Most analysis of the Ukraine crisis asks why Russian President Vladimir Putin would risk international condemnation — and potential military confrontation — with his aggressive military moves in Crimea.
A dominant line considers a Putin who is nostalgic for the Soviet empire and with a deep-seated desire to reconstruct a modern, greater Russia. While he may have broader designs on former territory and be willing to throw the dice on Ukraine to this end, his calculation of the costs of invading Crimea also needs to be understood as a move for his personal political survival.
When looking to history, the Russian military moves in Ukraine may resemble Hitler’s Anschluss — the German annexation of Austria leading up to World War II — but the real effect is for this to be Putin’s Tiananmen Square.
In China, the Tiananmen Square student protests were put down with a raw violence that massacred untold numbers of people. The Chinese leadership knew this would lead to international condemnation, restrict their participation in trade and investment, prevent global political engagement and confer on China pariah status.
The leadership was well aware of the consequences, but calculated that killing unarmed students live on CNN was worth saving China’s ruling elite its power. Tiananmen Square shut down all dissent and saved the ruling party. Anyone who dared criticize or oppose the regime or its actions was arrested.
In the fluid situation in Ukraine, Putin and the Russian parliament’s aggressive actions are not merely about maintaining or extending the Russian Federation’s borders. It is as much about cracking down on domestic Russian dissent and showing force without needing to impose an armed crackdown at home.
The current message being sent by the Russian regime is just as effective and less risky from this perspective. Putin is able to lower the hammer on Ukraine, make his strongman point and avoid immediately deploying brute force against his own opponents back home. Better to activate the Russian navy in Simferopol than the army in Red Square.
The military moves in Crimea are happening at the same time as Putin is activating his post-Sochi Olympics arrest list. No sooner had the airports in Crimea been secured by weapons-toting Russian associates than Russia’s major opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was put under house arrest.
This outspoken leading voice threatening Putin’s power is now prohibited from using the internet or having visitors. He has been iced and silenced. How much longer before members of Pussy Riot and other dissidents find themselves back in custody?
In this post-Olympics moment, Putin is effectively saying, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
The crisis in Ukraine and the street demonstrations that effectively overthrew Putin’s puppet, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, if successful and uncontested, would have led to a reinvigorated, reconstituted and infectious protest movement back in Russia.
The same street demonstrations that filled Moscow’s streets after Putin’s reelection in 2012 were just getting warmed up to hit the streets again following the effective anti-Yanukovych actions throughout Ukraine. During this time of international crisis, Russian internal dissent will not be brooked.
The Tiananmen Square actions occurred in 1989, and there were two specific lessons that were not lost on then-KGB agent Putin: One, allow protest and popular organization to overthrow the regime as in Eastern Europe or, two, strike decisively, with force and wanton disregard for international norms as in China.
Putin’s calculation is cold and clear. Muscovites and other Russians clearly understand that if Putin is willing to strike at others across borders, just imagine what he is willing to do back home.
Harboring escaped Ukraine President Yanukovych in Russia confronted Putin with the very immediate reality that he could be the next democratically elected leader forced to flee.
The Arab Awakening is still fresh in his mind, his Syrian ally Bashir al Assad is still embattled and a host of other deposed or overthrown leaders are no longer able to answer the phone. Putin believes he must fight to survive and that there is no alternative for him and for a unified Russia.
From his perspective, passivity in the face of events in Ukraine would likely result in his own eventual overthrow. The last thing Putin wants is to be the former leader of a once great nation.
His greatest fear is to be the next Mikhail Gorbachev. In Russia today, Gorbachev has a lower popularity rating than nearly any living politician on Earth and has become a punch line on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Putin wants the last laugh.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.