Putin’s War

The Armchair Expert

As an Arts and IR student from Melbourne, my column offers a broad perspective on current International affairs. I’m in my first year, draw political cartoons and major in history. Living on campus and keen on politics, my column Armchair Expert hopes to keep you informed for when politics come up in conversation.

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Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula is an attempt at reinstating Russia as an imperial player.

July 20th saw one of the bloodiest days of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers to date. With seven Ukrainian soldiers dead and fourteen wounded within a 24-hour window, and Ukraine’s top military commander promising an “adequate response” for the attacks, the war is still well and truly being waged. And with Russia widely ignoring the 2015 brokered peace deal in Minsk and continuing to pour men and resources in support of the separatists to the East, the 26-month marathon conflict that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives is showing no sign of slowing down.

Details of Russian foreign policy are rarely clear, hidden somewhere behind the fog of war, general Kremlin corruption and bureaucracy. But the 2014 decision to annex the Crimean Peninsula is particularly baffling.

Putin’s claim that he ordered the invasion to protect Ukraine’s Russian population from Ukrainian nationalists is mostly fiction, considering he has shown little interest in self-determination for the peninsula for most of his 14 years in power. A reasonable case can be made that Putin was preventing NATO expansion and encirclement, yet little indicated a Ukrainian desire to join the alliance leading up to the invasion. The case that he was protecting the strategic naval base in Sevastopol is believable – yet, with a mostly Russian population and 20,000 well-armed Russian troops in Crimea beforehand, a full blown invasion doesn’t quite seem necessary.

Such reasonable and transparent answers aren’t Putin’s style anyway, nor was the invasion particularly effective, if these truly were his objectives. Instead the ex-KGB man took a gamble at beefing up Russian prestige. A gamble that has strengthened the geopolitical position of Russia, proven that she can defend her national interest and bear the cost of doing so.

Episodes of Putin’s imperial daydreaming aren’t hard to find. In his 2005 annual speech to the Russian legislature, he famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union a “major geopolitical disaster”; an ambiguous term that summarized the sentiment of many in and out of government. But his speech went on in a tough, proud and Russian style. “Many thought, or seemed to think at the time, that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse. They were mistaken.” To Putin, whether Russia is named USSR or The Russian Federation is merely a formality.

As for the invasion itself, it certainly appears to have been orchestrated in advance, suggesting a wider, imperial plan of expansion. In the winter of 2013-2014, Vladimir Konstantinov, the chair of the Crimean parliament was making frequent visits to Moscow. On one visit during a meeting with Russia’s top security official Nikolai Patrushev, Konstantinov informed the Russian secretary that Crimea would be ready to “go to Russia” if the now ex-Ukrainian President Yanukovych was overthrown. In early 2014, a memo is believed to have circulated the Kremlin’s inner circle recommending the annexation of Crimea in the event of Yanukovych’s fall. The hungry bear merely waited for the right moment.

The annexation of Crimea has become a huge propaganda success, translating into genuine domestic support for Putin. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia has gained, rather than given up, territory. The reason such a risky gamble holds support is the imperial mindset that Russia and her people still hold. And none are more imperialistic than Putin himself.