On April 23, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced the end of snap exercises along Ukraine’s border and in Crimea. The massive amassing of Russian troops and material had experts and observers recalling 2014 when, amid protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s military positioned itself for incursions into Donbas and Crimea under the guise of exercises. This time, thankfully, the borders were not breached by either soldier or peacekeeper. But the purpose remains muddled, especially since Russia already has exercises in the region scheduled for later this year.
For President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine currently serves as a distraction from its domestic woes. Shifting the Russian public’s focus toward Ukraine allows Putin to rally his constituents and divert onlookers while one of his greatest threats, Alexei Navalny, deteriorates in prison.
RUSSIA’S DOMESTIC TROUBLES
Coming into 2014, Putin faced the lowest approval rating of his presidential career. Although 62% would be considered enviable in most states, this figure represented a ten-point drop in a matter of only two years. During his first two terms (2000–2008), it had never dipped below 65%. Putin’s ability to successfully lead his country is predicated on a razor-thin, but still existent, veneer of legitimacy, despite his autocratic status. One could see the system of governance as a twist on the old Soviet joke — they pretend to run elections while the people pretend to have a political opinion.
Why wouldn’t Russia rattle the sabers of a small, victorious war to rally constituents around the flag and distract the West while Navalny dies in prison?
Putin’s fall from grace was ironically the result of his return to power. Protests with tens of thousands of demonstrators ignited following Putin’s announcement that he would run for president again. The demonstrators demanded fair elections and Western observers called the movement the Snow Revolution. As Putin accepted his re-election weeping, Russian citizens wept for a government that could not — would not — govern for them. A series of oppressive laws issued that summer effectively quelled the movement. These laws, among other stipulations, increased the already stiff fines for holding unsanctioned public demonstrations, increased financial liability for injuries or property damage incurred, as well as criminal charges passed if the individual had been arrested multiple times at unsanctioned events. These laws faced harsh criticism from not only human rights watchdogs, but the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) and the international community. Early events in 2014, however, skyrocketed Putin’s approval rating back into the 80s, cementing his place as Russia’s forever king. In February, Russia lavishly hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the country clinched a record number of gold and overall medals, and no major security issues disrupted play. In March, Crimea was annexed.
Contemporary Russia faces a cacophony of internal issues as it did in 2014: Physical, economic, and political. Of the physical, the global COVID–19 pandemic has hit the country harder than its assurances and further, its vaccine faces two critical problems in manufacturing and distribution. Though Sputnik V is a peer in efficacy with vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer (91.6%), domestic manufacturing has been slow and its population are reluctant to take their own vaccine. The country’s poor performance against the coronavirus may affect this fall’s parliamentary elections. Although any significant loss from United Russia is unlikely, cracks in its grip are becoming evident. Russia’s economy is also in crisis, with inequality rising and investigations showing the extent of kleptocracy and corruption. Finally, Putin’s main antagonist, opposition leader Navalny, has reached such international prominence that he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Navalny is the most prominent figure in Russian opposition politics, filling the void left by the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015. His activism is motivated by exposing the system of corruption that props up Putin’s autocratic state through flashy YouTube videos and a political strategy known as “smart voting.” Smart voting concentrates the vote around one politician to upend Putin’s party, United Russia, from power. Navalny’s social media presence is incomparable. His latest production, Dvorets Putina (“A Palace for Putin”), which specifically spotlights a lavish palace Putin owns on the Black Sea, was uploaded two months ago. It currently has over 115 million views.
Navalny is not without controversy, however. His politics have been colored by staunch nationalism: Calling for tighter immigration laws, ending subsidies to Chechnya and other Northern Caucasus republics, and supporting Crimea’s annexation. Though many of these statements were made over five years ago, he has yet to disavow those beliefs. His support for a pluralistic Russia, therefore, remains ambiguous.
Controversial or not, Navalny represents a deep and existential threat to Putin and his regime. This is why Navalny was poisoned last December with the Soviet-developed nerve agent, Novichok. In February 2021, after surviving the assassination attempt, he was sentenced to two years in jail following a sham trial so brazen it would have made Joseph Stalin raise an eyebrow. He was sentenced for missing a probation hearing from his 2014 arrest; a meeting he could not make because he was in a medically induced coma fighting off a poisoning the Russian state issued against him. His trial and conviction drew massive demonstrations — not only in the large cities but all over the country. In total, more than 5,000 civilians were arrested and there were several instances of police brutality.
Why not rattle the sabers of a small, victorious war to rally constituents around the flag and distract the West while Navalny dies in prison? That the drawdown of troops coincided with an announcement from Navalny’s lawyers that his hunger strike was ending and country-wide pro-Navalny demonstrations with a less-than-desired turnout is notable.
The War in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea has been ongoing for just over seven years. It has claimed between 13,000–13,200 lives, both civilian and military, according to figures from the United Nations. Ukraine is a necessary piece in Russia’s foreign policy, a critical figure within the so-called russkiy mir, or “Russian world,” a moniker meant to define Russia’s sphere of influence. In addition to providing a significant boost to its president’s ratings, the war has effectively blocked Ukraine from achieving memberships in both NATO and EU, something which would have ruptured Ukraine’s connection within the russkiy mir, something Kremlin officials would have found unacceptable.
Russia’s most recent play in Ukraine was not strategic. Nothing had changed so dramatically that would compel an incursion across the Contact Line. In fact, the ceasefire implemented in July 2020 was the longest-held ceasefire to date. Donbas had not seen major disruptions despite a global pandemic. Diplomatic corridors remained open and functional. This is not to say that the status quo is good — only that the systema has not deteriorated.
A WAR NOONE WANTS
The war in Ukraine will not end with Ukraine’s membership in NATO or the EU. So long as Russia continues to deny its involvement in the war, it is unlikely that a solution will be found through diplomatic formats. The war is an arm of domestic political theater and must be treated as such. Recent steps to target Russian debt are a good first step, but sanctions must be more direct and more coordinated. Furthermore, attention must not be diverted from Navalny and a tighter aperture on Russia’s other human rights abuses is needed — notably, the ongoing targeting of journalists — must be the brunt of the response from the United States and allies. As of April 23, the Kremlin has designated news outlet Meduza as a foreign agent and are seeking to designate Navalny’s organization as “extremist.” Both designations are damning, the former of which will limit their ability to work within the country and the latter could lead to their outright banning and the jailing of members or other affiliates.
The war in Ukraine and its recent escalation is Clausewitzian wisdom manifest: That all wars are politics by any other means. It is less about anything happening outside the country and more about spurring domestics to “rally around the flag.” The escalation, if not effectively managed, could lead to Western powers stumbling, good intentions and all, into a full-scale ground war in Ukraine. No one — Russia, the United States, France, Germany, Ukraine — wants that.
Sarah K. Martin is the 2021 Eurasia Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is currently based in Washington, DC and works on human rights in Eurasia.