Vladimir Putin makes for a compelling character.

Photographer: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

A Year After Crimea, Putin Stands Strong

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In the year since Crimea voted in a fake referendum to join Russia, the world has changed: Post-Cold War rules no longer apply, and old enmities suppressed for a quarter-century are back in the open. This shift is well illustrated by the way Russian President Vladimir Putin has, since last year, altered his story of the annexation.

Putin's March 18, 2014, address to parliament formally proposing that Russia accept Crimea was regal in tone but often evasive in content:

I will tell you straight: If the local self-defense forces of Crimea didn't take the situation under control in a timely manner, there could have been casualties. ... We are told about some kind of Russian intervention or aggression in Crimea. That's a strange thing to hear. I can't remember a single episode from history when intervention took place without a single shot and without casualties.

The badgeless commandos who had captured first the Crimean government and parliament buildings, then the main airport, then the Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula weren't, of course, "local self-defense forces." But back then Putin was still keeping up appearances. 

Last night, in a film aired on Russian state television called "Crimea. Return to the Motherland," he told a different story:

Blocking and disarming 20,000 people takes a certain personnel lineup, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of quality. We needed specialists who know how to do it. So I gave orders to the ministry of defense -- what is there to hide? -- to send military intelligence special troops, marines and paratroopers there under the guise of strengthening the protection of our military bases in Crimea.

Putin also revealed that the Kremlin had conducted a secret poll in Crimea to gauge locals' attitudes toward unification with Russia and, reassured by the results, set up the so-called referendum. That, too, was a new twist: It was to follow the will of the Crimean people that Putin masterminded the operation.

One might say that the changed story marks Putin for a liar who can't be taken at his word. Yet the bigger implications of his new boastfulness are less obvious. A year ago, the Russian leader hoped his land grab would have no major consequences because, as in 2008 when Russian tanks rolled over Georgia, the West would ultimately recognize that Moscow was acting within its sphere of influence. "Understand us," Putin pleaded with Americans in his Crimea speech. 

No understanding was forthcoming, however, except from some academics and radical European politicians on the far right and far left. Official responses from U.S. and European Union leaders were unwaveringly tough. Their practical response, on the other hand, was initially puny: economic sanctions that inflicted only mild discomfort on a few of Putin's friends. Putin continued to meddle in Ukraine as if he realized that, while nothing could put him back in Western leaders' good graces, they would nevertheless do nothing to stop him. 

He read the Western attitude as a mix of hatred and fear. He abandoned any effort to win love and worked instead on being scary. In the Crimea film, Putin said that if the West moved to block his land grab, he was prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert. "I don't think anyone had any desire to unleash some kind of global conflict," he said. 

A year ago, such a casual  nuclear threat would have been impossible. Now Putin clearly wants the West to believe that he's at least as capable of using nuclear weapons as Soviet leaders were. 

Over the past year, too, the economic sanctions against Russia have increased, forcing the country to deplete its international reserves to allow its major state companies to pay off foreign debts. Yet Putin continues to have reason to believe that he is feared as much as he is hated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has ruled out putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, and Russia and its local proxies have taken over enough territory to set the terms of the fragile truce now in force. Putin no longer makes much effort to hide Russia's participation in the conflict. And if he doesn't openly admit to sending troops, that is in itself a threat, a reminder that he could still do so and on a large scale.

Putin knows that no one is even thinking of forcing him to give back Crimea. Only 14 percent of Ukrainians say they believe their country can retake Crimea by military means, and 13 percent believe in the ultimate efficiency of Western sanctions in this matter. Forty-five percent say Crimea can be regained only if Ukraine's economic situation improves and Russia's worsens. So far, however, that hasn't happened. Ukraine is in a deep depression, a large part of its economic potential has been lost to the war in the east, and aid from the International Monetary Fund is insufficient to revive its public finances. It must now try to persuade its bondholders to agree to principal reductions.

In Crimea itself, meanwhile, things are under control. Locals say they are still happy to be part of Russia, and it doesn't much matter to Putin whether they do that out of fear or genuine approval.

After Ukraine's "revolution of dignity" last February, Western and Ukrainian leaders missed their chance to reach out to Moscow and make a deal that would have, at the very least, safeguarded Crimea's status as a Russian military base and guaranteed Russia a role in talks on Ukraine's integration with the European Union. Nor were they able to respond forcefully when Putin moved to secure his country's interests as he understood them. As a result, Putin has become an open, unapologetic enemy of the West, and he is not sufficiently weakened by the sanctions, or even by the plunge in the price of oil, to want to change that.

Today, Putin reappeared after an 11-day absence from public view -- looking as fit as ever. His popularity rating stands at 86 percent. If anything, during the year since he moved into Crimea, the Kremlin boss has consolidated his power and strengthened anti-Western sentiment in Russia. No wonder he feels safe taking credit for that bloodless invasion.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net