The West has rejected the scheduled Crimea referendum as illegitimate and demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin give up its support for the peninsula. This pressure is not likely to succeed and, if anything, will only strengthen Putin’s drive to recognize Crimea either as an independent state or a part of Russia. The attempts to explain Putin’s intervention in Crimea by Russia’s economic weakness and fear of democracy are not credible and ignore the genuine roots of Putin’s action—nationalism and the West’s own role in its rise.
Although Russia’s internal problems are serious, Putin’s approval ratings were high before the intervention and he hardly needed it to improve his domestic standing. By fall 2013, the Kremlin gained a new political confidence largely by locating what experts identified as Putin’s conservative majority. By studying Russian reactions to the Anti-Magnitsky Act, the trial over Pussy Riot and restrictions on the activities of protesters and NGOs, Putin’s regime concluded that it had a sufficiently strong social base to avert destabilization. In December of the same year, Putin pardoned 20,000 prisoners, including members of Pussy Riot and his longtime critic, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Many of those charged for disturbances during protests in the early 2012 were either released or received sentences lighter than expected.
The true motives of Putin’s intervention in Ukraine have nothing to do with diversionary domestic politics, just as his true intentions have nothing to do with trying to recreate the USSR. Instead, the support for Crimea is a reflective nationalist reaction to what the Kremlin views as unjust treatment by the West. Putin can no longer ignore those inside Russia who have been worried for years about protecting the country’s security and values from what they view as a dangerous encroachment by Western nations.
Nationalism in Russia has been a potent force, but it would have not have become as influential without the Ukrainian revolution and the Western support for it. The nationalist coalition behind Putin’s Crimea intervention includes security hawks known for their tough opposition to NATO expansion and ethno-imperialists advocating the “reunification” of all Russian lands in the former Soviet space. Security hawks form a close circle of Putin’s old KGB friends who have had access to him since his arrival to power in 2000. In 2008, a member of the group, Sergei Ivanov, currently the head of presidential administration, expected to become a heir of Putin, but was passed over for a more liberal and West-friendly Dmitri Medvedev. The other group includes those who, like Dmitri Rogozin, have argued since the 1990s that Russians are the core of the post-Soviet revival and the state must defend them everywhere in Eurasia. The two groups converged by supporting each other’s policy appointments and arguments. For instance, Rogozin is a known critic of NATO and the former Russia Ambassador in Brussels.
Russia’s relations with NATO are well-known. In response to the alliance’s intervention in Yugoslavia, two rounds of expansion in Europe, the United States’ decision to deploy elements of the Missile Defense System in Europe (allegedly against Iran), Russia made it abundantly clear where its red lines were. In August 2008, it went to war with Georgia in part out of determination to affirm these red lines. Ukraine too has tried to join NATO under President Victor Yushchenko. Although his successor Victor Yanukovych scrapped the membership plans and signed a long-term lease on Russia’s military bases in Crimea, security hawks in the Kremlin, including Sergei Ivanov and Secretary of Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, remained suspicious that Yanukovych’s desire to strengthen relations with the European Union was a Trojan Horse path toward NATO.