In his quest to become the new Russian Tsar. Putin's policies may have come back to haunt him

UkraineUnless you’ve been unconscious for the last few days, you’ve almost certainly heard of the recent tragedy of Flight MH-17, a Malaysian airlines flight shot down over Ukraine last week. 298 civilians were killed, including six epidemiologists en route to an international AIDS research conference.

The international community has been in an uproar since the airliner was shot down, and Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations back and forth as to who is responsible for the incident. The most credible narrative seems to be that provided by Ukraine, which claims that pro-Russian rebels mistakenly fired upon the airliner, believing it to be a Ukrainian military cargo plane.

Evidence for this version of events is strong, though largely circumstantial. For instance, a separatist commander bragged on Russian social media that his forces had just downed a Ukrainian cargo aircraft at roughly the same time as Flight MH-17 appears to have been shot down – a post which was swiftly removed when the truth became clear.

In addition to MH-17, a number of Ukrainian military aircraft have also been shot down in recent months, clearly indicating that the rebels have already long been in control of anti-aircraft missile systems. Very recently, a pro-Russian separatist commander actually admitted that the rebels were in control of such a system and implied that his forces were responsible for the shoot-down.

A summary of the further evidence backing the Ukrainian account can be read here. As many of the victims’ bodies have finally been returned to Ukrainian control, the conflict is now moving into its next stage.

Separatist-Controlled Regions of Ukraine
Separatist-Controlled Regions of Ukraine

This next stage exacerbates the already-tense situation between the West and Russia, and there are growing signs that the tragedy might well finally galvanize the fractious European Union behind stronger economic sanctions.

The United Kingdom has even gone so far as to revive a long-dormant inquiry into the death of a Russian spy in London eight years ago.

Tensions will almost certainly continue to heighten, as two Ukrainian fighter jets have been shot down recently and Russia has claimed publicly that a Ukrainian artillery shell landed near a Russian border town. There have been some promising signs from Vladimir Putin, at least rhetorically, that he plans to use his influence with the separatists to rein them in – though he has made similar promises in the past with no follow-through.

If the West does indeed press forward with deeper, sectoral economic sanctions against Russia, it will almost certainly have a negative effect on the EU’s economic recovery, which has recently been rattled by currency inflation. In retaliation for a deepening of the sanctions regime, Russia has the option of shutting off natural gas supplies to Europe, though such a move would cause asymmetric damage to the Russian economy, which is heavily dependent on the European energy market.

Current State of Russian Economy
Current State of Russian Economy

Even prior to the current crisis, Russia’s economy had already begun to show signs of slowing. With the added financial uncertainty brought about by Russia’s actions and the economic sanctions already enacted thus far, Russia is projected to grow its economy by a mere 1.4% this year.

Unfortunately for the Russian people, there seems to be little hope of necessary economic reforms aimed at diversifying the Russian economy. Instead, there has been discussion of intensifying the state’s role in the economy and a rejection of calls for reforming social programs.

The world has seen the path Vladimir Putin seems intent on taking in recent years, even before these last few months of intense crisis in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Since returning to the Russian presidency for his third term, Putin had overseen a widespread crackdown on dissenting voices and a significant infringement of Russian freedoms.

This trend continues to manifest itself through the Russian media, which has largely been monopolized by the Russian government’s propaganda machine. This system has been used to disseminate blatantly false information about the Ukrainian crisis, including claims that the Ukrainian government in Kiev is run by neo-nazis or that they are Western lackies.

All of this propaganda has gotten wind for its sails with images of tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting in the East and crossing the Russian border. And these two factors; a shaky Russian economy and overheated propagandist media coverage have put President Putin in the bind in which he now finds himself.

Tactical Situation before Ukrainian Advances
Tactical Situation before Ukrainian Advances

The conflict can truly be boiled down to a dispute regarding a single word (with which the former attorneys of Bill Clinton are undoubtedly well-acquainted): The. When one refers to the territory constituting the current nation of Ukraine as “the” Ukraine, one is referring to “The Tsar’s Ukraine.” This is how Vladimir Putin would like things to play out.

Contrary to a popular media narrative, Putin is not interested in reestablishing the Soviet Union. Instead his idealistic vision for the future of Russia stretches further back to those rulers of the past which built it, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

Vladimir Putin is motivated in the main by two things: (1) returning Russia to its former glory on a model akin to the old Russian Empire; and (2) maintaining power for himself and his oligarch allies. He sees (and would like the Russian public to see as well) himself as the modern embodiment of the Tsar and, thus, Ukraine and Crimea are Russia’s (and, by extension, his) rightful property.

The first of these goals will be impossible for him to realize for a number of reasons, and the second may drive him to take drastic and destabilizing actions that will reverberate throughout the international system.

He has attempted to achieve both of these aims simultaneously by stoking the flames of Russian nationalism, and this campaign has been waged quite effectively. These flames are beginning to burn out of control, however, and Putin now finds himself backed into a corner from which he is unlikely to escape unscathed.

In addition to playing the nationalist card, Mr. Putin has also taken another classical authoritarian tact: scapegoating. As you may remember, the Russian government has chosen to set its sights on gays and passed a series of “gay propaganda laws” which forbid candid public discussions and forums on gay rights.

Many in the media have begun to ask whether we are entering into a “new Cold War“. The answer is hard to pinpoint with certainty, but the likely answer is no; at least not of the sort seen during the last half of the twentieth century.

For one thing, Moscow is much weaker now than it was even at the nadir of Soviet power. The country’s population levels are declining and they have a serious deficit of youths upon which the future Russian economy will need to rely for growth.

Russian Age Demographics

Another facet of this “new Cold War” which is different from the last, is a relative lack of ideological blocs standing behind each heavyweight–in this case, the United States and Russia. Instead, Russia has nothing but a weak trade union with various Eurasian states and the NATO of today is heavily reliant on American military power.

These factors have clearly not hindered the Russian government’s resolve to continue its current course of belligerence against the West, however. It has recently pledged to boost its defense spending significantly in the coming years, and a Russian Deputy Prime Minister recently pledged support for the Moldovan breakaway region of Trans-Dniester.

The Ukrainian crisis faces a very uncertain future, and the situation’s volatility is only likely to increase. Mr. Putin has little choice but to move forward with further support for the pro-Russian separatists because of the intense propaganda campaign his government has waged through Russian media.

Many Russian citizens believe that the Ukrainian military is full of fascists who are preparing to commit mass genocide of Russian speakers in the East of the country, so Mr. Putin’s popularity very heavily depends upon his government taking a strong stance going forward. If he does so, however, the Europeans are very likely to press forward with the sanctions mentioned previously which will devastate the Russian economy and, ironically, also harm Mr. Putin’s popularity with the general public.

It seems that President Putin has no good options, and though his unpredictability has been an asset in the past, it could be a recipe for miscalculation and disaster if it continues. Whatever he chooses to do, he must move quickly, because Ukrainian forces have made significant military advances in recent weeks and the situation for pro-Russian separatist forces is becoming increasingly dire. I only pray that he takes the least disastrous course of action; not just for the good of Russia, but for the good of the entire planet.

I'm currently a graduate student in political science at the University of Kansas, writing my master's thesis about the interplay between institutional structures in political systems and government spending patterns (it's even less interesting than it sounds). Much of my free time is dedicated to obsessively listening to news podcasts and reading news articles so, I figured "ehh, what the hell, I might as well put some of that knowledge to work." So, here I am.


  1. You seem to believe that a coup that overthrows a democratically elected government creates a valid government while a referendum by a group of people to rejoin a country of which they historically were part of is illegitimate. You complain of Putin’s propaganda, but you seem quite content to accept US propaganda. The truth is there ARE open neo-Nazis in the new government of Ukraine. There are members of the new Ukrainian government who have openly called for the annihilation of all Russians. Ukrainian troops HAVE slaughtered non-combatant civilians. To view the trouble in Ukraine primarily as an attempt by Putin to expand his influence is to have blinders on.

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