Argument

The Front Lines on Russia's Home Front

Vladimir Putin didn't invade Ukraine because he could. He did it because he had to.

In every country, all truly important foreign-policy choices are, at their core, ultimately about domestic politics. And it's not just about creating a "rally 'round the flag" effect, or distracting from pesky domestic issues, although these are definitely relevant considerations for decision-makers. The right foreign-policy move at the right time can boost a leader's ratings and the regime's popularity. This is doubly true for authoritarian regimes that lack democratic legitimacy, and it is true for Russia today.

In Vladimir Putin's Russia, as one top pollster told me in Moscow a few weeks ago, "foreign policy is pretty much the only thing that works." What he meant was that, with the country's economy slowed to a crawl, and with the regime facing near-universal revulsion over the corruption, thievery, and incompetence of officials at every level, racking up foreign-policy successes has become vital to maintaining Putin's popularity -- which, in turn, is key to the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the "party of thieves and swindlers," Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage -- from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto -- to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands. This is why the Sochi Games were important enough to spend $50 billion on. It wasn't just about showcasing the new, strong Russia to the world; it was, even more so, about what that showcase meant for Putin at home.

The so-called Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics was supposed to be one of those foreign-policy successes -- perhaps the most spectacular of Putin's career, the crown jewel in his efforts to create a new Russia-dominated counterweight to the West. When Ukraine, the linchpin in this future Union, was on the brink of distancing itself and moving toward the European Union, Moscow openly and heavy-handedly injected itself in an effort to push Kiev away from the European path. And when this backfired and protests broke out against the Yanukovych regime, the Kremlin propaganda machine went to work, framing Ukraine's crisis as yet another instance of the West's assault on Russia's interests and security -- and thus another opportunity for Putin to cast himself at home as the defender of the motherland, the only one who could thwart the designs of Russia's implacable enemies. Russian lawmakers openly accused the United States and Europe of "support for violent protests." Most recently, Putin has even claimed that protesters in Kiev had been specially trained at camps in the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania.

With the vicious inevitability of Greek tragedy, the Kremlin's strategy has brought about precisely the outcome that Putin feared most. When, on the Maidan, those who were willing to die outlasted those who were willing to kill -- when the revolution triumphed, after almost three months of a deafening propaganda campaign, this triumph could not be interpreted domestically other than as a victory for the West, Russia's strategic defeat, and a blow to the Putin regime's domestic legitimacy. The huge wound needed to be cauterized. A revanche and recovery effort became a key domestic political imperative; the fate of Ukraine -- a country of 46 million -- is merely the means to that end.

Hence the seizure of Crimea, Ukraine's political Achilles' heel. If anywhere could help whip up a wave of patriotism large enough to wipe away the damage done by Putin's handling of the Ukrainian relationship that spawned the Maidan protest, it is the peninsula. Crimea has been a target of Russian populist, nationalist, and Communist politicians for years, with its large Russian naval base and a majority-Russian population, including some fervently patriotic Soviet military retirees. It had all the hallmarks of an easy sell: Father Putin, protecting the "compatriots" in a place where Ukrainian sovereignty has been contested in the minds of many Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union.

And yet, perhaps this time, Putin may have overestimated the effectiveness of his propaganda -- or misjudged his own people. In a recent poll, only 45 percent of Russians seem to have been persuaded that protests in Kiev were caused by the West "seeking to pull Ukraine into its political orbit." Even more troubling for the regime is that 73 percent said Russia should not interfere in Ukraine.

Following the weekend's spectacular demonstration of decisiveness and effectiveness -- two hallmarks of the image Putin strives to project at home -- the Kremlin has now hit the pause button. The troops have landed but the guns are quiet. Putin is assessing the price the West is prepared to have him pay for the Crimean excursion before going any further.

The readout, at the very least, is likely to be anxiety-producing. The Russian stock market plunged 12 percent after the invasion. The ruble, which has been losing value all year, fell further against the dollar, despite the central bank ploughing billions into efforts to defend it, making the imports on which Russians have come to depend considerably more expensive. (Both the ruble and markets have since regained some of that lost ground.) If Putin decides to double down, say, by in effect annexing Crimea (as the scheduled March 16 "referendum" on whether the peninsula should join Russia seems to indicate), or by sending Russian troops to other parts of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union may begin freezing financial assets, banning travel by the political and military elite and their families, and barring Russian banks from doing business with Western financial systems.

These measures, in turn, will test the strength of Putin's control over Russia's elites. Individual targeting of those members of the Ukrainian elite "with blood on their hands" appears to have been effective in bringing about Yanukovych's downfall; many of them started jumping ship in droves. Will Russian elites prove more resilient -- or more afraid -- and less affected by their status as international pariahs? Will Putin risk testing this proposition? And for how long?

As for other costs, there is little doubt that the G-8 Sochi summit is off. Russia's membership in the G-8 is at serious risk as well -- and this may provide Western leaders more leverage than many think. Even during the Cold War, being treated as an equal by the leaders of key industrial democracies -- especially the United States -- has always been an important legitimizing factor in Soviet politics, a means of reaffirming great power status and respect. Like the Soviets before him, Putin has managed to combine hostility toward the West with regular summitry that projects an image at home as an accepted and important international player. Failing to maintain this status quo will almost certainly hurt him in the eyes of the people at large.

In turn, Western leaders need to understand the lens through which the Kremlin views this one-man-generated crisis. Those who claim Putin commits acts like seizing Crimea simply because he can are wrong. He does these things because he must -- because, as leader of a morally near-bankrupt regime at a time of a sharp economic decline, a major foreign policy defeat is something he cannot afford, and a spectacular assertion of power is almost all he has left. Putin launched himself into the very risky, open-ended Ukrainian adventure for largely domestic reasons; those seeking to bring it to an end would do well to remember this when figuring out how to honorably untangle the mess Vladimir made.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Old Habits Die Hard

A crackdown on the press bodes ill for Burma's reforms.

As Burma continues to crawl its way out of global obscurity, following decades of military dictatorship, it has come to be fêted as a poster-child for democratic transition. Western political leaders have oozed with accolades over government moves to scrap media censorship and unshackle hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But three years into the reform process, journalists are still casually threatened, harassed, and tossed into jail.

Recent weeks have exposed a worrying trend of state intimidation against reporters in Burma. In early February, four journalists and the chief executive of a local journal, Unity Weekly, were formally charged under the Official Secrets Act for publishing a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Burma. Citing anonymous testimony from workers at the facility in Magwe region, the article described an expansive network of underground tunnels linking several buildings studded with 15-foot rockets and Chinese-made chemical reactors. The government has described the claims as "baseless" and defended their decision to enforce the colonial-era law, which bans the publication of material deemed damaging to the state and imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years in prison.

"It is a national security issue, and even a country like the United States would respond the same way," presidential spokesperson Ye Htut told the Irrawaddy, a Burmese news magazine headquartered in Thailand. He subsequently insisted that the factory is for lawful defense purposes only.

Though it is impossible to verify the admittedly tenuous claims made by Unity Weekly, the government's draconian reaction sends a clear message to any reporters investigating Burma's military activities. (In the photo above, Burmese journalists march for press freedom in Yangon.) It is not difficult to understand why the allegations would have irked the notoriously secretive regime, which has been accused of illicit weapons production for decades. In 2010, a five-year investigation by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a pro-democracy media group and my former employer, uncovered evidence of a nascent nuclear weapons program, based on extensive testimony and data provided by a whistle-blower. It sketched out details of a $3 billion labyrinth of underground tunnels, built in partnership with North Korea, connecting bunkers stocked with secret weapons and equipment. The documentary, published by Al Jazeera, provoked a furious backlash from the junta, which branded DVB a "killer broadcasting station ... hateching [sic] evil plots and sowing hatred between [Burma] and the international community."

Four years later, suspicions of Burma's military capacities continue to fuel acrimony in Washington, where policymakers have imposed fresh sanctions on senior Burmese military personnel accused of dealing arms with North Korea. Although the United States has been careful to avoid implicating the upper echelons of Burma's political leadership, it is tough to imagine that any of the country's leaders could coordinate bilateral military deals without the knowledge and authorization of both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Some analysts suspect that Washington is trying to send a subtle "message" to Burma's leadership without openly tarnishing their diplomatic relations, which have dramatically thawed since the nominal end of military rule in 2011.

The United States formally dropped Burma from its list of countries suspected of harboring a chemical weapons program in 1993, but grassroots organizations have persistently resurrected the accusations. In the northern Kachin state, where a bitter conflict between ethnic minority rebels and the government resumed in 2011, local soldiers say they have felt nauseous and dizzy for days after a military onslaught. Several reports by the humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers offer evidence that the army used chemical munitions against the rebel fighters. The Burmese government has repeatedly denied the accusations, but has also failed to ratify the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, which would grant inspectors unfettered access to suspect sites.

Journalists probing military affairs are not the only ones who have come under assault. In January, fresh reports of violence against Burma's Muslim Rohingya minority splashed across the headlines. The Associated Press reported that dozens of people, including women and children, had been massacred in Maungdaw township, an isolated region straddling the Bangladeshi border. If true, that attack would have been the deadliest episode of violence since Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists first clashed in 2012. But the government promptly dismissed the allegations as "false" and issued a stern warning to the outlets that published the story, accusing them of "instigating unrest" in the troubled state. The Ministry of Information scolded AP for failing to "verify" the allegations with the government.

Two weeks later, a suspicious fire swept through Du Chee Yar Tan village, the site of the alleged violence, destroying 16 homes. A spokesperson for the government accused local "Bengalis" (the government's name for the stateless Rohingya minority) of torching their own homes -- repeating the same absurd rhetoric popularized during the 2012 riots, which claimed over 200 lives and displaced 140,000 people, mostly Muslims. A subsequent snap investigation by the state-backed human rights commission ruled that there was no evidence to support claims of a massacre, despite hearing several testimonies alleging that a local man had discovered eight Rohingya corpses in a graveyard. Another investigative body, formed to establish the "real cause" of the unrest, was mandated with a clear bias to exclude the possibility of a massacre.

In yet another worrying development, an outspoken, self-proclaimed Rohingya member of parliament, who represents Buthidaung township in Maungdaw district, has been accused of "defaming" the state by suggesting that local policemen may have started the blaze. He has also been blamed for instigating unrest between Muslims and Buddhists, facing possible jail time if charged and convicted. The second investigation is partly designed to investigate his "false and groundless" reports about the fire. Rights groups have expressed outrage over the flagrant hypocrisy displayed by a government that has unremittingly refused to investigate the violence against Muslims and question known anti-Muslim preachers. In Rakhine State, security personnel have been implicated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. It seems, however, that Burma is keen to suppress any reports that sully the narrative of the country's perfect democratic transition.

"Authorities at the state and union level appear to be attempting to discredit or silence those who have information about what happened in Maungdaw," said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, one of the two NGOs that supplied evidence of the incident to the media.

Both Fortify Rights and the Arakan Project, two respected organizations with extensive research networks in western Burma, maintain that a massacre took place. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has confirmed that its physicians treated 22 Rohingyas, including a gunshot victim and several people with stab wounds, at the time of the reported attack. Soon after, MSF was banned from working in the country for "misleading" the world about the attack in Maungdaw - an unprecedented move. They have since been allowed to resume work in the country, but not in Rakhine State. Although foreign journalists and independent researchers remain largely banned from entering the region, a recent investigation by the New York Times exposed gruesome details of the January bloodbath, including findings from an unpublished U.N. report, which said that ten severed heads had been discovered in a local water tank.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Burma's democratic reforms appear to be running "out of steam" as the government struggles to cope with ethnic and sectarian strife. Despite clambering modestly to number 145 on RSF's annual press freedom index, the group says Burma has imposed "unacceptable" restrictions on the media. In late 2013, a local reporter was sentenced to prison for allegedly trespassing and using abusive language while covering a piracy case in eastern Burma's Karen State. Meanwhile, a string of new laws, currently being pushed through parliament without adequate consultation, include several troubling provisions that could be used to revive censorship. For example, a printing and publishing bill passed on Tuesday, March 4, explicitly bans material that may be perceived to undermine the rule of law or "ethnic unity" and authorizes the government to arbitrarily revoke licenses.

Indeed, recent events illustrate how easily regulations can be manipulated according to political whim. In mid-February, Burma moved to squeeze visa restrictions on foreign journalists working in the country, downgrading their permits from three months to one. The new rules will require reporters to disclose exhaustive details about their work in Burma, including the regions they plan to visit and what topics they will cover. Two western journalists from the Irrawaddy, one of the outlets harangued by the government for reporting on the alleged Maungdaw massacre, were left stranded in Thailand in February after their visas were refused. Meanwhile, state media, which have pledged to become public service outlets, continue to shamelessly airbrush references to sensitive topics such as corruption and human rights.

There is no doubt that Burma has welcomed extraordinary media reforms over the past two years, including ending pre-censorship and liberating the foreign press. But it has also reaped quick rewards, with the United States and European Union shedding most economic sanctions without significant hesitation. The recent assaults on media freedoms should serve as a timely warning that old habits die hard -- not least in a country that has spent five decades erasing bad news.

"We said that too much euphoria too soon from the international community would give the wrong signal to the authorities," said Benjamin Ismail, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk. "The recent clampdown shows that we have not reached a point of no return."

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images