. State pensions have been doubled and poverty rates have fallen. As The Economist noted a few years ago, when Putin was reëlected, “A richer and more vocal middle class has sprung up, accounting for 25 per cent of the population and nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.” Such advances defy the description of Russia that was common in the nineties, as a third-world country with nukes.

Ultimately, however, Putin’s project cannot succeed according to its own terms. Greater Russia, the creation of the tsars, is gone for good. The Baltic Republics, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which were incorporated into the Russian Empire during the eighteenth century, are today members of NATO. Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin, is out from under the Russian cosh, too. So are Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Even if Putin succeeds in reintegrating Crimea into Russia, which he may well do, it wouldn’t alter the reality that the most Russia can aspire to is to be a medium-ranked world power.

But even that status is not assured. Ultimately, power depends on economic strength. A decade of high prices for oil, gas, and other commodities—of which Russia has been blessed with enormous reserves—has disguised its underlying problems. Many sectors of the economy, including energy, remain quasi-monopolies, with close ties to the state. Cronyism is rife, innovation is weak, and legal protections are lacking. In Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index, Russia was ranked a hundred and thirty-third out of a hundred and seventy-seven countries—alongside Nicaragua and Pakistan. Much of the country’s wealth has not been invested in much-needed infrastructure or the development of new industries; instead, it is siphoned off to bank accounts in Switzerland and Britain.

In its most recent report on Russia, the International Monetary Fund downgraded its economic forecasts for the next few years. The country needs “a new growth model, complemented by more diversification, higher investment, and a more efficient use of resources,” the I.M.F. said. “The previous model of high growth on the back of rising oil prices and utilization of spare capacity cannot be replicated.”

Putin has promised to tackle some of these issues, but action has been lacking. Given his close ties to the élites who benefit from the current system, few observers expect that to change. “To shore up his position,” Colm Delaney, an analyst at Global Risk Insights, noted, “Putin has pursued a repressive domestic policy with an emphasis on unpopular minorities (such as homosexuals and Muslims) and a strident foreign policy since his re-election.”

In his press conference on Tuesday, Putin was trying to sound reasonable rather than strident, but the hint of menace was there throughout. He claimed that he didn’t know who had ordered snipers to open fire on the protestors in Kiev, but insisted that it had not been Yanukovych. Putin’s biggest concern, in his own words, was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine.” And he claimed that United States officials had been stirring things up “from across the pond in America, as if they were sitting in a laboratory and running experiments on rats without any understanding of the consequences.” Above all, Putin insisted on Russia’s right to growl around the territory abutting its den, and, if necessary, to do more than growl. “If I do decide to use the Armed Forces, this will be a legitimate decision in full compliance with … general norms of international law,” he said. And, he added, “We think our actions have been absolutely reasonable, while any threat against Russia is counterproductive and harmful.”

A few hours after Putin’s comments, Obama dismissed them, saying that the Russian leader “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.” That’s probably true—but Putin isn’t really standing on legalese. He’s made his military move, and he’s waiting to see what, beyond verbal condemnations, the West’s response will amount to. In the long run, his grand hopes for Russia are probably doomed. For the moment, though, he is holding the initiative.

Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/EPA