In his fourteen years in power, Vladimir Putin has now made three successful land grabs. In 2008 he de facto annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two miniscule and impoverished provinces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. More spectacularly, this March he annexed de jure the Ukrainian province of Crimea.
For the moment Putin is riding high. However, satisfying any further territorial ambitions will be near impossible, and Moscow is unlikely to attempt further encroachments on his neighbors. In fact, Russia’s own internal weaknesses suggest that it has already reached the limits of its capabilities to project raw military power beyond its borders.
Of course, Putin fully intends to defy the West and to menace his neighbors to the fullest possible extent, it is in his ex-KGB officer genetic code. He truly does believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geo-political tragedy of the twentieth century.”
And he could care less that 150 million citizens of former Soviet satellites and Soviet republics would nearly unanimously disagree with his assessment. For Putin, the power and prestige of imperial Russia, once known as the USSR, are all important.
However, his restoration project rests on remarkably weak foundations. First of all, even with $100 a barrel oil, Russian GDP is a mere one trillion dollars, or about 3% of the US and EU put together.
And even after a decade of reforms and sharply increased spending, Russia’s military is reliant on second-rate weaponry and lacks the high morale and training of the U.S. or Chinese militaries, among others. He can convincingly prevail only against much smaller post-Soviet states. But he’s running out of much smaller and weaker neighbors to pick upon.
He’s also running out of plausible pretexts to annex neighboring territory. In their own ways, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea were special and unique cases where people did in fact welcome Russian military intervention.
In the first two, after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, accompanied by ethnic cleansing, the local populations were permanently alienated from the Georgian authorities. Russia was merely waiting for the pretext of conflict with Georgia to recognize their “independence” and pry them away from Georgian jurisdiction.
Similarly, in Crimea there was a majority Russian population disgruntled with being in Ukraine. Separatist sentiment has been strong there ever since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
Crimean Russians have never suffered any discrimination from Ukraine, but they do hanker after Russia’s greater perceived stability and higher pensions and government salaries. Here the twin pretexts are the arbitrary manner in which Crimea was detached from Russia and added to Ukraine as a “gift” from the Communist Party in 1954, and a distinct desire of the local population for “reunion” with Russia.
Elsewhere, Putin faces improbable odds of repeating these successes. The Baltic states are under NATO’s protective umbrella, confirming the wisdom of admitting them to NATO membership in 2004. Kazakhstan has an ethnic Russian minority, but they are content to stay in this relatively wealthy and well-managed petro-state. And notwithstanding Kremlin propaganda, there are no majorities in eastern Ukraine longing for Russian “liberation.”
It has been easy so far for Putin to take advantage of the localized “frozen” conflicts that plague the post-Soviet border regions. But he may soon have reason to experience “buyer’s remorse” with his Crimean acquisition. He may have gained the strategically important peninsula with its valuable naval base at Sevastopol, but he has lost Ukraine in the bargain. No future government in Kiev will again be Russia-friendly, and Ukraine more than ever will seek to escape Moscow’s orbit.
Putin is no fool, and he understands that he is well advised to quit while he is ahead. The easy pickings are over, and the Kremlin faces increasingly serious challenges at home. Corruption continues to plague Russia’s struggling economy, and a rising middle class and oligarchs alike prefer stability and growth to risky foreign adventures.
Putin will continue to try to destabilize its neighbors, but it will be a cynically opportunistic strategy which America and the West can contain with judicious support for strategically important states like Ukraine, which is determined to go down the path of reform, or like Kazakhstan which has its own resources to resist domination from a neighborhood thug like Vladimir Putin. President Obama should realize Putin’s essential weakness and begin to employ America’s vastly greater strength and international appeal to better effect.