Thoughts on the Referendum in Crimea

by David Satter

Russia’s recognition of the “independence” of Crimea is an attempt to distract attention from the lessons of the Ukrainian anti-criminal revolution. This tactic is not new. In fact, it has been the hallmark of Russia’s post-Soviet history.

Former president Boris Yeltsin embarked on the first Chechen war in December, 1994, to boost his popularity after the country was plunged into grinding poverty as a result of his lawless “reforms.” Yeltsin launched the second Chechen War in 1999 to support the candidacy for president of Vladimir Putin, the previously unknown head of the Federal Security Service (FSB). In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, sharply increasing the popularity of Dmitri Medvedev, the puppet leader who was filling in as president for Putin. Now, with Putin’s hold on power threatened by the first mass demonstrations in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in 2011 and 2012 and the stunning success of the Ukrainians in deposing a corrupt leader, Russia has seized Crimea.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea, Putin’s popularity has risen to the highest level since he began his third term as president in 2012. Instead of leading to a dialogue in Russia on the right of a people to depose a lawless criminal clique, the Ukrainian events are being treated as a test of strength. The propaganda in the official press which equates the Ukrainians with Nazis and the West as aggressors has been accompanied by the blocking of the critical websites, grani,ru., yezhednevny, and and actions against the radio station, Ekho Moskvy, and the internet television station, TV Rain.

Putin and his entourage hope that the crisis over Crimea will distract Russians from their misrule for a long time. To that end, they may also provoke new crises in Eastern Ukraine with its large ethnic Russian population.

They may be disappointed. So far, Russians have not felt the economic consequences of their leaders’ self-serving adventurism. But Russia is starved of foreign investment and plagued by massive capital flight. These tendencies are now set to accelerate. Russia’s leading businessmen depend on corrupt ties to government. They need to hide their assets in the West out of fear that they will one day lose political favor. They will now fear that the newly announced U.S. and European Union sanctions will be expanded and applied to them. This will not lead them toward greater honesty but, on the contrary, to ever more sophisticated schemes for stripping assets and concealing wealth.

The result of Russia’s adventure in Crimea will be deeper criminal chaos inside the country, increasing the hardships faced by ordinary citizens. This will make it inevitable that, despite Putin’s best efforts, Russians will begin to consider organizing their own anti-criminal revolution, inspired by the Ukrainian example.

— David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and an adviser to Radio Liberty. He is the first U.S. correspondent to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.  

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