One persistent criticism of Russia’s decision to annex the Crimea/support its people’s right to national self-determination [cross out as per your ideological preferences] is that it has had dubious benefits not just for Russia, but for Putin himself. This is a common take. For instance, as the 5th anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia approached, both Leonid Bershidsky and Nina Khrushcheva had articles to the effect that Putin is paying for Crimea. But this isn’t limited to the Western press. The liberal business newspaper Vedomosti recently ran an article in which supposedly high-placed sources expressed regret about the Crimean adventure.
Now I am sure that there are “systemic liberals” in the Russian government that were never happy about the Crimean adventure. For instance, the sorts who whine about no longer being allowed to go skiing in Colorado. Though it’s still probably ludicrous to portray it as a dominant or even significant sentiment within the elites. In a wide-ranging survey of Russia’s political and business elites in 2016 carried out by a Western polling organization, 88% of them disagreed with the idea that it was a violation of international law (10% agreed). This could be considered a proxy for elite sentiments on Crimea. It also happens to be entirely in line with public sentiment, with the latest VCIOM poll a few days ago showing an analogous 88% of Russians supporting the incorporation of Crimea. Both popular and elite sentiment would actually seem to be remarkably united on the “Crimean Consensus.”
However, it is also true that Crimea – and Russia’s consequent involvement in the Donbass – has also created problems for Russia, spurring on Western sanctions, “isolation” from the “international community” (with the caveat that this is largely equivalent to the West), putting a crimp on foreign investment and technological modernization of the Russian oil & gas industry, contributing to a deep and seemingly permanent collapse in pro-Russian sentiment in the Ukraine, and providing a new source of legitimacy for NATO. This “Cold War II” shows no signs of thawing, with the US Congress repeatedly mulling the possibility of declaring Russia a state sponsor of terror (and who knows? That might be well happen under a President Biden or a President Harris). Moreover, at least according to the journalist Mikhail Zygar in All The Kremlin’s Men, there was no unanimity amongst the kremlins on Crimea in early 2014; the “Crimean Consensus” was a post facto development. While hawks such as the Ukrainian-born Glazyev pressed Putin to snap it up – and more – there were reports that Defense Minister Shoigu was privately opposed*. There was nothing forcing Putin to make one decision or another. Whatever else it was, it was avoidable.
So did Putin make the mistake of a lifetime by incorporating Crimea? To answer this question, let’s briefly recap the history of the past five years.
Putin’s approval rating from 1999-2019.
Putin’s approval ratings had hovered at around 60%-65% ever since the fraud-marred 2011 Duma elections in December 2011, which spurred the biggest wave of protests in Russia for over a decade. Moreover, this happened in the midst of a modest economic boom driven by unsustainably high oil prices. They spiked to 69% during February, following the successful Winter Olympics in Sochi; this, however, could only have been a temporary boost. However, by the end of those Olympics, the Ukraine was in full meltdown; within less than a month, Crimea acceded to the Russian Federation. Putin’s approval soared upwards to around 80%, where it has stayed throughout the entirety of the past five years of economic stagnation until the recent pensions reform (which, by analogy with the similar dip in 2004-05 over the monetization of benefits, may well be temporary).
As Daniel Treisman pointed out in his 2011 book The Return, Putin’s approval rating had always tracked economic sentiment. But after Crimea, that link broke. Putin became a “charismatic” figure, a father of the nation, a regatherer of the Russian lands – above and beyond mundane trifles such as PMI’s and real incomes. This massive political capital carried him through half a decade of low oil prices, recession and economic stagnation, Western sanctions, fiscal belt-tightening, and a tight monetary policy that seems to have finally tamed the post-Soviet scourge of persistently high inflation.
Now let’s imagine what would have happened if Russia had sat on the sidelines in 2014.
First off, Russia would have been thoroughly humiliated in the Ukraine. Right Sector goons in their “friendship trains” would have gone down to the Crimea to beat the separatists, provoking increasingly lethal street battles. The Ukrainian Army would have suppressed the uprising as soon as it had recovered its wits by mid-2014. The scenes of carnage that afflicted Donetsk would have instead visited Sevastopol, with hundreds of Russian dead as the Black Sea Fleet looked on from their barracks.
Amidst the ensuing mass arrests and reprisals, Maidanist Ukraine would have also quickly moved to evict the Russian military from Crimea (probably using the uprising itself as pretext). The West would back the Ukraine, perhaps rewarding Putin for staying put by throwing a few sanctions at him anyway for “fomenting” the uprising. By then, it would be too late to reverse course. Note that the bloodless takeover of Crimea was only possibly due to the temporary incapacitation of the Ukrainian government in the critical early months of 2014. At this point, Russia could have easily overrun most of Novorossiya, if it wanted to – that region probably had no more troops than the 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers who readily surrendered in Crimea. But the Ukraine had started to recover by the summer. Attempting a Crimean Anschluss just months later would have been a far bloodier affair and would have invited far more Western sanctions than it actually got to date.
Sure, Ukrainian anti-Russian sentiment would not be quite as high as it was – though perhaps not by much, as a bloody showdown in the Crimea had in any case become inevitable. In the meantime, the Ukraine would still be firmly orientated towards the West and Euro-Atlantic integration; there would be no territorial disputes complicating NATO accession; and the NATO countries themselves might well feel more comfortable in courting the Ukraine, due to the lack of any credible Russian response. Note that all of this is independent of Ukrainian sentiments towards Russia. When NATO expanded east, in contravention of verbal promises made by the Americans to Gorbachev, not all the target countries were enthusiastic about it; but since it was approximately the 20th item on voters’ priority lists in places like Bulgaria, local elites had no incentives to listen to public opinion on the matter. Ergo for the Ukraine; while Ukrainian opinion was hostile to NATO prior to 2014 (and is ambiguous even today), the Maidanist elites would have had zero problems pushing it along regardless, just as their Orange predecessors had done in 2005-2010.
Consequently, the oft repeated assertion that Russia “gained Crimea, but lost Ukraine” is a false dichotomy. It lost the Ukraine when the Maidan seized power in Kiev. Russia merely salvaged Crimea.
Nor would there be any realistic prospects of this situation getting electorally reversed. Even the 2010 victory of Yanukovych was the result of an unlikely confluence of a massive economic crisis coupled with the near complete discreditation of the Orange factions. But the Blue regions of the Ukraine are in relative demographic decline, whereas West Ukraine is the demographically healthiest region of the Ukraine; moreover, Ukrainian youth tend to be more Ukrainian, less Russian, and more pro-Western than the country at large. Even with Donbass and Crimea still within the Ukraine, pro-Russian parties would no longer be electorally viable.
Second, the Russian economy would have gone into recession any which way. Fundamentally, it was caused by collapsing oil prices, not the sanctions, whose direct effects in 2014-15 was estimated at just 10% of the drop in Russian GDP according to a 2015 report from Citi Research. The main difference would have been political: In our alternative history, it is a weak and feckless Putin – not perfidious foreigners – who would have been blamed for the recession. Putin would be without his post-Crimea Teflon coating – he would still be a fully “materialist” President, judged on “materialist” considerations.
While either one of these two setbacks would hardly be fatal by itself, together they might have well proved fatal for the Putin regime.
First off, the Sochi bump would vanish overnight, returning his approval ratings to 60%. For context, when they were last at this level, there were 100,000 strong protests over electoral falsifications in Moscow, which resulted in some systemic liberals such as Kudrin openly courting the opposition, and some of the Kremlin’s own pocket parties such as Fair Russia briefly experimenting with political autonomy. Now imagine what an approval rating of 40% would look like.
Because second, you’d probably have a 20% collapse in approval ratings as the economy skittered downhill. There would also be major discontent in connection with events in the Ukraine. It would not be as electorally damaging as a prolonged recession, perhaps only dropping Putin’s support by a further 10%. But there is one way in which it would, perhaps, be even more dangerous for the kremlins: It would have completely destroyed Putin’s status amongst Russian nationalists. Considering the sad experiences of Sadat (assassinated by an Islamist), or of Milosevic (overthrown by nationalists), that’s a risky strategy in its own right. Nationalists might not be electorally very important, but they sure have super high passionarity. Liberals aren’t going to charge into a hail of bullets for gay rights; nationalists will do that for the Fatherland. For that matter, the Ukraine itself showed us that with its own Euromaidan.
And this isn’t even the end of the cavalcade of problems that would have beset the kremlins.
The Russian military is, politically, patriotic-nationalist (~70% vote for United Russia, another ~20% for the LDPR). They would be quietly aghast at being ordered to retreat from the Crimea. While Russia has no tradition of military coups as in Latin America or the Arab world, murmurings in the ranks is something the leadership could do without.
With plummeting approval ratings and elite defections, more and more of the old oligarchs might be tempted to revise their contract with Putin to stay out of politics.
Finally, we know that Russia was planning to intervene in Syria regardless (its Ukraine involvement merely delayed its deployment there by about a year). With domestic and foreign policy in flames, it is plausible that the kremlins would be even more tempted to seek out a “small, victorious war” in the Far ABroad. But given the changed international context, things may not have played out as well as they actually did. First, even in the context of Crimea, today’s most common Russian nationalist counter-argument against involvement in Syria – “Let’s fight a nuclear war not over our own people but over some oil refinery in a Middle Eastern shithole”*** – would acquire much more potency if said “own people” were Russian Crimeans, as opposed to the Sovietized Russo-Ukrainians of the Donbass. Second, Russia’s evident domestic fragility and inability to credibly promise retaliation would have upped US incentives to straight out militarily force Russia out of Syria after one White Helmet performance or another. Said victorious war could have ended in another Tsushima.
At this point, in a world where Shoigu won over Glazyev, we are approaching the 2018 elections and there seems to be no way out for the regime.
The recession, the second in half a decade, is blamed entirely on Putin – and there’s a good chance it would have been a deeper recession than what actually happened (as it would have been accompanied by deep political unrest). Putin’s approval ratings are in the gutter at 30% at best. The old oligarchs and systemic liberals defect to a charismatic and telegenic opposition leader such as Navalny, whose ratings are now competitive with Putin’s (instead of having been destroyed by his opposition to Crimea). Putin would not have bought any good will from liberals who will hate him regardless, while nationalists and patriots of absolutely all stripes would despise him no less by this point, giving the protesters a hard core of fighters. The riot police and the military would be unenthusiastic at best; local United Russia officials in charge of the polling stations would suddenly develop a newfound respect for the sanctity of the electoral process, since the survival of the regime and their own legal immunity could no longer be assured. Moreover, coupled with heavy Western support for regime change in Russia, it is almost inevitable that this combination would lead – if not to a liberal/nationalist-driven color revolution in Russia – then to a heavy and violent clampdown. This would invite hardcore American and EU sanctions, perhaps more severe than anything we have actually seen to date.
Alternatively, the Moscow Maidan could succeed, to be almost inevitably followed up by disappointment as NATO drives up to Kharkov and Tbilisi to consolidate its gains, Chechnya kicks off its third war for independence, and any renewed hopes of genuine anti-corruption reform and Euro-integration dwindle as what is left of the Russian economy is again divvied up between oligarchs and former regime insiders.
Now to be fair, most of this would be music to the ears of the sort of people who write that Putin is “paying” for his mistake in Crimea. However, it would also be fair to say that their interests are hardly aligned with that of the Russian people, let alone Putin himself. They are not exactly impartial observers.
Now I don’t claim to know why Putin chose to go ahead with Crimea and act like a Russian nationalist for a few months in 2014. Perhaps it was based on cold cost/benefit calculations like these. Perhaps it was borne of a more general sense of historical mission. The philosopher whom Putin has quoted more than any other is Ivan Ilyin, a stalwart anti-Communist emigre, who subscribed to the standard White position of a “Great Russia, United and Indivisible” and whose views on the Ukraine followed from that.
Regardless of Putin’s ultimate reasons, Crimea was definitely not a mistake.
Not a mistake from Russia’s point of view – at least so long as one doesn’t have an incredibly optimistic outlook on the desirability and feasibility of Western integration. And most certainly not a mistake from the point of view of the kremlins themselves.
* Moreover, this excludes those people who do think it was a violation of international law – it pretty clearly was – but who supported it nonetheless, and more besides (e.g. I would have opted for a land bridge to Crimea).
** In fairness, this was just a rumor. And a journalist with very good connections to the Russian elites has expressed deep skepticism about Zygar’s claim to me in private.
*** This is in relation to the Wagner debacle.