Threat of having ‘successful, stable democracy next door’ led Putin to invade Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that millions of people may drop into poverty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

OTTAWA – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s march into Ukraine this week was about ensuring no one in his country sees the emerging democracy as a model to follow combined with a belief the West won’t have the resolve to stop him, according to experts.

Putin, a former KGB officer, has been ruling Russia since 1999 when he became acting president after Boris Yeltsin resigned. He has seen four U.S. presidents come and go and has held onto his power and position for more than two decades.

Putin served two full terms as president between 2000 and 2008 and stepped down due to term limits that didn’t allow someone to serve three consecutive terms as Russian president. But he didn’t move far from power, staying on as prime minister until 2012, when he became president again. The 69-year-old has successfully pushed for changes to the Russian constitution allowing him to now stay as president until 2036.

In the last decade, Putin has fought wars in Georgia and annexed Crimea from Ukraine. He has helped prop up leaders in Belarus and Kazakhstan from internal dissent and drives toward democracy.

Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, said the invasion of Ukraine was about making sure the country doesn’t prosper.

“His larger goal is to make sure that either he captures all the Ukraine or he makes sure that Ukraine is a failed state,” Braun said.

Braun said Putin’s long reign has not significantly improved the lives of the Russian people, the country is riddled with corruption and despite its many advantages its economy sputters.

“Russia is a failed state in many ways. It’s the largest geographical state in the world that has astonishing natural wealth, great scientific talent. And the per capita GDP in Russia is lower than in Romania or Turkey,” he said.

Russia’s GDP per capita is still higher than Ukraine’s, but the country has been growing in recent years. It has received western help to diversify and to strengthen and train its military. Braun said Putin can’t afford to live next to a success story like that.

“He does not want to have an alternate model of a successful, stable democracy next door in Ukraine, that would risk contamination.”

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and now professor at the University of Ottawa, said Putin also views Ukraine as a historic part of Russia and still views the fall of the Soviet Union as a calamity.

“Vladimir Putin is trying to reestablish a politically compliant Ukraine, which he sees as both a historic part of the Russian nation, and as a potential threat to Russia, unless it’s governed by a compliant regime.”

He said pushing back against NATO expansion and any attempt at democratization among his neighbours fits with Putin’s world view, which sees both as a threat to Russia.

“Another part of it is a very deep resentment he holds towards the west, which he thinks exploited Russian weakness after the end of the Cold War.”

Putin’s move this week was met with swift sanction and condemnations, as western countries have been warning for weeks would happen if Russia invaded Ukraine.

Canada suspended all export permits to Russia and sanctioned dozens of officials in Putin’s inner circle, while also cutting off Russian banks from doing business with Canadian firms. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland had harsh words for Putin to go along with the sanctions.

“History will judge President Putin as harshly as the world condemns him today, she said. “Today, he cements his place in the ranks of the reviled European dictators who caused such carnage in the 20th century.”

Russia, expecting these sanctions and riding high global oil prices, built up a literal war chest before starting this war, but Freeland insisted that the sanctions will hurt.

“The response by Canada and our allies will be swift and it will bite. This barbaric attack cannot and will not be allowed to succeed.”

Putin has been a ruthless political leader and has killed or jailed internal critics to avoid any risk he would lose power. But Braun said Putin is not foolhardy and he likely factored the sanctions and other economic measures in when deciding to invade.

“He is not reckless, he is careful, calculating and finding weak spots,” he said. “He’s not a tiger. He’s a hyena, he’s a scavenger.”

Braun said when it comes to threats from President Joe Biden in particular, Putin likely believes the U.S. will not have the resolve to continue.

He said Biden’s history is tied to the former president Barack Obama’s administration, which tried to restart a dialogue with Russia after the invasion of Georgia and allowed Putin to hold onto Crimea after that illegal invasion.

The U.S. during Obama’s tenure also allowed Russia to help change the course of the war in Syria.

“Biden was the Vice President, when the United States under Obama allowed Russia to go into Syria and reestablish itself in the Middle East,” he said.

Braun points out Biden also stumbled earlier this month when asked about what would trigger sanctions, first suggesting a minor incursion would not be enough and then having aides clarify that talking point.

“He has no respect, no fear of President Biden whatsoever. And if I graph all the meetings that he has had with President Biden, as President of the United States, he seemed emboldened after every meeting with Biden and that is not likely to be a coincidence.”

Western governments sanctioned Russia broadly when the invasion began, but have not cut the country off from the SWIFT global banking system or taken some other steps that could punish Putin. Canada endorsed removing Russia from SWIFT on Friday, but several European countries have not yet endorsed the move.

Paris agrees that Russia is unlikely to be swayed by the sanctions and that Putin is prepared for them.

“He seems to be willing to accept the cost that will be inflicted by these sanctions as the price of accomplishing his goals in Ukraine.”

Putin’s inner circle is small and his iron grip on the country means he doesn’t hear a lot of differing voices. Paris said that meant only the man himself knew what he was prepared to do, but he said Putin was likely looking for a fracture in the West’s resolve.

“Only Putin knows the answer to that question. But I think…he’s hoping that that bold strokes will lead to division within the West.”

Source: National Post