Why Putin Took Crimea

For the Russian strongman, there’s nothing more useful than an obedient gangster state within Ukraine’s borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is coiled to strike during a press conference in his country residence outside Moscow on March 4, 2014.

Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine—It’s always a bit scary when Vladimir Putin gives the world the silent treatment, because it means he’s crouched down with fists poised, weighing his next move.

The Russian president finally broke his silence Tuesday after his army had massed on the Ukrainian border and uniformed gunmen—walking and talking like Russian soldiers—had swarmed across Crimea. Putin’s surreal press conference at his country residence was his version of declaring “mission accomplished.”

With hardly a shot fired and no known casualties, Russia has created facts on the ground that will be hard to reverse: the creation of a de facto Crimean protectorate with a pro-Moscow puppet government.

Fears that Putin will now move to annex the Crimean peninsula, which has close historic ties to Russia, are overblown. If the Kremlin wants to be able to apply pressure on future governments in Kiev, there’s nothing more useful than a Russian-controlled Crimean gangster state within Ukraine’s borders.

The new Crimean government, voted into office behind closed doors after “unknown” armed men seized the regional parliament building Thursday, still insists it doesn’t want to join Russia. A referendum called for later this month is only supposed to strengthen Crimea’s autonomy within Ukraine.

Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, who locals claim was once a small-time bandit with the nickname “Goblin,” also has little reason to want to become the governor of Russia’s 84th province. Running a quasi-independent mini-state is much more attractive.

The model already exists in Moldova, a forgotten former Soviet republic whose aspirations to join the West are held back by a territorial dispute with Transnistria, a breakaway republic that answers to Moscow. The rulers of Transnistria thrive on the dubious business that their region’s semilegal status draws, while the Kremlin keeps a thorn firmly planted in Moldova’s side.

In the world according to Putin, there hasn’t even been a Russian intervention in Crimea. The heavily armed gunmen who appeared at strategic locations around the peninsula, including Ukrainian military facilities, are local militiamen, Putin said. After all, any kind of uniform can be bought at an army surplus store.

The falseness of that assertion is plainly evident on the ground. Disciplined soldiers in combat fatigues hold key positions with machine guns, bazookas, and the latest Russian armored military jeeps. The ragtag local “self-defense” forces who guard their perimeter are scowling youths or potbellied men in camouflage hunting jackets and gym pants.

Putin, however, insists that he hasn’t made use of his parliament’s permission, rushed through on Saturday, to put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Any and all Russian military personnel present in Crimea are supposedly with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, in line with treaty agreements.

It was a classic Putin performance Tuesday: Everything he’s doing is in the name of law and order, while the United States and its NATO running dogs are executing a monstrous conspiracy to spread mayhem around the world.

One day the words “within the framework of the law” will be chiseled on Putin’s tombstone. Putin did not violate the Russian constitution’s prohibition on three consecutive presidential terms but instead sat one out. He diligently sought his parliament’s permission for intervening in Ukraine if necessary—and only after ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and implored him to do so.

Of course Yanukovych is still Ukraine’s legitimate leader, since Ukrainian law stipulates a president can only be removed from office by death, resignation, or impeachment—none of which has transpired, according to Putin. He did not deny that Yanukovych was a crook and had “no political future.”

The fig leaf of Yanukovych’s legitimacy may seem shockingly tiny, but for Putin it’s just big enough to justify his Crimean adventure. Turmoil in Kiev presents a unique opportunity not only to set a precedent for future military involvement in Ukraine, but to get late revenge for Russia’s failure to thwart U.S.-led occupations in Kosovo and Iraq. The Kremlin’s geopolitical strategy could be called “condemn and copy.”

Yet compensation for perceived humiliation doesn’t fully explain why Putin is risking isolation, even war. For the Russian president, the pitched battle that took place on Kiev’s Maidan between Yanukovych and anti-government protesters in February was just the first battle in the war for Moscow.

Cynical smirks aside, Putin honestly does consider the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine as an act of self-defense—not of a suffering Russian-speaking minority, but of his own regime. While Ukraine and Russia have an internationally recognized border, the cultural links are fluid and far-reaching. What happens in Kiev does not stay in Kiev; eventually it comes to Moscow.

The 2004–2005 Orange Revolution gave Putin his first fright. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators built a camp on the Maidan to protest rigged presidential elections that saw the Kremlin’s favorite, Yanukovych, win. The protests forced a revote, and pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko prevailed.

Putin took note and stubbed out the smallest protests in Russia. Yet when parliamentary elections were marred by widespread violations in 2011, the unthinkable happened and tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow. Police prevented them from pitching tents to start a Maidan of their own, and eventually the protests died down.

After Yanukovych, who had come to office in 2010, failed to sign a European Union association agreement under pressure from Putin, incensed Ukrainians once again turned out on the Maidan in November—and didn’t leave. Putin undoubtedly considers Yanukovych a fool for allowing a protest camp to take over the Ukrainian capital for a second time.

Putin said in his press conference that after the Maidan massacre two weeks ago, he told Yanukovych not to withdraw security forces from the capital. Yanukovych failed to heed Putin’s advice and subsequently ended up fleeing Kiev. It would be interesting to know how often Yanukovych consulted Putin during the three-month protests.

Now, with a revolutionary government in Kiev beyond his control, Putin has decided to seek maximum gain from what the Kremlin views as a very bad situation. Grabbing Crimea, which is largely pro-Russian anyway, has sent a clear message. Letting it hang in a legal limbo would be the logical next step to keep Ukraine in the nonaligned buffer zone padding Russia’s western border.

There are no guarantees of success, and the move could backfire spectacularly. The unannounced, unofficial appearance of Russian troops in Crimea has done more to galvanize Ukrainians’ feeling of national unity than anything a politician on the Maidan has said. And Russian opposition activists, facing increasing repression at home, will find a base of support in anti-Putin, russophone Kiev.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea wasn’t an act of an expanding empire but of an archaic regime throwing up a last line of defense against Westernization.