President Vladimir Putin’s decision to slip soldiers in unmarked uniforms into Crimea this month and escalate the race for control over other Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine shows that former assumptions about Moscow’s political behavior no longer apply. The United States and the European Union may still consider sanctions as a tool to check Moscow’s foreign policy, but to Mr. Putin, the threat of such sanctions means little: He has already factored them into his plans.
The chain of events the Kremlin has set in motion contains a message not only for Western policy makers, but also for the Russian plutocrats and corrupt officials who keep much of their wealth in the West. Mr. Putin is letting his Western adversaries know that he is telling his Russian enemies and financially corrupt friends: “If you won’t straighten up and behave as patriots, I am ready to throw you under the bus. If the laws prohibiting you to feather your nests abroad or to serve as ‘foreign agents’ do not persuade you, Western sanctions will do the job.”
After the Russia-supported president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovych, fled his country on Feb. 22, the Kremlin went into emergency mode. Since then, key decisions have been made by a group of Russia’s top security officials. The diplomatic, military and business establishments have been pushed to the side.
The new ruling circle is now even smaller and more opaque than before. Those insiders who used to counterbalance the Kremlin’s hawks are being marginalized. Strategic decisions on Crimea are made at Security Council meetings presided over by Mr. Putin. Important members include his chief of staff, Sergei B. Ivanov, the council secretary, Nikolai P. Patrushev, the director of the secretary of the Federal Security Service, Aleksandr V. Bortnikov, and the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov.
Mr. Putin has surrounded himself with the Kremlin’s version of “honest brokers” — ultraconservative in their conviction that Greater Russia must be restored, people whose values (as Mr. Putin loves to think) are not distorted by vested interests nor driven by the desire for personal financial gain (though many of their relatives have lucrative jobs at state-connected companies — but that is a minor offense by Russian standards).
This inner circle sees Ukraine’s February revolution as Western-led regime change. The fact that the United States and the European Union recognized the Ukrainian interim government and even promised it financial aid was presented in Russia as the ultimate breach of trust by the West. The Kremlin now sees international treaties concerning Ukraine, including the Budapest memorandum to the 1994 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as null and void.
Mr. Putin says that the nature of Ukraine’s statehood has changed and that it is no longer legitimate. Thus, Russia has the moral right to make a move against Crimea. Moreover, the Kremlin thinking goes, if Moscow had not come up with a quick and forceful response to the West (even at the cost of breaking rules), Russia would have been seen as weak.
When Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said last week that Vladimir Putin was in “another world,” her statement was widely seen as a tactful attempt at saying that he is crazy. But to many Russians, Mr. Putin’s decisions, though they may have been radical, are not at all irrational.
The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, a state-backed polling organization, declared on Thursday that his approval rating exceeds 70 percent and has reached its highest point in three years. Independent pollsters have also found that the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine and Crimea is popular. “An absolute majority of the Russian public would have approved of Crimea’s accession to Russia,” says Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent polling firm. “On the other hand, more than 70 percent are against any use of force in Ukraine.”
The self-imposed state of emergency puts Mr. Putin in his element. Here is a sketch of what he is aiming to achieve: A popular leader is once more in tune with the majority of his people. The regime has renewed its mandate. The Westernizers — the rich, the clever and other untrustworthy minorities — are on the other side of the barricade. Honest leaders, people who don’t have bolt-holes in the West, are once more in charge.
For the moment, society is polarized. But a creeping purge of the elites is underway. Anyone who wants to keep a role within the system will have to make a choice: Agree to mobilize his resources for Russia and waive any remnant of property rights, or leave the country and face the consequences. The choice is the same for any public intellectual or journalist — take up a patriotic stance, stop writing, or go into exile.
Any criticism can be presented as unpatriotic. Russia now has an overarching agenda that dwarfs petty issues such as graft or the arbitrary rule of the law-enforcement officials.
That’s the picture the Kremlin’s “honest brokers” would like to see. It’s not yet reality, but life in Russia is moving in that direction. Two independent media outlets have recently been put under new Kremlin-approved management — the large and widely read news site Lenta.ru and Russia’s largest social network VKontakte.ru. The state communications authority has blocked three smaller news sites and the web page produced by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The independent station TV Dozhd (TV Rain) is also under threat.
Theoretically, Mr. Putin can still pull away from Crimea. By not officially acknowledging those unmarked troops as Russian, he keeps his exit door slightly ajar. But no matter how unclear his intentions are regarding Ukraine, there is little doubt that he is fully committed to his dystopian vision of a united, patriotic Russia. As a response to the bottom-up revolution in Kiev he has started a top-down revolution in Moscow.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.