Scared Straight: How Putin Saved Ukraine from Civil War

The latest news out of Ukraine (as of writing) is that public opinion is shifting against Russia, even in the country’s previously pro-Russian east. If the reports are true—obviously a huge if, given not only the fluidity of the situation but the fact that we’re not exactly dealing with rigorous polling data here—then it is a development of huge significance. Indeed, in future years, we might be writing about how Vladimir Putin accidentally saved Ukraine from civil war.

It is a well-known political phenomenon that the presence (or even just the perception) of external threat is one of the great unifying forces in politics. In political science circles it’s known as the rally-around-the-flag effect, or—particularly when it’s deliberately pursued—diversionary war.

Practitioners are aware of it as well; cagey politicians have repeatedly demonstrated that identifying a threat to a political community and positioning themselves as defender is an effective recipe for success, regardless of system and level.  Both Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger famously saw their approval ratings soar with the emergence of external threat. More locally, it was said of Peter Lougheed, former premier of my home province of Alberta, that he won his elections by ignoring his opponent and campaigning against Ottawa instead. Quebec premiers are universally past masters at the technique. (Except Marois, who arguably is scaping the wrong goat with the “secular” charter. Different story for a different post, however.)

Autocrats know the effect just as well. Everyone knows how A————————redacted due to Godwin’s Law violation————————ately sealing his fate. Throughout the Cold War, American and Soviet-backed regimes routinely relied on the supposed threat of infiltration by agents of the opposing order to secure support for their their own rule.

It is not always an consciously created effect, either. The French Revolution drew vital strength from the need to mobilize the country against external invasion. The revolutionaries did not court the enmity of Europe’s monarchs, but made full use of it to mobilize the country once they had it. Indeed, an influential theory of state formation primarily attributed to Charles Tilly holds that external threat is a vital ingredient to the process, forcing central administrators to find new and more efficient ways to mobilize resources in order to confront off external challenges.

There are, in sum, good theoretical and empirical reasons to expect that Ukraine may emerge from the crisis more consolidated than it entered it. Even so, it seems amazing that we’re seeing such an effect here; certainly, it runs counter to the outcome so many observers feared or even expected, often with very persuasive sounding evidence to back up their worries. Even those who predict that Russia will emerge the poorer for their Ukrainian adventure in the long run make no commitments that the short run will be anything other than messy for all concerned. In the wake of Victor Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, no one seemed confident that Ukraine would emerge whole and unscathed, even prior to the start of Russia’s Crimean gambit. A search for news stories containing “Ukraine and “civil war” turns up 62,500 hits in the last seven days alone. Ukraine seemed a country on the brink of a breakup.

Of all the above examples, the present situation would seem to mirror the French Revolutionary situation most closely. A popular revolution leads to the overthrow of a previous autocratic regime. A neighbouring foreign power sympathetic to the previous administration rushes in, claiming to defend the rights of supporters of the old order. Everyone within the state undergoing revolution, repulsed by the invading power, rushes to the support of the new order. Nationalism is (allegedly) triumphs over ethnicity and linguistic affinity, despite the fact that the latter appeared dominant just days ago.

A key point that remains to be explained, if this does prove to be the case, is why nationalism is winning out here in Ukraine, when the reverse proved the case in other recent cases, where intervention by a biased actor (often Russia, actually) deepened cleavages and/or escalated the violence. Indeed, putting scope conditions for the different kinds of outcomes of external interventions during political transitions remains a challenge for students of ethnic conflict, revolution, and democratic transitions.

Intriguingly, my friend Yana Gorokhovskaia persuasively argues that a similar process is taking place in Russia, and that much of what Putin is doing is directed at his domestic audience, the only audience that he ultimately cares about. Russian nationalists, already cheered by Olympic success, now have further reason to trust their leader to stand up to the ne’er-do-wells of the international community, and Putin opponents even less traction to effectively oppose him. It would seem that Putin is capable of building more than one state at a time.

Obviously, much remains unclear; much remains unsettled. Having temporarily unified Ukraine, Mr. Putin retains the power to shatter it again via invasion, though not without visiting significant new costs on Russia. Likewise, the fate of Crimea remains a separate issue. There the sentiment of the population seems to tilt much more favourably towards Russia, and Ukraine is going to have a very hard time successfully pressing its claim to the territory so long as Putin remains in power, and possibly long after. Even so, having said all that, a unification of public opinion against Russia is an important step, for even in Vladmir Putin’s alternate reality, the invasion and occupation of the eastern half of a Ukraine unified in opposition may appear to be a bridge too far.

Vladimir Putin. Hero of Russia. Defender of a united, Western-leaning and democratic Ukraine.

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