According to the latest opinion poll, published on July 16, President Putin’s approval rating among different segments of Russia’s electorate has risen to an unprecedented 66 percent. This may change quickly, however, if he comes to be perceived as weak and indecisive in handling the next stage of the Ukrainian crisis – the one that may entail heavy fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk, with fresh civilian casualties and further deterioration of the beleaguered insurgents’ military position.
Putin’s popularity is partly due to the improving living standards, but it also rests on the hugely important perception that he has managed to bring Russia back to major power status after the decade of domestic decline and international humiliation under Boris Yeltsin. His counterattack in Southern Ossetia in August 2008, his nifty defusion of the Syrian crisis last September, and his energy deal with China in May are widely seen as the key markers on the road to Russia’s geostrategic recovery.
The Russians are far more concerned about external security than their peers in Western Europe or North America, which is unsurprising in view of the historical record and the country’s absence of natural barriers to foreign invasions. The massive Golden Horde onslaught from the east (1237-1240), which destroyed Kiev and eventually devastated all of the Kievan Rus’ – save the forest belt-protected Novgorod and Pskov – coincided with the attack by the Swedes (1240) and the Teutonic Knights (1242) from the west. The latter two were defeated by Prince Alexander Nevsky, but the consequences of the two-pronged attack for the Russian collective psyche were profound and long-lasting.
The sense of insecurity was enhanced by the Polish invasions of 1610-1613. They occurred during the “Times of Troubles,” a period of domestic political turmoil which was overcome at the last minute by the joint early-modern patriotic appeal of a commoner and an aristocrat, Kuzma Minin and Count Dmitry Pozharsky. The long-term result was Russia’s conscious and continuous policy of territorial enlargement – most notably from Peter’s decisive victory at Poltava to Catherine’s participation in the partitions of Poland – which permanently brought Russia into the league of great European powers by the end of the 18th century. The two autocrats’ successful attempt to create defensible buffer zones on all sides – in Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia – paid rich dividends in defending the heartland against Napoleon in 1812. In all key respects the same geostrategic principle applied to the existential struggle against Hitler in 1941-1945.
If Putin has no strategy to prevent Ukraine’s transformation into a viscerally Russophobic Banderistan, dominated by the Galician historical and cultural discourse, the return of the Crimea last March would prove to be scant compensation for the overall rapid weakening of Russia’s geopolitical position. It would be comparable to the map of eastern Europe after the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, signed by the Bolsheviks in March 1918 – and made short-lived only thanks to Germany’s subsequent collapse on the Western Front.
Such an outcome, which would be inevitably followed by Ukraine’s (and eventually Georgia’s) inclusion in NATO, would dramatically increase the possibility of nuclear escalation in the course of some new crisis in the years and decades to come. Devoid of a territorial buffer zone, faced with an inherently hostile NATO stronghold in the north (Estonia) – an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg – and in the south (the Kharkov-Donetsk-Lugansk knife in Russia’s southern underbelly), Moscow’s strategists would be certain to become far more reliant on their nuclear arsenal (possible first-use included) to deter any perceived danger of an attack, than they are today. Russia’s demographic weakness, which excludes the option of maintaining permanently a large conventional force along her western borders, coupled with the ongoing development of the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, will make that option well nigh inevitable.
Another consequence of (let me use shorthand here) the Nuland-Kagan strategy of relentlessly strangulating Russia could be the collapse of Putin’s popularity, and the emergence of a seriously anti-Western political figure – which Putin is not, and has never been. Russia’s political elites have been traditionally unforgiving of geopolitical failure. Tsar Nicholas I – seemingly invincible in the early 1850’s – died a broken man after the defeat in the Crimea. His namesake’s military failures made the coup of February 1917 possible, which opened the floodgates for the Bolshevik nightmare. Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown in the first week of the Barbarossa, fearful more of the collapse of his authority than of the Wehrmacht’s early victories. Khrushchev was replaced after the failure of his Cuban misadventure. Brezhnev’s Afghan fiasco contributed decisively to the collapse of the credibility of all subsequent Soviet leaders. Putin’s current 66 percent approval rating may likewise collapse if the Russians conclude that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s diplomatic successes in China, Latin America, or Syria are insufficient to compensate for the appearance of trigger-happy, NATO-armed Galician storm troopers in Ukrainian uniforms on Russia’s vulnerable southwestern border.
A disciple of Dugin’s Euroasianist paradigm could emerge and threaten Putin in 2018, or else Putin could yet become a dedicated Eurasianist. Either way “the West” loses. Bringing NATO east of the Dnieper would increase the danger of an intra-European war – and even of a trans-Atlantic nuclear exchange, which would guarantee the final suicide of an already moribund civilization. It would terminally push Russia into the development of an emerging, anti-Western Eurasian alliance, the Moscow-Peking axis that may include Iran and India. My recent prediction that India’s Modi will join the bloc is already coming true. Delhi is a key player in the new BRICS currency pool – a further sign of the world’s rapid multi-polarization.
Putin’s strategy in Ukraine to date has been overtly defensive: refrain from serious support for the rebels in the east, in the hope that Kiev will reciprocate with a comprehensive settlement that would include a promise of Ukraine’s permanent “Finlandization” as a neutral buffer – and perhaps a bridge – between Russia and NATO. That strategy has not worked. Allowing the two major eastern cities to be pulverized a la Slavyansk will not buy him any credit anywhere. The end result would be a Western-hostile Russia, a totalitarian, literally neo-Nazi Banderist Ukraine, and a jihadist-friendly world. Not for the first time, Russia should fight a good fight that is not only hers. It is in the American interest that Ukraine turns into a draw.