After all, “Putin answers to virtually no one,” a TIME magazine analysis suggests:
His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.
“The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”
Putin has broken all the rules of international diplomacy, according to Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (above).
It’s not Ukraine that Putin has been waging war against: It’s the West, says analyst Masha Gessen.
“Over the course of two and a half years, since starting his third term as Russian president against the backdrop of mass protests, Putin has come to both embody and rely on a new, aggressively anti-Western ideology,” she writes for Salon.com:
The enemy against which the country has united is the West and its contemporary values, which are seen as threatening Russia and its traditional values. It is a war of civilizations, in which Ukraine simply happened to be the site of the first all-out battle. In this picture, Russia is fighting Western expansionism in Ukraine, protecting not just itself and local Russian speakers but the world from the spread of what they call “homosfascism,” by which they mean an insistence on the universality of human rights.
Putin’s officials have threatened to retaliate against Western economic sanctions, but “the problem with this is that it would require a sharp re-direction of Russian economic strategy,” according to David Clark, the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, who served as special adviser at the British Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001.
“Despite the rhetoric of ‘sovereign democracy’ – an ideology based on the rejection of foreign influence – Russia is deeply embedded in the global economy,” he writes for the New Statesman:
It needs not only access to foreign trade, but also inflows of foreign capital and technology to modernize and thrive. The investment requirement for its dilapidated energy sector alone stands at $2.7 trillion over the next twenty years. Without this Russia faces the threat of a return to the kind of long-term stagnation that brought an end to the Soviet era.
A strategy based on economic autarky and a closed ‘Russian world’ isn’t really viable. Russia doesn’t have either the capital or the technology needed to build new infrastructure and open new energy production in the Arctic North.
The key to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is found in the divergent mythologies of the two peoples, reflected in Putin rehabilitation of illiberal ideology against the West’s critical philosophy of information (see his recent discourse to the rabbis at the Kremlin), argues Antoine Arjakovsky, former director of the French Institute of Ukraine at Kiev, and the author of Russie – Ukraine. De la guerre a la paix?
Putin is not invading Ukraine for geostrategic reasons, but for ideological reasons, he contends:
His actions are explained only by reasons stemming from mythology. Because contemporary political science disdains myth too readily, considering it irrational, it is becoming less and less capable of understanding the world. That is like trying to negotiate an iceberg considering by only its visible part. For Putin, it is about restoring pride to the Russians by giving them an identity found, he believes, in the famous ideology of Tsar Nicholas I: “Orthodoxy, autocracy, the people.”
The sad thing is that Putin is a poor historian. He does not know that the only way for a people to recover its dignity and international recognition is to ask pardon for its crimes, to work tirelessly to eliminate every resurgence of ideology (such as the National Communism dear to Stalin) and to cease instrumental sing spiritual powers (such as the Russian Orthodox Church) in the name of power politics.
“The international community that still believes in the role of virtue and law has an essential role to play,” Arjakovsky notes. “But, as the philosopher Chantel Delsol has written, the international community should also return to the question of the spiritual foundations of democracy and international law.”
What various observers have perceived as a moment of truth that changes the mathematics of the Ukrainian crisis is, from Putin’s point of view, a misstep in a conflict with the West that he will be engaged in for years—until he leaves office, which he plans to do feet-first many years from now, notes Gessen:
To buy time, Putin issued a middle-of-the-night video address from his residence outside of Moscow [and held] an emergency meeting of the Russian security council on Tuesday. … As far as foreign observers could tell, Putin said nothing of consequence. But here is what he said at the start of his talk: “Obviously, there is no direct threat facing our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity today, of course. This is guaranteed primarily by the strategic power balance in the world.” Translated, this means, I gathered you here today to remind the world that Russia is a nuclear power. And here is what he said as he was wrapping up: “We will respond in an appropriate and commensurate manner if NATO’s military infrastructure gets any closer to our border, and we will not close our eyes to the development of global anti-missile defense and the growth of supplies of strategic high-precision weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear.” Translated, this means, Know how I reminded you five minutes ago that Russia is a nuclear power? Now I’ve told you we are prepared to use our nuclear capability if you try to pull one over on us. (He went on to say that missile defense systems were actually offensive weapons.) And by the way, if you every thought we’d stop at something, you probably don’t anymore.
The following day, European countries deferred a possible decision on tougher anti-Russian sanctions. The United States released information saying there was nothing linking the Kremlin directly to the downing of the plane. The U.S. media continued to call the disaster a “plane crash.” The acute phase of the aftermath of Flight 17 appeared to be ending. Was all of this because Putin was good at scaring the West or at obfuscating? Whatever it was, his tactics had worked beautifully.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, when he was not busy threatening the West with nukes, Putin signed several new laws. One bans advertising on paid-cable and satellite channels, effectively banning any independent television channel now or in the future from making money. (All broadcast channels are controlled by the state.) Another gives the government the tools to shut off Russians’ access to Western social networks such as Facebook or Twitter and services such as Gmail or Skype. A third provides for a jail sentence of up to four years for denying that Crimea is a part of Russia. On the same day, courts in Moscow and St. Petersburg ruled a half-dozen human rights organizations were “foreign agents,” effectively ending their activities.
“Putin’s war against the West and its perceived agents in Russia, in other words, continued unabated,” Gessen contends. “As he sees it, the unfortunate screw-up with the plane will be forgotten soon enough. He may or may not have to cede a little on Ukraine, but that’s all right: It’s just one battle in the giant war against the West he has already unleashed.”