Jay Tkachuk: The demise of Putinism

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March 21, 2014, 7:44 p.m. | Op-ed — by Jay Tkachuk

: Russia's President Vladimir Putin signs a law on ratification of a treaty making Crimea part of Russia, during a ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2014. Putin said today Moscow would hold off on further reciprocal sanctions against the United States, after Washington introduced punitive measures against his close allies over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO/ POOL / SERGEI CHIRIKOV

Jay Tkachuk

A lot has been recently said about the Russian leader’s newly found imperialism.

Under Vladimir Putin's watchful eye, the Russian military has been overhauled and strengthened;  governments, military, judiciary and law enforcement of the strategically important former Soviet republics have been infiltrated. 

It is clear he has been preparing for the situation at hand for a decade. But why act now? Why would he risk an isolation of his country, economic ruin, global instability and possibly even a large, if not global, war? 

To answer this question one must understand his intrinsic motivation, which is, first and foremost, to remain in power.

It is highly doubtful he would have acted so callously in the wake of the Sochi games and on the eve of the G8 meeting. He is a pragmatic man, and the reasons for his sudden actions likely lie closer to home than many analysts realize.

The state of the Russian economy, especially in the regions, meaning 100 kilometers in any direction from Moscow with the exception of St. Petersbug, is horrid.

The corruption has eroded so much of the country’s infrastructure, health and education systems that much of the country is literally held together with duct tape. 

Hard currency received for gas and oil is the only thing propping the entire scheme up, and Putin knows better than anyone that this state of affairs is unsustainable. 

He could have invested in the country’s development, but didn’t, since a developed, democratic Russia would have no place for a president-for-life.

Instead, he built the largest kleptocratic apparatus in the world, with which abuses of the Viktor Yanukovych regime simply pale in comparison.

By now, this kleptocratic machine has gained so much momentum that it cannot be stopped until it crashes.

Being a pragmatist, Putin clearly understands this landscape.

So how can a leader, with an economy sliding off the skids and heading towards a cliff, preserve his power?

No amount of propaganda would keep an impoverished population facing the prospect of no future, in check.

Eventually, and inevitably, the level of discontent would grow beyond a manageable level, and Putin would have to deal with it. In his book that means cracking down, hard. Whether the crackdown succeeded or not, it would be a no-win situation for him.

The effects of a collapsing economy would eventually reach Moscow. 

Any crackdown there would be done in front of the entire world; outrage and sanctions would follow, the economy would get worse, regions would rebel, and the blame for it all would fall squarely on him. With his power base eroded, he’d be vulnerable. Yanukovych could run to Russia. Putin has nowhere to run. End game.

How would a pragmatic, intelligent politician with an intimate understanding of his nation’s inner psychological workings, avert such a path? Easy. Shift the blame, preferably to the traditional enemy, the West. How? Manufacture a crisis.

The success of the Ukrainian EuroMaidan Revolution offered a unique opportunity – the government in disarray, a population spooked by the unexpected violence, demoralized military and law enforcement, etc.

The ability of the Ukrainian military to resist aggression in the days immediately following the revolution was essentially zero. 

Taking Crimea would be a piece of cake, and undoubtedly very popular at home; Ukrainians would be provoked to fire first, just like the Georgians did, justifying the subsequent blitzkrieg.

The world would undoubtedly retaliate with sanctions, the economy will collapse, just as it would anyway, but now Putin could ride the wave of the nationalistic ecstasy and blame the West for the desolation of Russia. 

His position of power would be unchallenged and reinforced. This is why he practically welcomes any new sanctions the West is threatening to slap on Russia. Good game.

But here is where Putin miscalculated – the Ukrainian soldiers did not fire. Provocations failed to make them pull the trigger, and instead of a chaotic mess with fingers pointing everywhere, Putin stands before the world as the aggressor. 

The stoicism of the Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea is nothing less of heroic – they held through threats, ultimatums, forceful evictions of their families.

And in the ensuing standoff, Russians blinked first – Putin’s forces drew first blood. This has a deep psychological effect, since no nation wants to see itself as a blatant aggressor, on par with the worst of the past. 

The resolve of the Ukrainians in Crimea bought time, which the new Ukrainian government skillfully used to engage in diplomacy, build its brand with the West, purge Russian infiltrators from the military and mobilize the country. 

Now any invasion would be a costly, bloody affair.

This misstep may cost him the entire game.

The Ukrainian government withstood the initial assault, and appears more or less in control. 

krainian patriotism has reached a level unseen in 100 years. 

Faced with a common enemy, the Ukrainians discovered a will to fight.

If the blitzkrieg comes, it will likely turn into a prolonged, festering conflict, as it must. Ukraine is not Chechnya – it’s a country of 45 million people and significant resources. 

Russia cannot sustain a logistical effort of this magnitude for long; coupled with harsh economic sanctions from the US and EU, the effect on the Russian economy will be devastating. 

The death spiral of Putin’s Russia will be long and turbulent, but it must be seen through to the end, for no one will miss the Russian empire.

A few generations hence, not even the Russians will.

Jay Tkachuk is a vice president for online services at Security Service Federal Credit Union. A native of Odessa, Ukraine, he has lived in the United States for 20 years and holds a master's in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin.


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