Putin may also have worried that a successful revolution in Ukraine might encourage a revival of the protests that caused him so much trouble in 2012, when he re-assumed the presidency from Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. In the wake of his annexation of Crimea, Putin’s domestic approval rating has soared, and the chances that any protest would succeed in genuinely undercutting — much less toppling — his administration are very low.
Others claim that Putin’s primary motivation was to restore Russia’s global “great power” status. After all, Putin, a former KGB agent in East Germany, has lamented the Soviet Union’s dissolution as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”
Putin has often been described as angry with the West, beset by a sense of betrayal and humiliation from what he perceives as unfair treatment of Russia. For Putin, gestures like including Russia in the G8, the G20, and the WTO, and inviting a Russian ambassador to NATO discussions in Brussels, could not make up for NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, the placement of anti-ballistic missile sites in Eastern Europe, or the dismemberment of Serbia. The overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and ongoing efforts to undercut the Kremlin’s client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have only made matters worse.
If status was an important motive for Putin’s actions in Crimea, the West’s response may have a greater impact than many now believe. Before the Winter Games in Sochi (where the G8 was scheduled to meet in June), Putin cited increased soft power as an important goal for Russia — an objective that his use of hard power in Ukraine has made much more difficult to achieve.
In this sense, Obama’s declaration that Russia is a regional power acting out of weakness, no less than Russia’s suspension from the G8, may have hit Putin where he is most vulnerable. His actions in Ukraine have undoubtedly brought Russia tangible gains in the short term. However, they also imply less obvious costs. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s bold move was worth it.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate