Russian President Vladimir Putin’s controversial confession that he planned the incorporation of Crimea in advance of the referendum has political experts reassessing how to deal with the Russian state.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea. Photo: AP
In a television interview related to the one-year anniversary of the events in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a voluntary and unexpected confession. It would appear that the decision to incorporate Crimea into Russia was taken by him at a secret meeting at the Kremlin held during the night of Feb. 22, 2014, well before the referendum held by the citizens of the peninsula on March 16.
Of course, it was not difficult to guess that such a decision had been made based on an analysis of events - at the end of February units of so-called “polite men” (also known as “little green men” in the Western media) started to appear in Crimea. Nevertheless, Putin’s confession surprised many and was taken as yet more evidence of the insincerity and duplicity within the Kremlin.
In previous announcements and interviews, Putin frequently stated the exact opposite. For example, talking with journalists on March 4, 2014, Putin informed them that the incorporation of Crimea into Russia “is not being examined.”
Putin’s tendency to deny what is clearly evident and well known appeared during his first years as president. Here, one might recall the controversial decision to transfer television broadcasters from private ownership to state ownership (which Putin called “disputes among economic enterprises”), the “non-political” Khodorkovsky case and many others.
However, before Crimea, this approach had nevertheless been used secretly: Everybody knew that Putin was telling lies, but he himself never confessed to it. Over the last year, we have already witnessed Putin make two large-scale “revelations.” Initially Putin confessed that the Crimean “polite men” were in fact Russian soldiers, and now we learn that the decision to send them to the peninsula was taken at the Kremlin on the morning of Feb. 23.
Typically, such secrets are revealed (if they are revealed at all) in memoirs written in retirement. But Putin has demonstrated that he has no desire to wait. Why wait if it is clear that talking about a secret operation will not harm his ratings and reputation, but on the contrary, will possibly increase them further?
As to the previous announcements, Putin remembers them perfectly but doesn't consider them false (as indeed do millions of his compatriots). According to his logic, there was no lie, but a “ruse de guerre” without which it is impossible to fight evil in the modern world.
It appears that, from Putin’s point of view, Russia, which lags behind its Western adversaries according to many objective criteria (economic growth, technology, infrastructure development etc.), must in some way compensate for its backwardness. It is necessary to use “unconventional” methods, confusing the opponent and misleading him.
By pursuing such verbal gymnastics, Putin is not only increasing his ratings within Russia but is addressing to an international audience, including those that are opposed to him. In this address he is giving a signal that he has entered into an uncompromising struggle with the West and that Russia no long feels tied to conventions or propriety. There is only one morality – Russia’s interests, and furthermore, these interests will be determined personally by Putin and no one else.
Putin’s revelation can be seen as a symptom of the growing personalization of power in Russia. To lie and then confess a lie is something that only a leader can do who feels no limits to his power, a leader who does not listen to public opinion but, rather, forms it himself. Only a few months ago, when Deputy Director of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin at the Valdai Club announced that, “Putin is Russia,” it seemed that the official was thinking wishfully.
But today, following the latest phase of the war in Ukraine, following the murder of Russia's opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and other tragic events, this seems to be more a statement of fact. For a larger and larger number of observers, it is becoming clear that the duration of the Russian state in its current form is the same as the period during which Putin is able to maintain political control over the country.
Many Western politicians, it seems, have also come to understand this stark reality. Hopes for regime change and subsequent liberalization that grew as the situation in the Russian economy deteriorates under the effect of sanctions, have today been replaced by an increasing fear that excessive pressure on Putin may not at all be beneficial to liberals but those who believe that the president is not sufficiently consistent or decisive for a confrontation with the outside world. The situation is more frequently reminiscent of the early 1990s, when the chief fear for the West was a possible civil war on the crumbling ruins of a nuclear power.
The Soviet Union collapsed, but the worst, bloody scenario was avoided, thanks to the remaining faith in the potential for international cooperation and a huge positive goodwill that had been built up between the United States and the Soviet Union during the years of perestroika. Today, even if Russia does not collapse, the level of threat posed by the new international enfant terrible, will only increase – because the belief in cooperation and mutual sympathy between Russia and the West remain only memories.
The events of the past year following Russia’s annexation of Crimea show that there is no reliable protection against a great power that rebels against the contemporary system of international relations. Sanctions, military and diplomatic pressure, ostracism from international organizations – all of these can only be effective instruments for subduing small failed states (and even then they do not always work).
The leaders of a huge country afflicted with post-empire syndrome and armed with strategic nuclear missiles, can do practically anything they want. Any external countermeasure, short of military attack, will only strengthen the authorities and hand them convenient instruments for suppressing the liberal opposition.
The only limit to the power can be the “monsters” they themselves have nursed – radical groups that do not halt before anyone or anything. A conflict with these groups may be, paradoxically, a way of reconciling the interests of the current political elite and the international political establishment.
The next few months should provide an answer to the question of what is more important for Western leaders: To punish Putin for disobedience, breaching international norms and violating moral principles, or to try to stop the spiral of Russia’s self-destruction, which could lead to extremely dire consequences for the West?
The year following the Crimean incident was marked as one for punishment, but these attempts at punishment have barely reached the person who was the target of this punishment. It makes sense to try a new tactic over the course of the next year – at the very least, to avoid finding oneself face to face with a new Russian leader, who, instead of being cunning like Putin, will give the public clear and ruthless orders.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.