After being the “Man Responsible for Russia’s Victory at the Olympics,” President Vladimir Putin became the “Man Responsible for Protecting Russians Everywhere.”
In a country where insecurity and crushed ambitions are the foundation of national identity, the idea resonates well with a lot of people. The fine print, however, they should’ve read by now: Putin is the defender of Russians anywhere, as long as they’re not in Russia.
A growing number of right-leaning Russians, known for their resentment of Putin due to his lax stance on Central Asian immigrants and his support of the Muslim republics of Northern Caucasus, are praising the invasion. To many of them, this regime’s shortcomings can now be overlooked, overshadowed as they are by the image of a “Great Russia” finally reunited with its prodigal sibling, Ukraine. No one really cares what happens in Russia, as long as this country still has the balls to send a military force outside of its borders to protect ethnic Russians. The fact that Russia often can’t provide security for its citizens—mostly ethnic Russians—within its own borders, often losing in its never-ending war on homegrown terror, fades away at the prospect of a territorial gain and a victorious war.
With Ukraine, the Kremlin is creating its own axis of evil: America, the “fascists” who seized power in Kiev, and their liberal Russian supporters.
Russia’s vehement anti-American rhetoric is nothing new. However, combined with assaulting a far less powerful country in a moment of crisis, it’s akin to talking shit to the captain of the football team, while giving a beatdown to a member of the chess club who is having an asthma attack. (This isn’t to say that Georgia or Ukraine, or the next country Russia decides to invade, can’t put up a fight. They can. They just won’t win.)
Still, Russia is best at fighting enemies within. Already there are numerous calls to identify those Russians who oppose the invasion—“the fifth column,” as pro-Kremlin bloggers label anti-war protestors. Their photos are passed around on Twitter, information on these people is exchanged—names, phones, sometimes addresses; threats are made. These are cyber threats for now, but there’s no telling when they could become actions, and those who make their sentiments public get the trademark Kremlin treatment of beatings and mock trials for crimes they didn’t commit. A country as great as Russia can’t afford to have people who oppose its “reclaiming” of another state’s territory. Numerous Kremlin mouthpieces ask those who oppose the invasion to leave the country or face consequences of being a traitor. In their minds, only a crazy proxy of American Imperialism can say that it doesn’t benefit Russia to invade Ukraine.
In reality, there is little benefit for Russia in invading a sovereign state. Moral and legal issues aside—and they’ve never really been “issues” here, anyway—even if there isn’t going to be a war, the invasion is going to put a huge strain on Russia’s weak economy. But beyond warp-speed capital flight, the plunging rate of local currency, and probable economic sanctions that are going to follow, there are more costs to invading Ukraine.
Putin has to show his new subjects that he’s a benevolent king. So Crimea and whatever part of cash-stripped Ukraine he’s going to chop off are going to get a huge influx of Russian taxpayer money to help secure popular support, and get local elites hooked on Kremlin cash.
After Putin all but annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, Moscow desperately needed for these two breakaway republics to be recognized as sovereign states. It offered generous aid packages to the island nation of Nauru and Nicaragua in exchange for their recognition of the newly “liberated” republics, and was ready to pay anyone who would buy into the story a solid chunk of cash. There’s no telling who is going to side with Russia on its Ukraine gambit, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be free.
When the dust settles, the lack of any long-term strategy on Kremlin’s part will become unmistakable. The newly acquired republics become nothing but a financial liability for Moscow, and possible hotbeds for future conflicts. Just like it happened with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin is left with corrupt local governments, refugees, and brain-dead economies on permanent life support from Moscow. But as long as Russia got to parade its tanks, threaten everyone around them, and search enemies within their ranks, to them, it was absolutely worth it.