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What Putin Got Wrong

A chess master in a globe full of checkers players? Or not.

A chess master in a globe full of checkers players? Or not.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, Vladimir Putin has befuddled his foes with hybrid-war tactics, poisoned discourse with a sophisticated disinformation campaign, and alarmed the West with a series of provocative moves aimed at probing NATO's defenses.

The Russian president has kept his opponents off balance and on the defensive; and he's kept everybody guessing what he will do next.

But while it is seductive to think that the wily Kremlin leader is a chess master in a global arena full of checkers players, he's also gotten some important things spectacularly wrong.

And when all is said and done, Putin's costly errors may turn out to be more consequential than his little green men, armies of trolls, and slick propaganda machine.

So what did Putin get wrong?

Money Can't Buy You Love

Well, for one thing, he thought he could buy Ukraine.

The crisis began in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine's pro-Moscow president, backed out of a landmark free-trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The EU deal was six years in the making and hugely popular; its abandonment enraged much of the public. Weeks later, Putin announced that Russia would invest $15 billion in Ukraine and give the country a one-third discount on gas imports.

The tactic was typical of Moscow's approach to spreading its influence: buy the elites and own the country.

In a 2012 report for Chatham House, James Greene wrote that a key part of Putin's method is to use corrupt business schemes to make elites in former Soviet states compliant. It is an extension of his strategy for controlling his own Kremlin elite.

"Putin used the carrot of corruption in conjunction with the stick of 'compromat' to establish patron-client political relationships" inside Russia, Greene wrote.

"By broadening this approach to the corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia to the rest of the former Soviet space -- and oozed beyond it -- Putin could extend his shadow influence beyond Russia's borders and develop a natural 'captured' constituency for maintaining a common Eurasian business space."

But the approach failed. While Putin succeeded in buying off Yanukovych, Ukrainian society was another matter entirely.

The aid package only served to inflame the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations that erupted in Kyiv. The protesters' message was plain and simple: We cannot be bought.

Ukraine Isn't Russia

And this led to Putin's second miscalculation. He encouraged Yanukovych to crack down on Euromaidan demonstrators, apparently assuming that the same repressive tactics Russia used at home would work in Ukraine.

But Ukraine is not Russia. Its civil society is far more developed and more assertive than Russia's. Its press is freer and its elite more pluralistic. Dissent and antigovernment protests had long been tolerated, and common. And Ukraine had scant history of using force against political demonstrations.

So when parliament passed a series of laws in January 2014 restricting freedom of speech and assembly, they had the opposite effect.

Protests in Kyiv swelled, demonstrators in western Ukrainian cities began occupying government buildings, and Yanukovych was forced to backtrack. Parliament annulled the laws and Mykola Azarov, the adamantly pro-Moscow prime minister, resigned.

Then on February 20-21 -- after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned Yanukovych to stop allowing his opponents to walk all over him "like a doormat" -- Kyiv witnessed its worst violence in nearly seven decades when police again clashed with protesters.

On February 22, Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia shortly after signing an agreement with the opposition to end the crisis.

Putin's miscalculation, which cost him his man in Kyiv, is rooted in what appears to be a deep fear of -- and complete lack of understanding of -- civil society.

"The attempt to break up the Maidan was not just an attempt to break up something that would be a threat if it were copied and exported to Russia. It is that kind of threat. But it also poses a deeper kind of threat by representing something called civil society," Yale University professor Timothy Snyder said in a speech at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year.

Ethnic Russian Doesn't Equal Pro-Moscow

When Putin decided to intervene in Ukraine after Yanukovych fled, it appeared to be predicated on the assumption that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians would automatically back Moscow.

And while this was the case in Crimea and to some extent in Donbas, elsewhere in Ukraine the assumption was deeply flawed.

Language and ethnicity, it turned out, do not necessarily translate into political loyalty.

The Kremlin's much-hyped Novorossia project to unite Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine into a single pro-Moscow separatist entity failed spectacularly.

In Russophone cities like Odesa, Mariupol, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, and elsewhere, the vast majority of Russian-speakers turned out to be loyal Ukrainian citizens.

Many have their complaints about Kyiv, of course. But they also prefer to be citizens of a free -- albeit imperfect -- Ukraine, rather than subjects of Vladimir Putin's autocratic kleptocracy. Democracy and human rights, it turns out, trump language and ethnicity.

Residents of Odesa have even been known to boast that theirs is the freest Russian-speaking city in the world.

Putin's flawed assumption that ethnicity is destiny cost Moscow dearly. Russia may have gained Crimea and two economically devastated exclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts -- but it has lost Ukraine, perhaps forever.

Getting Germany Wrong

In addition to getting Ukraine wrong in a number of ways, Putin also misread Russia's most important ally in Europe -- Germany.

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, Berlin was Moscow's main advocate on the continent. Germany advocated accommodating Russia's interests and resisted U.S. efforts to expand NATO to include former Soviet republics like Georgia.

Germany is also Russia's most important trading partner in Europe.

That Putin, a German speaker who spent five years as a KGB agent in Dresden, would get this country so wrong is mind-boggling. But get it wrong he did.

Somehow, Putin failed to grasp that Germans would be deeply disturbed by the first forceful change in borders in Europe since World War II. As the crisis continued, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly became increasingly frustrated -- and furious -- with Putin.

As a result, Berlin was transformed from Russia's biggest advocate in Europe into one of its harshest critics.

And as Stephen Szabo, author of the book Germany, Russia And The Rise Of Geo-Economics, wrote in commentary in U.S. News & World Report, this happened despite a Herculean lobbying effort from Moscow.

Putin, Szabo wrote, "has used his extensive business and criminal network, including a number of former members of the East German secret police who worked for him when he was a KGB agent in East Germany, to foster corruption and to buy favor among German decision-makers. This effort has largely failed."

The result of this was that Western unity on sanctions ended up being far stronger than anyone expected.

So, yes, Putin has indeed managed to baffle, bewilder, and distract everybody with his hybrid war in Ukraine. But the consequences of his failures and mistakes will likely be much more enduring than his shock-and-awe tactics.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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