Within Ukraine support for joining NATO went from 40% to 80%.
Kremlin’s own pollster released a survey on Monday that showed 73% of Russians reject the Ukraine invasion. In phrasing its question posed in early February to 1,600 respondents across the country, the state-funded sociologists at WCIOM were clearly trying to get as much support for the intervention as possible: “Should Russia react to the overthrow of the legally elected authorities in Ukraine?” they asked. Only 15% said yes — hardly a national consensus.
No less worrying for Putin would be the economic sanctions the West is preparing in answer to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Depending on their intensity, those could cut off the ability of Russian companies and businessmen in getting Western loans and trading with most of the world’s largest economies. Putin’s allies could also find it a lot more difficult to send their children to study in the West or to keep their assets in Western banks, as they now almost universally do. All of that raises the risk for Putin of a split in his inner circle and, potentially, even of a palace coup. There is hardly anything more important to Russia’s political elite than the security of their foreign assets, certainly not their loyalty to a leader who seems willing to put all of that at risk.
And what about the upside for Putin? There doesn’t seem to be much of it, at least not compared with the damage he stands to inflict on Russia and himself. But he does look set to accomplish a few things. For one, he demonstrates to the world that his redlines, unlike those of the White House, cannot be crossed.
If Ukraine’s revolutionary government moves ahead with their planned integration into the E.U. and possibly NATO, the military alliance that Russia sees as its main strategic threat would move right up to Russia’s western borders and, in Crimea, it would surround the Russian Black Sea fleet. That is a major redline for Putin and his generals.
By sending troops into Crimea and, potentially, into eastern Ukraine, Russia could secure a buffer around Russia’s strategic naval fleet and at its western border. For the military brass in Moscow, those are vital priorities, and their achievement is worth a great deal of sacrifice. Over the weekend, Putin’s actions showed that he is listening carefully to his generals. At the same time, he seems to be ignoring the outrage coming from pretty much everyone else.