(RAD) Many now believe Russia will launch a major new invasion of Ukraine, dramatically expanding the war that has been raging (largely behind Western headlines) since 2014. Western leaders want to ensure Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, pays a price if it does. Recent studies suggest that Russia’s own people could also make him pay, though exactly when or how is less clear.
There is good reason to worry that Putin may be putting the squeeze on Ukraine, possibly to the point of attempting to conquer most if not all of the country, in partial response to his own flagging domestic support. Even if domestic politics is not his central concern, he may still hope his people would reward him for a new invasion. Populations frequently “rally around the flag” for a while when their countries go to war. Putin himself was one of history’s biggest beneficiaries of such rallying in 2014, when his approval ratings shot through the roof after Russia swiftly seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The lure of rallying may be motivating Putin to try it again. He may also be attempting to distract an increasingly unhappy public from problems they blame him for, like corruption and a stagnating economy.
Recent studies, however, reveal that there is also the potential for a new invasion to backfire on Putin domestically, and that this potential is greater than we often think in the West. It may even be greater than Putin himself thinks.
For Russians, Crimea Is Not the Rest of Ukraine
For Russians, the rest of Ukraine is not Crimea. Clear majorities had supported “returning” Crimea to Russia prior to 2014, but Russians feel no such attachment to other Ukrainian lands. Swayed by derisive coverage on Putin’s state-controlled media, Russian have also long seen Ukraine as a basket case of a state that is riddled with corruption. This does not exactly make it an object of desire in their eyes. Polls in recent years indicate that if Putin could unite Ukraine with Russia peacefully and voluntarily, this might get the support of something like two-fifths of Russia’s population. This is far fewer than Putin wants for his domestic base of support, where supermajorities are the goal. And Russians have never shown strong support for active Kremlin efforts to break up Ukraine, much less take it over militarily […]