To understand Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including and beyond its seizure of Crimea, it is important to understand the psychology of Putin. Because Putin’s leadership style is authoritarian in nature, his thinking truly drives the policies of the Russian state. As Putin is overly-aggressive to abusive in the pursuit of his and Russia’s perceived interests, i.e. he is unwilling to balance the interests of others unless forced to do so, the Russian leadership solely acts to fulfill its perceived interests.
In other words, only when there is a perceived interest to respond to critics and respect international norms will the Russian power elite try to respond in a measured way. More often than, however, there is tendency for Russia to legitimize its behavior. Looking back at Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia justified its actions by focusing on America’s faulted rationale for invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
In other words, any time America does something wrong or seemingly hypocritical, Russia uses it to legitimate its bad behavior instead of just criticizing the US and addressing American criticism when it does wrong. That said, the difference between American intervention, as well as Western interests in general, is that Russia tends to react more readily with far greater force in order to ensure its perceived interests by suppressing the interests of others; whereas, the US and the rest of the West seek to balance interests and assume some responsibility for the damage done.
Meanwhile, it is also important for the Russian People to recognize that Putin is a man who will put his pride and ego above Russia’s interests. It is his hubris, his weakness. Fear of Russian power provokes reprisal and undermines the soft power Russia needs to sustain its status as a reemerging global power, just as fear of American and Chinese power has in recent years.
Over the last couple of months Russia’s sheltering of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the release of opposition figures, Russia’s role in Syrian peace talks, the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and other efforts to act diplomatically had helped Russia gain influence on the international stage. Unfortunately, that power has largely evaporated while the majority of Ukrainians are going to be far less likely to cooperate with Russia in the foreseeable future, especially with Putin in power. Putin’s ego will also likely undercut his credibility in the eyes of Russians and Putin-leaning foreigners.
Finally, it is important to recognize that men like Putin often act irrationally to demonstrate their ability to control a situation and this act of aggression may well be an example of that. Having demonstrated his ability to control the situation, he may well choose to ratchet down tensions. Unfortunately, this course of action is very uncertain. That said, sufficient backlash from the International Community can be used to force the Russian leadership to change its calculations.
Basically, the options are to let Putin feel as though he has control over the situation or force him into submission, which will require quite a bit given his strongman mentality. As such, the International Community’s strong reaction to Russia’s behavior is probably necessary while that pressure must be intensified and maintained along with ties to Putin what will allow mediators to give Putin an out. Regrettably, this Cold War style conflict is certain to hurt the cohesion of the International Community and undermine the global economy. Moreover, Russia’s overly aggressive stance toward Ukraine is undercutting Russia’s broader interests.