Has Vladimir Putin Painted Himself Into a Corner?

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Max Fisher writes today that Vladimir Putin probably never wanted to invade Ukraine. So why did he? It all started when he was elected to a third term as president amid continuing economic stagnation:

Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that’s not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

….Then the Ukraine crisis began….In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine’s ethnic Russians — and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port — when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea….This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin’s control….The nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin’s propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world….But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

Is this basically correct? It’s more or less the way I view events in Russia, so it appeals to me. But I don’t know enough about Russia to have a lot of confidence that this is really the best explanation for Putin’s actions.

It’s also not clear—to me, anyway—that Putin is truly stuck in a situation he never wanted. I agree that this interpretation makes sense. Eastern Ukraine just flatly doesn’t seem worth the price he would have to pay for it. But that’s easy to say from seven thousand miles away. I wonder if this is really the way Putin sees things?

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