A year ago, Ukraine’s “Euro-maidan” protests, spurred by then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a promised trade agreement with the European Union and rush into the well-paid embrace of Vladimir Putin, began to escalate in Kiev, turning to violent clashes with government forces. A Ukrainian revolution, a Russian land grab, and months of undeclared war later, we still don’t know whether these events signaled the beginning of a revival of Russian power or the beginning of the end of the Putin regime.
There is a widespread view in the West that Putin is a super-savvy operator, a master strategist who plans far ahead, cleverly manipulating events in his quest for both personal and national dominance, and always comes out ahead. (That view is also common among Russian political analysts, pro- and anti-Putin alike; one blogger mockingly summed it up as the “Putin has outsmarted everyone” meme.) Yet it is hard to see his Ukraine strategy as particularly smart. Had Ukraine finalized the deal with the EU, Yanukovych likely would have continued to maintain friendly ties with the Kremlin, playing off his suitors against each other and getting expensive presents from both. Instead, Putin used both carrot and stick to sabotage the agreement—unwittingly precipitating his Kiev pal’s political demise, pushing Ukraine all the way into the “enemy” camp, and escalating a crisis with far-reaching and mostly negative consequences for Moscow.
Many pundits have said that, at the very least, by fomenting conflict in Ukraine, Putin has achieved his goal of sabotaging that nation’s opportunity for development as a market-oriented, pro-Western, liberal democracy with membership in the EU and especially NATO. Support for joining NATO among Ukrainians themselves may have skyrocketed, from just one in five in 2012 to nearly half this past summer, according to polls; but NATO is understandably wary of being drawn into an unpredictable confrontation. Meanwhile, the Russia-sponsored insurgency in eastern Ukraine has exacerbated both Ukraine’s economic woes and the volatility of its politics. The brief moment of national unity at the time of the Euromaidan revolution has already given way to squabbling, partly over ways to deal with the separatist enclaves that serve as vehicles for Russian aggression.
It’s far too early to tell how Ukraine will fare in the face of these challenges, even with increased Western assistance. What’s not in question, however, is that Russia’s stealth war against Ukraine has high costs for Russia itself.
For one, while the Western response to the Kremlin’s aggression can hardly be called an exemplary display of backbone, the sanctions directed at the Russian financial sector, political elite, and billionaire presidential cronies are inflicting some pain. (Even sanctions-averse France finally mustered the will to suspend, indefinitely, the delivery of Mistral helicopter carrier ships to Russia.) For the general population, including the urban middle class that has been Putin’s principal constituency, the damage has been compounded by Russia’s countersanctions targeting imports of Western goods, particularly food. In a poll conducted in mid-November by the Levada Center, Russia’s leading polling firm, nearly half of the respondents said they had experienced “problems” because of Western sanctions (and, presumably, Russian retaliatory measures). Only 16 percent described these perceived sanctions-related difficulties as fairly or very serious; fewer than a third, however, were unconcerned about the effects of sanctions on themselves and their families down the road.
Between the sanctions and the drop in crude oil prices, the ruble has been in free-fall, depreciating by some 60 percent against the dollar over the past year. In a Levada Center poll in late November, the fall of the ruble easily topped the list of the last four weeks’ most memorable events for Russians, spontaneously named as such by nearly 40 percent of respondents. (Continued fighting in Ukraine was mentioned by just 25 percent.) In early December, a satirical verse commentary on the ruble’s woes by writer Dmitry Bykov, published in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, quickly went viral on the Russian-language Internet. It depicted a surreal dialogue between the ruble and Russia’s collective manhood—one pathetically drooping, the other rising in self-destructive pride and imperial lust.