In more ways than one, the crisis that now grips Ukraine and Russia—as well as the rest of Europe—dates back to September 2011, when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced that Vladimir Putin would return as president in 2012. Medvedev had turned out to be, as feared, a seat-warmer who would step down after serving one term in order to pave the way for Putin to return and serve what may very well be a second set of two consecutive terms for another 12 years in office. Barring some personal or political disaster, Putin can now stay in power at least until 2024, when he will be 72 years old, putting him at roughly the same age and number of years in power as a predecessor in Moscow, Joseph Stalin.
In 2000 Prime Minister Putin became temporary head of state when President Boris Yeltsin resigned. Russian law called for a new presidential ballot in 90 days, and so a trio of writers was commissioned to produce in assembly-line style (and almost overnight) a biography designed to be the PR tool to ensure Putin’s victory.
In 2008 the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen penned an in-depth profile of Putin that included a lengthy discussion with Nataliya Gevorkyan. She was one of the three writers drafted into producing the laudatory bio, but—recalling her experience eight years later—as she delved into his background and personality, Gevorkyan found Putin increasingly less likable.
Specifically, she zeroed in on the wish Putin nurtured from a very young age to become a KGB agent. “What kind of person wants to be a KGB agent at the age of 15 or 16, when everyone else wants to be a cosmonaut?” asked Gevorkyan. “A mean, small-minded, and vengeful person” was her ultimate conclusion.
All three attributes seem to describe the mindset of Putin for the past several months, as he tried to keep Ukraine from leaving Russia’s orbit and moving onto a path towards membership in the European Union. It began with the fateful meeting in November 2013 in which then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was threatened with retaliatory measures from Moscow if he followed through with his declared plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU—the first step towards eventual membership.
Putin’s pathological personality flaws were in full flower that day. James Sherr, a fellow at the Russian and Eurasian program at the London-based think tank Chatham House and a leading Western expert on Ukraine with very well-developed sources inside the Ukrainian government, gave the English-language Kyiv Post a description of what transpired. According to Sherr,
Putin effectively said to Yanukovych that if he signed the association agreement with the EU he (Putin) would break every bone in his body. And he showed him how he would do it. By that I mean that Putin presented him with the telling details of the work done by [Putin’s adviser] Sergey Glazyiev and others, which targeted the key sectors of Ukraine’s economy vulnerable to Russian influence, including the industrial and financial interests closest to Yanukovych himself. My understanding is that Putin spoke in direct and brutal language: in language that would normally oblige the president of an independent state to end the meeting and return home.
Yanukovych then made an abrupt about-face and declared he would not sign the EU accord. This sparked the popular revolution that three months later had him fleeing Ukraine with a thuggish coterie of his kleptocratic inner circle (along with all of the expensive furniture and household relics he could carry with him) and scurrying across the border to safe haven in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Ridding themselves of Yanukovych’s disastrous and murderous neo-Soviet regime was a victory for the people of Ukraine. But it only heightened Putin’s mean and small-minded vengefulness. So he invaded Crimea.
The inclusion of Crimea within the territory of Ukraine has long been a sore spot with Russian nationalists. This southern peninsula was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in what has been characterized as an off-the-cuff move that no one on the Soviet Politburo spoke up to oppose. The combination of lingering Russian resentment and Putin’s desire to wreak vengeance on Ukraine for toppling the bully-boy he had picked to rule in Kiev has now prompted him to invade another sovereign nation. This has plunged Central Europe into the most dangerously destabilizing situation since Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938.
Impartial observers have dismissed the absurd fiction that the thousands of Russian troops in Crimea who have removed their flags and unit insignia are “self-defense forces” with no connection to Moscow. Putin has thus violated the most cherished precept of modern international law by occupying territory of a neighboring state and then attempting to ratify that annexation with a rigged election, whose date was moved up to assure that there would be no time for monitors to be put in place to prevent irregularities in the voting.
The hastily installed Moscow-backed leader in Crimea is not a popular figure. Sergei Aksenov and his Russian Unity party polled a whopping 4 percent of the vote in the last elections and have only 3 seats in the 100-seat Crimean legislature. For his part in attempting to subvert the rule of Ukraine in Crimea, Ukrainian authorities have charged Aksenov under Part 1 of Article 109 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine that forbids “actions aimed at the violent overthrow, change of constitutional order, or the seizure of state power.”
Out of the collection of Western politicians pushing for actions to be taken against Moscow, the one standout personality who understands how dangerous it is to give even an inch to Russia’s KGB president is Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski. He said plainly on March 10, “We cannot let Putin get away with this. By annexing Crimea, Russia is forcing a major change of boundaries on Europe. It means the breaking of the post-Cold War consensus. That is verboten.”
Back in Russia, not even the suggestion that Putin could be dragging the world into another war is tolerated. On March 7, Russian police detained a 75-year-old survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad and fined him 10,000 rubles ($275) for attending an antiwar rally and holding a sign that read “Peace to the World.” A pro-Kremlin lawmaker, Vitaly Milonov, who denounced the elderly man as a supporter of “fascism,” took a placard from his hands and ripped it into pieces.
When asked what provoked Milonov, who represents the pro-Putin United Russia party, the elderly man, Igor Andreyev, said, “I was telling him that I was a child of the siege, that I know what war is like.”
Sadly, there appear to be not enough Sikorskis outside of Russia or enough Andreyevs inside the country to remind Putin of the horrendous consequences if the two sides in Crimea start shooting at one another. Most of the Western diplomats and intelligence officials in Kiev believe that hostilities could begin at any moment. Russia’s naked aggression and takeover of military bases is beginning to grate on the nerves of the Ukrainian military units in the Crimea, and if Kiev does not order its military force to be used soon there may not be enough combat-effective units left to offer any credible resistance.
Reuben F. Johnson writes frequently on defense issues for The Weekly Standard and IHS Jane’s Information Group in London.