5 Things We've Learned About Russia Since the Crimean Crisis

Fourteen years after assuming power, Putin's quest to remold the country in his image is complete.
St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square during New Year's Day celebrations. (Tatyana Makeva/Reuters)

Every time Vladimir Putin opens his mouth, the goalposts seem to move. After speaking with the Kremlin leader by telephone this week, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev said Putin told him that Ukraine's 1991 independence referendum—and therefore the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union—was "not really legal."

The Russian president's comment, which spread like wildfire on social media, could not be independently confirmed. But given that Putin has called the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century," it certainly seemed plausible. And it served as the latest reminder that with the Crimean crisis, we have entered a new phase of the post-Soviet and post-Cold War period.

"Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies wrote in Foreign Affairs. The most immediate manifestation of this is in Russia's relations with the West and with its former-Soviet neighbors. But Putin has also initiated a clear game-change at home, which is visible in how he makes decisions, the constituencies he appeals to, how he views the Russian economy, and how the Kremlin deals with dissent. 

1. The Kremlin's technocrats are no more.

It has gone by different names, from "the collective Putin" to "Putin's Politburo." But Kremlin-watchers have long argued that Russia is governed by an informal clique, a collective leadership of about a dozen key figureswith Putin as the front man and decider-in-chief.

Veterans of the security services have always had the strongest voice in this inner sanctum, but they did not monopolize it. They were countered by a group of technocrats seeking to integrate Russia into the global economy—until now, that is. The way the decision to intervene in Crimea was made seems to suggests that the "collective Putin" is getting smaller and smaller—and is entirely made up of of KGB veterans. Putin, it appears, has made his choice. The battle between the siloviki and the technocrats is over—and the siloviki have won.

"The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides," according to a recent report in The New York Times. "The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions."

According to the report, the group included Kremlin chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov—all of whom served with Putin in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Other reports suggested that Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin confidant widely rumored to have KGB ties, was also present.

2. Putin and his allies insulated themselves from sanctions.

In all likelihood, Putin has been preparing for something like the Crimea intervention for some time. Less than a year after he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, he initiated a campaign to force officials who hold assets abroad to repatriate them. The campaign to "nationalize" the elite was presented as an effort to make Russia less vulnerable to Western pressure. 

The respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said at the time that Putin was seeking to make sure officials were "completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president." And with the threat of economic sanctions now looming, those that didn't heed Putin's warnings are probably having regrets.

In a recent post on Facebook, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said based on conversations he's had with insiders, the handful of officials with Putin when he made the decision to intervene in Crimea don't hold foreign assets.

3. Economic integration with the West is now in doubt.

Taken together, all of this suggests that Putin is on the verge of sacrificing the economic gains of the past decade on the altar of imperial expansion. The sidelining of the technocrats and the fact that the Kremlin felt it necessary to compel the political elite to repatriate its assets suggests that Russia is retrenching on its longstanding policy of integrating into the global economy.

Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reports that Moscow is "bracing for sanctions resembling those applied to Iran after what they see as the inevitable annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region." One official said a sanctions war with the West "could wipe out 10 years of achievements in financial and monetary policy." Another said it "could erase as much as a third of the ruble’s value." Bloomberg also cited Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying Putin met senior officials in Sochi on March 12 to discuss Russia's options in a "difficult global environment."

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