Viacheslav Morozov, professor of EU-Russia studies at the University of Tartu, said in an interview with uudised.err.ee that although revanchism and echoes of imperialism play a role, Putin's actions are driven by fear of an Orange Revolution-style upheaval at home. Yet attempting to destabilize and decentralize Ukraine makes Putin vulnerable to a full-blown conflict due to both the reluctance of his armed forces, but also his greatest weak spot - the economy.
What is Russia trying to achieve right now with what it's doing in Ukraine?
There is a more general answer and a specific answer with what's been going on this week.
Broadly speaking, there is always more than one factor which influence decision-making. In this case, I think different interests and worldviews coincide in Russia, but the main task that Russia is trying to achieve here is preventing an Orange Revolution in Russia itself. All this talk about Trojan horses and foreign agents – it's a long-term development, actually.
It started in the mid-2000s, if not earlier, and it actually became exacerbated in the recent years with the protests in 2011-2012. Basically, the revolution in Ukraine, the Euromaidan, was perceived as a challenge to Russia, because Ukraine is perceived as very close as a country, very much like Russia. Therefore it is believed that if nothing is done then it will happen in Russia as well.
But of course, there is the imperialist thinking, there is the idea that Russia should expand, there is a nationalist thinking... and there is a lot of tension between imperialists and etnonationalists, but in the case of Crimea, it actually worked together. This is what I mean when I say that several interests and worldviews coincided.
So basically, what Russia tried to achieve – obviously destabilizing Ukraine and the new government. Secondly, making sure that Putin's popularity remains very high and by annexing Crimea they actually achieved that – it might be a short-term development, but nevertheless. It is something that is very important for Putin, not just in terms of control, but also in terms of his own place in history and his own perception of his mission.
And then of course it makes quite many constituents happy – as I said, the imperialists are happy because there is actual territorial expansion and something that they think belongs to Russia has been taken over, the ethnonationalists are happy because ethnic Russians are brought back, so to say, to Russia. It actually stabilizes the regime domestically and of course there is a certain foreign policy gain in a sense that strategically Crimea is very important and the entire peninsula under Russia's control is very handy in terms of the Black Sea and other strategic things. So that's the general background.
In terms of specific developments: Right now there are several versions and the experts are very busy discussing what Putin's plan actually is. I think that the key point which needs to be made here is that as much as we know Putin and his style, his team and how it decides on things, they prefer to keep all options open until the last moment. There are several scenarios which they are ready to follow, depending on the development.
The most radical would be expansion of military intervention, most probably into eastern Ukraine, not that much into southern Ukraine. There have been speculations that there might be further incursions into Odessa or in the direction of Transnistria, but it seems that they are concentrating on the East right now, on Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk. These are the primary targets.
The other possible scenario is simply destabilizing and negotiating. I think this is the preferred scenario right now. What they want as a first option is putting pressure on the Ukrainian government by supporting the separatist movements in these three regions, and then negotiating – the negotiations have already been scheduled, as you know – with the European Union, United States and with the Kyiv government, to reach a deal that would decentralize Ukraine as much as possible, to achieve maximum possible federalization, maximum autonomy for the Eastern regions. Then, what might happen is that simply consolidating the local institutions and local pro-Russian movements, maybe even creating independent military forces in these regions, something like self-defense forces, which could then pave the way for annexation. Then, without a large military intervention they can send in special forces and annex these regions simply by relying on the local movements and local forces.
Direct military intervention is very messy and very costly. If there is a full-scale war, this is extremely risky domestically. Right now people are supporting Putin and they are even supporting the military intervention. But if the war is going to last more than a week, then there will be casualties and losses, there will be huge impact for the economy. I don't think people will be able to bear that for a long time.
I think the plan is to expand Russia's presence in Ukraine and to split Ukraine as much as possible. It looks like right now the only option in these three regions... it looks very unlikely that Russia would go further than that. That would mean that Ukraine would be weaker, a large part of its industrial potential will be somehow under Russian control and that would be a compensation for what the Kremlin considers to be a loss of Ukraine.
Another potential scenario is further destabilization within Ukraine, including western Ukraine, but I don't know how realistically they can count on that.
So that's how I see it. There is the geopolitical idea that Russia needs to counterbalance the West. As soon as the West intervened in Ukraine by instigating the revolution, the feeling is that Russia needs to fight back and take as much as possible.
Is this once again a case where foreign policy is being used to serve domestic goals?
Yes, I would say so. I think that the domestic goals are primary and foreign policy goals are secondary in this.
I'm not even sure that the Russian military is happy with the whole situation, because for them it is actually a potentially dangerous development. Ukraine as a whole cannot be taken over by Russia. There is no capacity – military or economic – to do that, because there would be a lot of resistance. But the more Russia takes, the more pro-Western the rest of Ukraine will be. This might potential even lead to NATO membership. Right now NATO membership for Ukraine is not really on the table, as far as I understand the signals coming from Washington, Berlin, London, Brussels. Even with Crimea being annexed, NATO membership is not on the table for Ukraine. If this conflict develops further, it becomes very likely. Then Russia will have NATO military bases, potentially some missiles very close to its heartland. For the military, it's a nightmare.
That's why I don't think the military is very happy with this. Of course they follow orders, it's their job, but I'm not really sure that they agree that this is a wise choice.
In general, Russia might become more stronger but even that is not given. Everywhere else Russia would become weaker – in the Eastern partnership countries, in the Middle East, in Syria. Russia would commit too much of its resources in Ukraine and that would mean that for instance in Syria, there would be less Russian presence.
I think this actually prioritizes the domestic goals on the expense of military goals.
Many people – political scientist Andres Kasekamp for example – have said that currently Russia is very isolated on the international stage. With the four-way negotiations coming up, do you think Russia will try to mend some of the relations with the West or are they going to keep isolating themselves further?
I think in general Russia will try to prevent full isolation, but at the same time there are some political forces within Russia which actually promote the idea that Russia should be isolated and that it can manage on its own.
But they will try to overcome the isolation, but the thing is that the situation is going to continue as it is.
No one is going to take steps towards Russia in the sense of revoking the sanctions. Maybe some sanctions will be withdrawn only if the elections in May go as planned and there are no major disturbances which can be attributed to Russia's intervention. This is the only case where some sanctions, not all of them, will be lifted.
In a way Russia is trying to reach out but it's also because Russia wants a deal on Ukraine. It wants more decentralization there. But that's a different thing, it's a long term perspective. It might be that in the end Russia will lose, even when it gets what it wants in Ukraine. Ukraine has no choice but to decentralize, it cannot manage its relations with the regions without decentralization. Some autonomy needs to be given to the regions. Russia will press for more autonomy, as much as it can get. But there is still a chance that the Ukrainian government will manage to keep control over the regions because the protests movements seems to be quite marginal – they are very vocal and aggressive, but not as strong as Crimea was.
In the long term, especially considering the state of the Russian economy and the fact that their resources are not unlimited, there is a good chance that Ukraine can manage. It will have to decentralize but there is a chance that it will still hold together, simply in a different way.
Coming back to domestic politics in Russia. In the short term the Ukrainian crisis has made Putin stronger, but can he keep balancing the different interest groups in the long term or at some point it will become too difficult?
It can become more difficult. We don't actually know much about what is going on behind the scenes. The key strength of Putin is actually that in a way he's indispensable. There is no obvious successor.
Among the elites, among different clans within the elites, among the strongmen in the elites, it would be very difficult to plot an overthrow, because all of them have opposing interests and there is always a danger of cheating. It would be difficult to stage a coup d'état in such a system as today's Russia. In that regard Putin is still in a very strong position.
His weakness is not in the intraelite politics – he can manage that very well, he has demonstrated that throughout his tenure. His real weakness is within the economy and in general the state of institutions, corruption, the way the country is run. In the long term it is unsustainable, it simply cannot go on forever. The economy is already stagnating and in decline, we don't have the most recent statistics but I wouldn't be surprised if we see that in March the GDP has already been shrinking. The sanctions are taking effect, even though they are very limited. They still have an effect on the economy.
The population is of course very happy with Crimea right now but we'll see how it develops throughout the year and next year. They will have to make choices. They will either have to cut the expenses somehow. They won't be able to cut on the military now because Russia is effectively on the verge of war. They will have to cut somewhere and it will either be pensions or education or infrastructure.
They have some international commitments, such as the World Cup of 2018, so they won't be able to cut too much on infrastructure.
The other solution is to simply print more money. But that of course will lead to high inflation, which people will not be happy about. This is potentially very destabilizing for an economy like Russia, because Russia needs monetary stability, it cannot simply go on printing money as if it is a normal strategy. So in that regard economically, this tactic is unsustainable. How long such a stage is going to last, we also don't know, because people get tired of these things and people get back to business as usual. We have already seen very sharp turns in the public opinion – the polls done in February said that no one wants military intervention in Ukraine and then in March everybody was happy that Russia took over Crimea. So it was like a U-turn in the public opinion. I wouldn't be surprise if in May or June or August there's another U-turn with people being tired and unhappy, seeing that their normal life is being affected by the foreign policy adventures. In that regard it is a very risky strategy, even now, what Russia is doing – meaning intervening further into Ukraine, it's still not sustainable in the long-term.
But then, of course the question is – what comes next? Because as I said, in a way Putin is indispensable and if there is a public discontent the question is how they are going to cope with it. Even if the elite decides to get rid of Putin, then the question is – who comes next. He might be worse than Putin. That's my main concern about the whole situation at the moment.