When Ukrainians took to the streets to protest their government in late November, they hoped to launch a revolution. What they didn’t realize when they toppled President Viktor Yanukovich in February is that a larger revolution would be in Vladimir Putin’s head.
While the president of Ukraine has been replaced, most of the people running the country are part of the permanent political class. The chances of a major break with the past are small. In Moscow, in contrast, the ideological, geopolitical and economic rule book is being rewritten.
Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.
1) Putin confronts Western utilitarianism with a newfound ideological fervour. In the 24 hours before Yanukovich’s fall, Putin was contemplating two options, according to a political operative. One was setting the Ukrainian president up as a “legitimate government in exile” in the eastern town of Kharkiv. The other was annexing Crimea.
Putin was drawn to the potential of ethnic nationalism in Crimea. He knew its power and he feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would. Once Crimea had been reclaimed, Putin became a prisoner of that nationalist fervour as much as he benefitted from it. He now needs to meet the expectations he has set in motion. What may have started as a tactic to ensure his political survival has transformed into a mission that will secure his place in Russian history.