A Psychological Analysis of Putin’s Crimean Decision
After a difficult, long, and exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are coming back to their home harbor, to their native shores, to the port of their permanent registration – to Russia.
When Russian citizens are asked what they remember about Nikita Khrushchev, the absolute majority will mention neither the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult, nor the rehabilitation, not even Gagarin’s flight to space as the triumph of Khrushchev’s space program. He is notoriously remembered by the majority of Russians as the man who handed Crimea over to Ukraine. He just decided to hand it over and did it. And Crimea was conquered by the troops of the Great Russian commander, Alexander Suvorov, in 1783, at the reign of Catherine II.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian citizens cared neither about the Baltic republics nor about the Central Asia and not even about the Black Sea coast of Georgia. They bitterly regretted the loss of Crimea and said that Yeltsin should have taken it back. In his speech before the Russian Federation Council on March 18, Putin said that “the people could not put up with outrageous historical injustice. During all these years, both Russian citizens and public figures have numerously raised this theme and have said that Crimea is a longstanding Russian land and Sevastopol – a Russian city…In the people’s heart, in their consciousness, Crimea has always been and remains an integral part of Russia. This conviction based on the truth and justice was firm; it was passed from generation to generation; time and circumstances as well as all dramatic changes that we and our country went through during the whole XX century were powerless before it.”
Putin’s main argument in the analysis of Khrushchev’s political decision is the following, “It is obvious that this decision had violated even the then constitutional norms …Of course, the people were baffled at that time as to why Crimea became a part of Ukraine so suddenly.”
When in February Putin stated his position on Crimea, the reaction of Europe and the United States was immediate. Many analysts began to raise the questions, “Why does Putin, a person clever enough, behave so inadequately?” or “Why does he put Russia into the position of a pariah, thus returning it the image of “the Empire of Evil” again?”
Some answers to these not so simple questions are hidden in the personality of Putin himself. Let us try to clear this up from the psychological point of view, bearing in mind though the context in which the Crimean decision had been made.
Putin’s system of beliefs, formed for the long years of his political activity, includes his conviction, the most important for understanding the present moment, that the collapse of the Soviet Union has become a historical and geopolitical tragedy. Putin has clearly stated about this, “What seemed to be incredible has, unfortunately, become the reality. The USSR has broken down. The events at that time developed so quickly that few citizens understood the drama of those events and their consequences… And when Crimea suddenly found itself in a foreign country, then Russia felt that something was not just stolen from it, but it was robbed. The main naval base of the Black Sea Fleet, Sevastopol, was on the territory of a foreign country, thus making it necessary to have an agreement with that country about its presence.”
Putin has called the loss of Crimea “outrageous historical injustice,” underlying that “literally everything in Crimea is imbued with our common history and pride… In Crimea are the graves of Russian soldiers who displayed courage in bringing Crimea under the Russian power in 1783. Crimea means Sevastopol, a legend city, a city of great destiny, a fortress city and Home Naval Base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Crimea also means Balaklava and Kerch, the Malakhov Hill and Sapun Mountain. Each of these places is sacred for us; they are the symbols of Russian military glory and unexampled valour.”
Putin sees his mission in restoring the Great Power. He is ready to realize this in different ways, ranging from the Customs Union to the annexation of Crimea. He is also flexible enough in the means of reaching this goal. The study of his texts since 2003 has shown that Putin believes in his mission to correct what had been done under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and it is important to understand this imperative in the analysis of his decisions.
Putin is a realist and aware of Ukraine’s joining the European Union and NATO rather sooner than later and of his inability to prevent this. By annexing Crimea, Putin has solved the problem of the Russian Fleet’s staying in Sevastopol. This extremely important decision for the defence of Russia is of geostrategic character. Compared to it, the international law, ethics and the norms of interaction with other countries seem to be trifle things. However, there may appear an unpleasant situation in the future if next door to Crimea, for instance in Odessa, a NATO naval base is quartered. This scenario is likely taking into account the confrontation with Ukraine.
Putin’s speech on March 18 vividly demonstrates how he argues his position, saying that Crimea represents “the most important factor of stability in the region… And this strategic territory should be under the strong and stable sovereignty which is in fact can be only the Russian one today…Let me also remind that there has already been stated in Kiev about Ukraine’s speedy entering NATO. What would this perspective mean for Crimea and Sevastopol? It would mean that a NATO flag would appear in the city of Russian glory and quite a real threat, not an ephemeral one, would loom up over the whole South of Russia.”
Different studies of Putin’s personality show that he is strong tactician; his ability to manoeuvring in the changing circumstances is very high. And although there are hypotheses that he had already been planning the Crimean operation for several years, it is more likely that it was his quick reaction to the chance provided by the crisis development in Ukraine. He could not help using this chance which was caused not only by the weakness of the Ukrainian authorities and its armed forces, but the realities in Crimea; the absolute majority of the Russian speaking population really wants to live in Russia. Of course, the referendum statistics may cast doubts because the opinion of the Crimean Tatars, it seems, is not reflected. But even if only 75 percent of the population voted for joining Russia, this result would be eloquent enough.
Putin’s low need for approval makes him insensitive to the criticism on the part of the West. He is a pragmatic and for him the result is much more important than somebody’s words. Putin is not afraid of sanctions or the expulsion from “the club.” The fact that his “club” partners ignored his dear brainchild, the Olympic Games in Sochi, was perceived as an insulting and demonstrative gesture. Putin interpreted this, in the first place, as the disrespect for Russia and for him as its President. Now he need not try to be a good guy because the leaders of the United States and the European Union showed that even despite the release of Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot, he is treated all the same as one that does not belong there. Putin stresses that it is necessary “to recognize the obvious thing: Russia is an independent, active member of the international life; it has as other countries its national interests which should be respected and taken into account.” And as a tough and cool politician, he is not going to make national interests an object of agreements or trade.
Putin’s inclination for risk is high enough to allow him to quickly estimate the situation on the whole and make decisions that may or may not have negative consequences in the long run. He is ready to put at risk the relationships with the West and the same time to draw closer with China which does not like the Ukrainian revolutionary script either. At the present situation, Putin looks at China and India as allies, “…we express our gratitude to everybody who understands our actions in Crimea; we are grateful to the people of China whose leadership considered and considers the situation around Ukraine in its historical and political fullness; we highly appreciate India’s restraint and objectivity.” Some Russian experts wrongly exaggerate the benefits to Russia from the relations with China. “China can compensate Russia for everything,” –Bronislav Vinogrodsky, an editor of Kitai.ru magazine, a Sinologist, said to Pravda.ru. “It is very good if Russia is left with no chances to build up very sanctimonious, very confused, very stupid relationships with Europe and the United States and has to do it with China. Although it will not be so simple but I think it is worth it. China for Russia is the only chance for its self-identification as such, a chance to understand where we go and what we need in this world. Russia needs not to compete with an outdated “Old Europe,” let us leave it at that, but to build up allied relationships with China.”
We seriously doubt that broken relations with European and US partners are really helpful to Russia. Russia’s rapprochement with China, however, does not remove the problem of China’s own national interests, including those in the Russian Far East that is now being actively settled by the Chinese. And who knows when China may want to protect its citizens on the Russian territory?
Putin understands that neither Europe nor the United States will wage a nuclear war against Russia because of Ukraine. And any military actions between Russia and NATO will inevitably grow into a nuclear war. The sanctions announced by the West at present in respect of a number of politicians and oligarchs close to Putin will hardly cause any Putin’s reaction. If they have some assets abroad which will be frozen, then it proves once again that it is necessary to get oriented towards Russia and not towards the West. Such sanctions only enhance his position in the eyes of the voting population. Many Russians believe that the European countries will be rebuking Russia until the heating season comes in the autumn. And then Gasprom will say its weighty utterance. Nobody has abolished the winter yet. And the climate in most European countries hardly resembles the one in Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, the West’s sanctions may touch a more sensitive area, i.e. high technologies. This may significantly complicate the development of important branches of the Russian economy.
The analysis of Putin’s personality made in 2007 showed that in his decisions Putin was not guided by historical analogies. Instead, he successfully operates by historical facts to support his decisions. Putin recalls Ukraine’s withdrawal from the USSR, “Announcing its independence, setting the referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the UN Charter which has a provision for the right of nations to self-determination. By the way, Ukraine itself, I would like to remind this, did the same, almost textually the same. Ukraine used this right and the people of Crimea are denied this. Why?”
He also uses the example of Kosovo with pleasure. “Besides, the Crimean authorities based themselves on the known Kosovo precedent. It is the precedent that out Western partners created themselves, with their own hands, so to say, in the situation absolutely analogues to the Crimean one. They recognized the separation of Kosovo from Serbia as legitimate, persuading everybody that no permission of the central authorities of the country for a unilateral declaration of independence was required. The International Court of the United Nations agreed with this taking into account Paragraph 2 of the Article 1 of the UN Charter and in its decision as of July 22, 2010 noted the following, “No common ban on a unilateral declaration of independence flows out from the practice of the Security Council.” And further, “The general international law does not have any applicable ban on the declaration of independence.” For some reason what is allowed to the Albanians in Kosovo (and we respect them) is denied to Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea. Thereisaquestionagain – why?”
The Crimean decision and its realization are very typical for the personality of Putin who considers the result more important than the circumstances. His high motivation for achieving the goal pushes Putin into making pragmatic decisions more likely beneficial from his point of view rather than “ideological” ones. In his foreign policy, Putin tries to find the real, from his point of view, ways of achieving results rather than rhetorical victories. Real benefits for Russia in the foreign policy and defense, as he understands them, are his motive in the Crimean decision. The return of Crimea to Russia is perceived not only by Putin but by the majority of Russia’s population as a major geopolitical victory of the utmost importance for consolidating the nation, for strengthening Russia’s defense and demonstrating military force. The return of Crimea is a 100 percent pragmatic decision though it may bring about a sharp international discussion on such serious questions as redrawing the borders.
Legal thinking differs from the everyday one in the first place by having rules and lacking in emotions. However, emotions play an enormous role in Russian mentality. One woman from Yekaterinburg, an Ural city, said the other day that she was angry with Putin for a long time but after the Olympic Games she forgave him everything. Today, nine out of ten Russian citizens approve “the return” of Crimea to Russia, according to public opinion polls. Khrushchev was removed from power 50 years ago, but his handing Crimea over to Ukraine is still remembered. In 50 years from now, many Russians will remember Putin as a president who returned Crimea and “cured” the wound in the national self-esteem. This allows him to enter the history of Russia as a hero in the eyes of the majority of Russians who are guided by the well known popular rule, “When it is forbidden but you want it very much then you may have it.”
When emotions in society will calm and when accurate and cold analysis will be done, may be somebody realise that economical, foreign policy, social and military consequences of this decision should be perceived sincere. World in which Russia lives today is much more complicated and require much more efforts and resources. Isolation, NATO’s extension, arms racing, are not good factors for the development of economy and life level. Every citizen should count himself the price, which he pays for Crimea. Probably 9 from 10 will like this price, but probably not.