Staunton, May 4 – Because Vladimir Putin did not stop after the Crimean Anschluss, the Kremlin leader now faces a Hobson’s choice of his own making: if he expands his aggression in Ukraine, he will face a Ukrainian people in arms backed by the West, but if he does not introduce forces there, he will have dashed the hopes of those who had been supporting him.
On Kasparov.ru yesterday, Russian commentator Oleg Kozyrev describes how Putin has put himself in this most awkward of positions because of his own policies. Seizing Crimea cost him only “insignificant” sanctions but won him enthusiastic support at home. Moving further into Ukraine has changed the equation.
“If Putin does not introduce forces after all this hysteria in the media [that he himself has been responsible for], he will have betrayed those who placed their hopes in him. And the disappointment of the Putinists will be strong both in the eastern portion of Ukraine and in Russia itself,” Kozyrev says.
In that event, the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine may descend even further into banditry and other forms of criminality, a development that Putin may not object to at first because such actions have been part of his strategy. But over time, the actions of these groups without focus and leadership will allow Kyiv to strengthen its position.
“If on the other hand [Russian] forces will be introduced,” Kozyrev suggests, “then at that moment they will be introduced on a territory where the people has begun to learn bit by bit how to resist the separatists even if they are armed. This will not be an easy war for Russia in the east. Indeed, such a war can be endless (cf. the history of the IRA).”
More important, regardless of which choice he makes – and at least up to now it is his choice – Putin will face problems at home. If he does not introduce troops, he will face a population whose anger he has whipped up and will have to find a new outlet for that either at home or, more likely, abroad lest that anger be turned on himself.
And he will face members of his immediate entourage who are so identified with aggression against Ukraine and other neighboring states and may feel that their personal futures are at risk if the Kremlin does not send troops – and thus decide to take action against anyone, even Putin, who changes course.
If Putin does introduce troops, he will face another set of problems although they may not seem as immediate to the Kremlin leader. There will be initial enthusiasm for the use of force, but as the costs both in the form of Russian casualties and from Western sanctions become clear, that will dissipate and ever more Russians will question his strategy.
In this situation, the Kremlin leader may try to continue with more of the same: dispatching Russian forces to Ukraine in a covert or quasi-covert way in the hope that will be enough to defeat Kyiv or to avoid the appearance of defeat of himself. But that may not work especially if Ukrainian forces continue to demonstrate greater capacities than many had thought.
Consequently, Putin is rapidly approaching a dead end of his own making, one in which none of the choices he has is a good one or without risks to himself, Russia, Ukraine and the larger world. Putin and his media machine have been quite effective in shifting the blame in the past, but propaganda alone can’t cover the fateful nature of this choice, at least not for very long.