For a couple of years now I’ve been blogging intermittently under the above heading – “Putin Patrol Continued.” Like Mitt Romney – this is one of the few things we think in common! – I have long believed that under Putin Russia remains not only alien to Western values, but downright dangerous. Hence I have taken some satisfaction in monitoring him and his various oppressions and repressions, and was not in the least surprised when a couple of months ago he started making trouble, real trouble, abroad, in Ukraine.
I know, I know. There are, arguably, reasons for his having done so, in particular the eastward expansion of NATO in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But still. Not good to redraw the map of Europe if and when you decide you want to do so.
I’ve refrained from blogging about Putin recently because he was well covered in the American press. Once Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, Americans suddenly realized that they had a problem on their hands – potentially a significant one. In fact, Europeans as well as Americans were good and worried that Putin would decide not only to grab Crimea but to march his troops into Eastern Ukraine. For several weeks, as we all know, Putin was front page news.
But, almost as suddenly he has, for the moment at least, vanished from the front pages. He is relegated now to the back burner as his rhetoric tones down and he orders his troops, for the second time, to withdraw from the Ukrainian border.
So what happened? How to explain this shift in Putin’s disposition, at least for now? President Barack Obama might argue that it’s the sanctions that worked, however mild and meager. Chancellor Angela Merkel might argue that it’s her behind-the-scenes diplomacy that did it, however careful and cautious. And still others, experts included, say that Putin’s simply satisfied for now, Crimea in his hip pocket.
I, though, would venture another explanation, an explanation that lies not in what leaders do and decide but rather in what followers do and decide. In this case the turning point seems to have been when Putin was at first excited by the demonstrable support he was receiving from Eastern Ukrainians, and then unsettled by his obvious inability to control them. At one point he came right out and announced that he was against a referendum on secession from Ukraine, only to be entirely ignored. Eastern Ukrainians, some number of them, went ahead and held a referendum anyway.
It’s one thing, in other words, for an authoritarian leader to flex his muscles. It’s quite another, however, for an authoritarian leader to discover that however muscular his reach, it has exceeded his grasp.