Rulers of great powers in decline often seek short, sharp wars to restore their prestige. It was a kind of jittery paranoia about loss of grandeur that drove Napoleon III of France into his disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, and which then inspired Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia in 1908. Russia’s aggression in Crimea falls into the same category – a vainglorious demonstration of muscle-power that is unlikely to achieve the hoped-for result.
Whatever the results of the stage-managed referendum in Crimea, it is a foregone conclusion that the region’s future lies now with Russia, not Ukraine. However, although Moscow’s bully-boy tactics will make Vladimir Putin the toast of Russian nationalists in the short term, it will not forever stifle simmering domestic discontent about his authoritarian regime. Nor will it reverse Russia’s steady but irreversible-looking decline as a power of the first rank.
Mr Putin will not, of course, lose much sleep because of a hastily assembled package of sanctions that Western European governments have ensured are no more than a slap on the wrist. Germany, above all, cannot afford a cold war with Russia, from which it receives 40 per cent of its gas. The penalty that Russia will pay as a result of its gambit on the Black Sea is different. The seizure of Crimea has strengthened the hands of the most anti-Russian elements in Ukraine and shattered the faith of those many Ukrainians who view the Russians as protectors, allies and even brothers. That image is now in tatters. Brothers do not bite off your arm. Only predatory neighbours do that. A wounded Ukraine is unlikely to come to Russia’s heel. It is much more likely to move out of Russia’s orbit permanently. To that extent, President Putin has solved the argument over Ukraine’s future and identity to Russia’s own disadvantage. If he now goes further and assists the secession of the eastern borderland of Ukraine around Donetsk, the rump state could paradoxically become a stronger, more consolidated, entity than it was before. This truncated Ukraine, shorn of most of its Russian minority, will not face two ways. It will see its future as lying alongside Poland and Germany inside the EU and Nato – not alongside Russia and Belarus in Mr Putin’s projected union of ex-Soviet republics.
Beyond Ukraine, Russia’s actions have caused dismay. If the Crimean manoeuvre forms part of a wider scheme to restore Russian influence in the far-off Balkans – as some maintain – it is not working. Serbia, Russia’s most reliable cheerleader in south-east Europe, is silent and embarrassed. The Russian-sponsored separation of Crimea from Ukraine has undermined Serbia’s own claim to its former province of Kosovo. Romania has gone further than Serbia. Its leaders have rushed to Kiev to sign a defence pact with Ukraine’s new government.
In short, the only gain for Mr Putin is reclaiming a small slice of land that Nikita Khrushchev gave to Ukraine in 1954. He is the new Tsar-liberator, at least in the eyes of the Russians in Crimea. Elsewhere in the world, he risks growing isolation, as the leader of the rogue state that cannot be trusted to deal with a shred of honesty with any of its neighbours. Mr Putin may enjoy being lonely. The question is whether the rest of Russia will, too.