In the Western narrative, Vladimir Putin’s grab for Ukraine was doomed from the beginning. Even if he won the big battles in Ukraine—arming a pro-Russian separatist movement, undermining a pro-European uprising and annexing Crimea—he would pay a steep price for this brazen revival of Russian empire-building.
In recent weeks, that narrative has come to fruition. Plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions have hobbled the Russian economy. The ruble nosedived to a 15-year low, prices are rising, and foreign investment is drying up. There is talk among opposition leaders and businessmen that Putin’s otherwise popular defiance of the West has not been worth it.
And yet, at his state of the union speech on Dec. 4, Putin refused to accept this version of the story. He insisted that, no matter what, Russia would not back down. His rhetoric was as unabashedly nationalistic as ever, as he accused the West of trying to destroy Russia, saying that it had used Crimea as an excuse to impose sanctions it planned to impose anyway, and describing the entire crisis in Ukraine as an imperialist venture in Russia’s backyard engineered by the United States. “They [the West] would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment,” Putin said. “It did not work, just as it did not work for Hitler.”
Though Russia and the West sparred over several crises in 2014, only Ukraine has threatened to permanently rupture two decades of carefully stitched diplomatic and economic ties. This is partly because voices on both sides have framed the showdown as a revival of the zero-sum competition of the Cold War. The West sees sanctions as a reasonable response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Moscow, meanwhile, sees intervention in Ukraine as just retaliation for the recent pro-European uprising in Kiev that, it believes, was fomented by the West to chip away at Russia’s shrinking sphere of influence.
According to that logic, backing down is simply not an option for Putin. He has stirred nationalist sentiment to levels not seen in years, trumpeting the reclamation of historically pro-Russian Crimea as his capstone achievement and taking every opportunity to remind Russians of the existential threat posed by the West. In a rambling press conference on Dec. 18, he compared the Russian national symbol to a peaceful forest animal stalked by hunters. “The bear eats berries and honey,” Putin said. “Will the bear ever be left in peace? No, they will always try to chain him up and tear out his fangs and claws.”
Domestically, that strategy is working. Even as the economy careens toward recession, Putin’s approval rating hovers over 80 percent. “What Russians hate most of all is when foreign powers pressure them with force,” wrote Pyotr Romanov, in the Moscow Times. “That is the best way to mobilize Russians, to compel them to unite in order to fight off the opponent.”
Rather than backing down, some expect Putin to wait out the winter, leaving eastern Ukraine under a shaky cease-fire that could eventually turn into another "frozen conflict," like those in Moldova and Georgia. There, Putin has egged on pro-Russian separatist movements to effectively thwart those countries’ ascension into Western alliances like NATO or the European Union. In Ukraine, Putin may be betting that the Europeans, who have also been hurt by declining trade with Russia, will decide not to renew sanctions by the spring deadline. “Tacitly, what he’s gambling for is that he has the stamina to outlive European unity,” said Joerg Forbrig, a Russia expert at the German-Marshall Fund in Berlin. “If he sees cracks, he will exploit them.”
But the collapse of the ruble will put him under pressure at home in the early months of 2015. Russians are reportedly swarming automobile dealers and foreign retailers like IKEA, hoping to cash out before the currency devalues further. Putin has shrugged off questions about the economy, saying he has a plan to fix it, though he did not specify what it is. If public support begins to slip, Putin could try to seek a face-saving compromise in Ukraine. As Romanov puts it, “they can endure great difficulty, but Russians are not masochists.”
A more likely scenario, according to some analysts, is that Putin will draw even closer to Russia’s elite, the one constituency whose support he absolutely needs. These fiercely nationalistic oligarchs have not been badly hurt by sanctions and may advise him to invade Ukraine and end the stalemate for good. Says Donald Jensen, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, “There’s no anti-war party in the Kremlin, just varying degrees of pro-war.”