There was an interesting misalignment in Putin’s clownish attempt to disguise his takeover of Crimea, and it tells us something about what is going to happen next. Thousands of troops show up in unmarked uniforms, but they are using trucks with Russian military license plates. One is an attempt to disguise (in the most threadbare fashion) the origin of these soldiers, the other plainly tells everyone who they are. Here is how I see it.
Putin has a long-term agenda of reassembling as much of the Soviet Empire as he can. However, he knows that the Russian military has limited capabilities. He can push around smaller neighbors easily, but can’t wage any large military operations. So instead of outright invading Georgia in 2008, he had to provoke the Georgians into firing first.
Wanting to reattach satellite countries to Russia in an underhanded way explains the unmarked uniforms. He’s got these in storage, ready to suit up a force at any time.
The license plates tell the other half of the story. The specific timing of the strike against Ukraine was opportunistic, and motivated by the loss of his puppet government in that country. A westward turn by Ukraine would be a direct threat in Putin’s eyes to access to the Black Sea Fleet and an almost permanent block to retaking Crimea and reversing the decision of Khrushchev to give it away. It all happened too fast to bother taking off the plates.
As much as Putin might have dreamed of taking these steps, actually taking them has started him down a path towards trying to acquire influence over Ukraine and other neighbors with military force instead of crooked politics and economic inducements, at a time that is not of his own choosing. He has now put himself out as the defender, not of Russian citizens, but of the Russian Volk. This populist position is in perfect parallel to the position of Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s, trying to acquire control of German-speaking populations from neighboring countries.
Let’s remember that Putin has chosen this path. He could just as easily have justified his grab of Crimea on the basis of a threat to Russian citizens, since many people in Crimea hold Russian passports. Instead, he choose to claim to be defending the interests of ethnic Russians. Putin can continue to play the race card in eastern Ukraine and other places where ethnic Russian minorities exist, the remnants of Stalin’s forced relocations.
How does this end? Putin should try to remember that for Hitler, it didn’t end well.