Why fight so hard for a slice of another country’s rust-belt?
Is it part of a sinister strategy to divide and weaken the West, an irrational outbreak of paranoia about an imagined outside threat to Russia, or a desperate attempt to distract domestic opinion from the regime’s political and economic failure?
The Kremlin has annexed the Crimean peninsula (the site of an important Russian naval base) and stoked a separatist rebellion in two of Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk.
The rebels, with strong Russian military and intelligence backing, have proclaimed “people’s republics” there and have continued to advance into the rest of Ukraine, in defiance of a ceasefire agreed in Minsk in September.
Ukraine is losing the war and is desperate for financial and military help from the West.
America is mulling arms deliveries, but holding back to see if a last-ditch Franco-German diplomatic deal can bring a truce.
Few outside Russia believe the Kremlin’s justification for the war.
Russians in Ukraine were not being persecuted.
The government in Kiev is not “fascist” (extreme-right parties fare worse in Ukraine than they do in Western Europe).
Far from menacing Russia, NATO countries have slashed defence spending, just as Russia is rearming.
The three main theories about Vladimir Putin’s motivations could be summed up as “bad”, “mad” or “sad”.
Advocates of the “bad” theory think that Russia is exploiting, and accentuating, Western weakness and over-stretch.
Europe is divided, America distracted.
This is a good time to re-establish a soft hegemony, based on energy, bribery, propaganda and subversion, over a large chunk of the former Soviet empire.
The supporters of the “mad” theory think this is too complacent.
Putin, like many autocrats before him, has concocted a toxic ideological cocktail of ethno-nationalism, Soviet nostalgia and Russian imperialism, and drunk it.
He is countering an invented Western threat with increasing recklessness.
The “sad” camp thinks that the fundamental point about Russia is its weakness.
A stagnant economy, endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure and disillusion from the elite to the grassroots are insoluble problems for the Russian leader.
He came to power on a surge of oil and gas revenues but as that tide runs out, he is stranded.
Propaganda and sabre-rattling are no substitute for what matters: economic strength.
The West needs to be firm and patient, but not to exaggerate the threat from Russia.
These approaches are not mutually exclusive: all three have elements of truth.
They have one big thing in common.
They offer little hope to Ukraine.
Whether Putin is cynically destabilising the country to humiliate the West, or because he truly fears that it might one day be a European-style success story, or simply to feed the mob at home, does not greatly matter for the families of the thousands of dead, or for the millions who are now facing poverty and misery.
Source: The Economist