Three months after protesters toppled Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych and his government, unleashing a wave of unrest and chaos, the country has elected a new president. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, who deployed troops to annex Crimea at his earliest opportunity, remains the key figure shaping Ukraine’s future — and he is continuing to propel Ukraine toward something far more dangerous than a new Cold War.
By placing himself firmly in the driver’s seat of Russia’s future, Putin has simplified the task of those who seek to understand the country. In fact, his actions are guided by a single goal, and it is not the imperial ambition that is usually thought to determine Putin’s actions. Instead, every policy is subordinate to Putin’s goal of ruling Russia for as long as he lives.
Putin’s ambition is not the result of a pathological lust for power. Instead, it is based on entirely realistic concerns for his personal safety.
He understands the laws of the autocratic system that he has helped to rebuild in Russia — a system in which leaders may, like Libya’s Colonel Moammar Gadhafi or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, ultimately find themselves being hauled out of sewers or rat holes to face execution if their power fails them.
Viewed from this perspective, Putin’s strategy in Ukraine has been consistent and logical at every stage. In the protests in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence) Square, he saw the prospect of Ukraine transcending the corrupt post-communist authoritarianism that his own regime embodies. Ukraine’s move toward a European model of economic and political competition, Putin feared, would spur similar demands in Russia.
In order to prevent such an outcome, Ukraine’s revolution against Yanukovych, the monumentally corrupt Kremlin puppet, had to be strangled in its cradle and discredited in the eyes of the Russian people. These goals were evident in the speech that Putin delivered to Russia’s political elites in March, following the annexation of Crimea.
But Putin’s actions in Ukraine have done more than humble Russia’s democrats. By focusing on the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea and declaring his right to “protect” ethnic Russians abroad, his legitimating myth now includes the role of national savior, which could enable him to retain power indefinitely.
Of course, Putin’s rise to power was buttressed by another myth — that of a vigorous young KGB officer capable of stopping the Russian Federation’s disintegration by “drowning” the Chechens in “an outhouse,” stabilizing the economy, and using the country’s vast natural-resource wealth to enhance prosperity. But that myth has now worn thin.
Putin has seen firsthand what happens when a ruling myth collapses. The Soviet Union was sustained by the population’s belief in communism as the route to a just society. When the myth disintegrated, so did the union.
From the outset of his rule in 2000, Putin has been determined not to make the same mistake. With the help of Russia’s media, he hopes to recast himself as the Russian messiah, compelling ethnic kin everywhere to support his leadership in perpetuity. And, so far, it seems to be working. The annexation of Crimea was met with widespread support in Russia.
But Putin’s strategy carries serious risks — not least because it bears a disturbing resemblance to Adolf Hitler’s call to unite all ethnic Germans. By valuing ethnicity over citizenship, he is challenging the very basis of the international system and fueling rapid deterioration in Russia’s relationship with the West.
During the Cold War, both sides’ acceptance of “mutual assured destruction” ensured that nuclear weapons served as a deterrent and thus supported strategic stability. For Putin, by contrast, the threat to use such weapons is a perfectly logical tactic. Given his relatively weak conventional army, he can assert international authority only by claiming a free hand in the entire post-Soviet space and menacing the West with a limited nuclear war (which he is certain he can win) if it interferes with his imperial ambitions.
This has proved to be a winning strategy. The immediate response of the United States and the European Union to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was to declare that military intervention was “absolutely excluded,” given that Ukraine is not a member of NATO.
International relations today are at their most volatile since Joseph Stalin’s final months in power, when he created a three-part strategy to restore his authority: preparation for a third world war, liquidation of the Communist Party hierarchy, and exterminationist anti-Semitism. It was only his death in 1953 that saved Russia — indeed, the world — from this outcome. Who will save the world from Putin?
Andrei Piontkovsky is a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington © 2014 Project Syndicate