Putin gains popularity and Crimea at 'huge cost' to Russia

What will be the costs of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?

Professor Stefan Hedlund

Well the costs are quiet substantial. The first part is that they are going to have to pay a lot of money to integrate Crimea into the Russian Federation. But this is small change compared to the overall picture.

The most important loss to Russia is - if the purpose was to integrate Ukraine then they have now lost Ukraine. There is no way that a government in Kiev is going to willingly unite with Russia to form a Eurasian Union that Putin so much desires. They may still do it with military occupation but that will be incredibly costly and difficult to sustain.

Another part of the cost the Kremlin is incurring now is that it has re-energised Nato. A few months ago, it looked like it was headed for a slow death. Now Nato is re-energised and it has a purpose that is in tune with its charter – which has not been the case for a number of years. So now Nato is moving closer to the Russian heartland that it has ever been before.

The third part of the cost is that Russia has attempted to lock a stranglehold on European gas markets for the past 10 or 15 years, and now the European Union is finally galvanizing itself to reduce dependence on Russian gas. That will hurt Gazprom, not immediately - but down the road very badly.

And then you can just go along the borders and see that the government in Azerbaijan has been spooked by this, and the government in Kazakhstan knows that the northern third of the country is populated by Russians who may now also want to return home to Russia.

And internationally China did not like this at all, so Russia risks becoming a rogue state.

So the list of costs to the Kremlin for doing this is very long and very substantial.

What perceived benefits may outweigh these costs?

Professor Stefan Hedlund

Well this is the major question, and there really needs to be some substantial benefits. And there are, surprisingly.

Most obviously is that Putin’s popularity has gone sky high. It’s over 80 per cent now, which is the envy of politicians across the world. It’s quite clearly the case that he’s presenting himself as the savior of Russia, and that goes down well with the Russian electorate. And it’s not only the case that Russian state media is completely controlled and is just touting his message – putting Russia back on the map and making Russia strong and respected again is something that plays well with Russians across the board. So that’s one important benefit to the Kremlin.

Another important benefit to the Kremlin is that even before this, the Russian economy was headed for hard times and we expect that hardship is going to spread amongst the Russia population. And before the Crimea and the conflict with Ukraine it was looking like dissatisfaction with the promises that Putin made when he was elected president in 2012, those promises will now not be kept and dissatisfaction with that threatens to spread dissent and disobedience into the regions.You might have had a real outbreak of anti-regime rallies in the regions. Now, Mr Putin can blame all of that on the West and economic sanctions, saying, ‘I’m trying to protect you all but the West is out to undermine Russia and throw us back in time. And all this is the fault of the evil West.' So there’s another benefit to him, and it goes on like that.

Now he can finally have legitimacy to deal with what he now referred to officially as ‘the fifth column’ of independent liberal media and of opposition to his regime. So we’re going to see increased repression inside the Russian Federation against everyone who is against the regime.

He has instructed the Federal Security Service to make a distinction between ‘acceptable opposition’ to the regime, which is tolerated, and those who are out to incite hatred and spread dissent. And those are going to be hunted by the security services now. So there are some very ominous messages for the remnants of liberal media and liberal opposition in Russia. That also plays into the hands of Mr Putin.

So what we are looking at essentially is that the Putin regime is scoring a lot of benefits out of this. And the price will be paid by Russia and the Russian people. The price will be heavy and will be long term, but that seems to be of little concern to the men in the Kremlin.

What will happen next in Ukraine?

Professor Stefan Hedlund

What is happening at the moment is there seems to be a scenario for eastern Ukraine that is similar to that of Crimea. That is, you ferment dissent, and you have pro-Russian demonstrators agitating against the government in Kiev demanding that Russia should come to their rescue. There is plenty of evidence according to numerous observers that many of these protesters are paid, they are bussed in, some cases where people stormed the opera house in Kharkiv believing it to be the mayor’s office – these people don’t know where they are, they only know what they are supposed to do.

Invasion will not arrive until there has been substantial bloodshed that they can refer to. So the next step we’re looking at is violent demonstrations between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian demonstrators - thugs hired by the Kremlin.

If you have a large number of people being killed in such skirmishes then the Kremlin can say, ‘now we really have to intervene to prevent further bloodshed because the illegitimate government in Kiev', as they say, 'is not capable of preserving peace and order in its own country so we now have to protect Russians'. And that is when the Russian army will roll across the border.

It remains preferable to the Kremlin to solve this in a peaceful manner that the government in Kiev accepts a federalisation whereby several regions of Ukraine are de facto spun off and aligned with Russia.

I don’t think this is possible because they don’t have the same local support like they did in Crimea where more than half of the population was ethnically Russian. That is not the case in eastern Ukraine. It won’t be as easy and un-violent as it was in the Crimea.

It will be violent, it will be ugly, and it will probably end in the dismemberment of the Republic of Ukraine where it will preserve its status as a sovereign state, but it will be compromised. And there will be bloodshed. It’s not a very happy forecast.