Crimea Invasion Putin’s Mistake? Too Soon to Tell

Whoever claims Russia’s incursion was a mistake at this point is probably making a moral argument, not a neutral analysis.

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Since Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea last week, there has been no shortage of advice from Western commentators who believe the whole enterprise is a catastrophic mistake on the part of President Vladimir Putin.

Newsweek‘s Owen Matthews believes the Russian leader “has come to believe his own propaganda — that he is has really succeeded in resurrecting the power of the Soviet Union.”

The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius also sees Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as springing “from a deeper misjudgment about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of Soviet Union in 1991.” Putin’s “revanchist” strategy moves the country closer to “corrupt Oriental despotism,” he writes, whereas Russia can only reverse its alleged “demographic and political trap” by moving closer to the West.

The demographic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was actually halted in 2009 when the Russian population grow for the first time in fifteen years. As for its “political trap,” if that means Russia’s lack of democratic traditions, it is difficult to see how more amicable ties with the West would enable it to break out of that.

Russian public opinion does not seem altogether appalled by the notion that one man might just have plunged Europe in its worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Rather, many Russians approve of Putin’s invasion of the Crimea which they consider an appropriate response to an imagined Western conspiracy to snitch the Ukraine from their sphere of influence. Russia’s paranoia, which goes a long way toward explaining why the country still has something resembling “Oriental despotism” in the twenty-first century, will not simply fade away when it moves into the Western sphere — assuming Western countries even want it there.

However misguided Matthews and Ignatius might believe Putin’s motives to be, neither does actually explain how invading the Crimea can objectively be considered to have been a mistake.

Mary Mycio makes a far more compelling argument in Slate where she explains how Russia would struggle to keep an independent Crimea float. The peninsula is now heavily dependent on electricity, food and water from Ukraine.

That’s why the Crimea is even a part of Ukraine. Don’t believe that myth about the peninsula being a “gift” from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. For laughs, people often add that he did it when he was drunk. That story was actually concocted during the early 1990s when Russia first started making mischief with pro-Russian separatism.

If Putin intends to annex the Crimea or install a client government there, Mycio’s criticisms will make sense. But as Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, points out as his blog, there is also the possibility that Putin has occupied the peninsula to put pressure on the new authorities in Kiev. He writes, “there is still scope for a political resolution, one that will allow Putin to pull the boys back, claim victory over a cowed Kiev and a handwringing West and await the next well meaning invitation to a ‘reset’ of East-West relations.”

It is too soon to tell whether the Crimean incursion was a mistake for Russia or not. Whoever claims to know at this point is probably not actually making the argument that Putin was in error but that his behavior is morally reprehensible — which is not the same thing as being mistaken.

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