Driven by a nationalist vision and contempt of the West, the Russian president knows Europe's fear of armed conflict is his ace in the hole in Crimea. But what does he lose by winning?
PARIS – While the Ukrainian crisis is probably only just starting, is it possible to already conclude that Putin has won Crimea and lost Ukraine?
This diagnostic, which seems to be the most likely outcome of the crisis, is based on an analysis of the current power struggle. In this test of political will where an armed conflict could ignite without warning — nobody truly is in control of the events — what cards do the different protagonists hold in their respective hands?
To answer this question, it is important to start with an understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his true intentions.
According to the former president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, Putin is a “mini-Hitler,” with no “Mein Kampf” of course, but driven by a similarly cold and brutal determination –and a complete lack of scruples.
This is an exaggerated point of view, even though Putin is more ideological than most Westerners generally think. He is at the same time deeply nationalistic, conservative and reactionary in the most literal sense of the term.
Putin is, above all, a “revisionist” on the international level, deeply convinced that Russia’s time has come. He has nothing but contempt for a weak West that is, in his eyes, morally corrupt. He believes in the superiority of despotism over the democratic model. He is striving to achieve twin goals in expunging the “humiliation” that Russia went through with the collapse of the USSR: claiming to be the worthy heir of Peter the Great, but also protecting himself against the mounting criticism, or the disappointment of the Russian middle classes from the decline of their purchasing power.
“Be proud of Russia and accept being poor,” Putin seems to be telling 21st century Russia. It is a poverty that, of course, does not apply to him and those around him, for whom access to power and personal enrichment go hand in hand.
And so in this context, Moscow’s cards might seem “great” indeed. One man, alone but determined, Vladimir Putin, against a coalition of heterogeneous and deeply divided powers that only seem united in the will to avoid the worst, the use of force. The leading European power, Germany, has a special relationship, too special some might say, with Russia. A mix of history, geography, culture and, let’s not forget, “remorse.”
In terms of human costs, Russia was, on a strictly quantitative level, the nation that suffered the most from Nazi Germany. This combination of energy dependency, mercantile interest and feeling of guilt forms an explosive mix.
If Germany is thinking about Russia too much, is it possible that France is not thinking about it enough? In December 2013, during an important international conference in Monaco to lay out France's international priorities, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius never made a single reference to Ukraine: a very significant oversight.
As for Britain, it probably has a more nuanced position from its classic vision of the world in terms of balance of power, but it is paying the price for its voluntary isolation in the European Union. How could it now speak in the name of Europe?
There is still Obama’s United States. But the president, who has been in power for more than six years, has not yet proven his ability to find the kind of strong language necessary in the face of a determined opponent, ready to use any lie — even the most shameless — and to take any risk. On this level, Syria was a catastrophic precedent.
But the great weakness of the Western camp is Ukraine itself. Of course because, on a strictly military level, it is in no position to resist against Russia. But, most importantly, because Ukraine and its elites are prisoners of a political culture dominated by the deepest corruption.
But if the Western democracies were united and firm in their will to set limits on Russian power — a condition that is far from being fulfilled — the balance of power would not be as unbalanced as it seems. On a structural level, Putin may very well despise the Western democratic system, but these democracies are nevertheless more resilient than despotic systems when facing difficulties.
No one wants to die for Kiev, no more the Russians than the Europeans. It is one thing to consider Ukraine as part of the historical, linguistic and cultural Russian landscape; it is another to become engaged in a necessarily costly confrontation that could eventually — via Western sanctions — lead to an increasing isolation of Putin himself, inside his own country.
“General Winter” has always been Russia’s ally when its enemies made the imprudent act of invading it at the end of summer. “General Spring” is Europe’s ally when Russia, after an exceptionally mild winter, threatens to break off gas supplies in March.
In reality, Putin is a much better tactician than strategist. He may not have underestimated the strength and the determination of the Western democracies, but he has overestimated the abilities of a Russia that is no longer the Soviet Union. By revealing his true face, probably too early, with a brutality than can only push most Ukrainians into the arms of Europe, he has won, at best, a Pyrrhic victory, sacrificing the main target, Ukraine, for the secondary target, Crimea.