One explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s momentous decision three years ago to go into Ukraine and annex Crimea is that he sensed an opening. (March 18, 2014, is the date officially considered the day of admission of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to the Russian Federation.)
The situation was developing at a breakneck pace. In the fall of 2013, the Ukrainian leadership was finalizing its plan to join the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. In November 2013, spurred by Russia, Kiev changed its mind and provoked a public protest. The ensuing crackdown on young protesters fueled the movement, and by the end of February 2014 it was all over for the former president, Viktor Yanukovich, and his circle.
Moscow’s reading of the Ukrainian revolution did not allow for any explanation other than Washington’s and Brussels’s meddling. The Kremlin was looking for a quick surprise counterblow that would send a dead-serious message to what it saw as an encroaching West.
After only a slight hesitation, Putin took the plunge and annexed Crimea, then part of Ukraine, his biggest foreign policy gamble to date. Putin realized that his Ukrainian policy had collapsed, but he was also convinced that it was the result of somebody else’s foul play, not of his mismanagement.
In the end, he managed to turn what everybody in Washington saw as Moscow’s losing game into a new game completely. “He swept the pieces off the chessboard and started a new game,” an acquaintance of mine who worked for a Kremlin-backed organization told me at the time.
Moscow was not just acting out of distress, it was calculating too. Ukraine, fresh from a government collapse, was rudderless. The U.S. and Russian leaders, barely hiding their mutual contempt, were acting at cross purposes. While Putin was making every effort to annoy his American counterpart, President Barack Obama was trying to ignore the Russian president out of existence.
Putin saw an opportunity. The calculation apparently was that a special operation in Crimea would knock the international system unconscious for a period long enough for Russia to make its move irreversible.
The thinking behind the Kremlin’s decision was not unlike the thinking of a Russian oligarch in the making: be smart and knowledgeable enough to identify an asset that is cheap and insufficiently protected; be fast and ruthless enough to make a move for it; be hard-headed enough to muddle through while the press and your competitors are calling you names.
There is a Russian expression, “to take something that has been poorly placed” (брать, что плохолежит), that is, to grab something that has been left lying around and not carefully watched. Knowing how to pick up factories, oil fields or steelworks that were left lying handy was the main secret of the oligarchic trade back in the 1990s and beyond.
President Putin and his circle matured politically in that environment. They were not in a position to become oligarchs themselves, but they watched their peers enriching themselves up close. It was a Darwinian struggle of the fittest just to stay in one piece and siphon off the proceeds.
They did not have what it took to engage in the dirty wars for assets, but they do seem to have what it takes to play a similar game in the world of politics, domestically and internationally. For the past three years, they have been replaying the game of redistribution of assets on the international stage.
Being the products of the time and place of their upbringing—the later years of the Soviet Union, the years of disillusionment and cynicism—political actors of Putin’s age saw gullibility and idealism of any kind, including democratic or internationalist, as a politician’s main weakness. Putin’s skills—sharpened during the years of growing disappointment in his ability to turn Russia around and make friends in the West—are uniquely suited to today’s environment.
The Soviet Union of the late 1970s and 1980s was an extreme case of total disillusionment. Everybody from the lowly clerks and street sweepers to academics and Communist Party bosses was out of step with the surrounding political landscape. The entire Soviet project felt as though it was on the losing side of history.
Today’s West does not feel as bad as that. But someone like this writer, who as a school student lived through those empire-in-decline blues, has to admit to an occasional feeling of déjà vu now and then when traveling in the West.
It is tempting to see Russia’s moves on Ukraine and Syria as deliberate, thought-out retaliation for the one-time defeat, but they are probably more like dashes to claim interesting assets while nobody is watching. If it is a strategy, it is a highly opportunistic one.
The opportunities that Moscow is eager to seize beyond Russia’s border are openings or cracks in the world order. The ability to ferret out opportunity, developed during the 1980s and 1990s, is helping Moscow’s rulers detect such chances now.
Both Ukraine and Syria, each one in its own way, are such cracks. They fall between “world orders” if we accept Henry Kissinger’s description of the evolving international orders as being American, European, Chinese and Islamic (see also an interesting piece by Niall Ferguson on the Russian Question.)
The “imperial” power of the collective West is shrinking. Under the new administration, Washington is proclaiming out loud what had previously been implied or mentioned quietly to America’s allies: the U.S. is not willing to serve as the world’s preeminent “imperialist” power indefinitely. It wants to be paid for its services or it will withdraw.
President Donald Trump’s proposed deep cuts in the State Department’s funding and sharp hikes in military spending could be taken as a plan to relinquish America’s remaining soft power and concentrate on its hard power to protect whatever interests it chooses to keep.
Fareed Zakaria’s “post-American world” may not be as benign as the author envisaged back in 2008. Other centers of power may follow Russia’s lead and start exploiting the cracks in the international order rather than engage in helping to patch them up.
These are only the most obvious tension zones to watch in the world: China and Taiwan, Turkey and the European Union, populist and mainstream political forces in the Western world.
Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and editor-at-large of Vedomosti , an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.