What Putin really wants with Crimea

Unidentified armed men patrol outside the airport in the Crimean capital Simferopol on Friday.
Credit: Viktor Drachev

Now that Russia has carried out a de facto invasion of Crimea, it’s worth looking at recent history to help understand Moscow’s motivations and what it wants.

Not that the Kremlin necessarily sees what it’s doing as an invasion. When Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan in 1979 after killing the president, Moscow treated the operation almost as an afterthought aimed at shoring up a coup d’etat it thought would be resolved within days or weeks.

Just as Soviet troops wore Afghan army uniforms 25 years ago, the removal of insignia from the uniforms of the soldiers now in Crimea is meant to confuse the outside world about who’s behind the incursion.

So was the Kremlin’s statement on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and consult the International Monetary Fund and the G8 on financial aid.

The movement of Russian armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships and troops into Crimea — where gunmen have seized parliament, government buildings and strategic infrastructure like airports and the local telecom provider — belies the Kremlin’s denial it’s carrying out a coup.

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Violating the sovereignty of an independent country would seem to go against the principle Russia upholds as most sacred in its foreign policy. Nevertheless, Moscow is taking advantage of Ukraine’s weak new leaders — whom many Russian officials have denounced as illegitimate — acting according to a very basic pattern carried out many times since the Soviet collapse.

Time and again, Moscow has welcomed instability in another former Soviet republic — when not actually fomenting it — in order to exert influence there by appearing to be a peacemaker or beneficent sponsor.

That’s how the Kremlin controls the breakaway pro-Moscow region of Transnistria, an impoverished sliver of Moldova that erupted in a brutal civil conflict in 1992. With its so-called peacekeepers still stationed there, Russia uses its influence over the territory to pressure the Moldovan authorities.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to firm its hold over that country’s two pro-Russia separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the Kremlin recognized as independent soon after.

Those areas have become “frozen conflict” zones — isolated from the world, locked in cycles of poverty that makes dependence on Russia the only immediate way to survive.

In Ukraine, having lost the struggle last week to save the presidency of his ally, the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych — in what Moscow characterizes as an illegal takeover by violent nationalists — Putin is now grabbing Crimea to show Russia can do the same. Taking over Crimea would have the added benefit of relieving Moscow of the need to lease the port of Sevastopol to house the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet.

It’s all being done in the name of protecting Russian citizens — the parliament in Moscow just made it easier to give Ukrainians Russian citizenship — and may end up creating another Russian exclave.

Nevertheless, Putin has previously shown that he responds to obstacles by backtracking, having built his power base at home as well as his aggressive foreign policy by taking risks and gauging the response. Faced with a backlash, he has reversed himself in the past.

Russia’s success in Georgia — where the 2008 invasion followed actions similar to the ones Moscow is taking now, such as staging military exercises on its southern border — showed Putin Western countries will do virtually nothing to help their allies in former Soviet territory.

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Part of the reason Europe and the United States have been caught off guard by Putin in Crimea, as they have been elsewhere so many times recently, is that they tend to assume he makes decisions in his country’s interests, like his Western counterparts. That’s not the case. Putin makes decisions that are in his interests: Threatening to direct nuclear missiles at Western Europe, for example, is bad for Russia’s image abroad, but at home it shows Putin to be tough.

Of course a secure, independent, successful Ukraine would benefit Russia greatly by providing a strong ally and trade partner. That’s not what Putin wants, and his actions in Ukraine are posing the West its biggest challenge since he invaded Georgia.

He has helped push Ukraine, the country on Russia's southern border, to the verge of civil war by pressuring the president to abandon a deal with the European Union while warning the West not to meddle. Surely that’s not in Russia’s interests, but it is in Putin’s: He wants Ukraine to join a so-called Eurasian Union, an organization whose main purpose would be to oppose Western alliances.

Putin’s overriding goal is to obstruct the West. Like his Soviet models, he believes that to be feared and loathed means to be respected. Still, Western countries still hope Moscow will cooperate on Syria, Iran — and now Ukraine — even though doing so plays right into the Kremlin’s hands.

That’s why the best hope of rolling back Russia’s intervention in Crimea now rests on firmness about the consequences. If Western countries are to uphold their values and interests, they must show they’ve learned lessons from the Russia-Georgia war by acting together to threaten sanctions against Moscow and aid to Ukraine.

Dealing with Moscow should begin with not being deceived about Putin’s intentions. As long as his actions in Crimea result in no direct consequences for him, he will continue trying to show the world just what a tough guy he is.

More from GlobalPost: Putin: He does whatever he wants, and then has someone photograph him doing it

Gregory Feifer is GlobalPost's Europe editor. His new book "Russians: The People Behind the Power" was published this month.

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