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How Putin backed himself into a Ukraine invasion he never wanted

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Jason Lee - Pool/Getty

Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine seems, on the surface, like a mystery: Russia does not have that much to gain, does not have a clear strategy, and has inflicted terrible economic and political damage on itself by turning the world against it. So why is Russia doing this? The answer is embedded in this chart, which shows the stunning drop and resurgence of Vladimir Putin's approval rating from 2007 through today, and is just crucial for understanding how he ended up invading:

putin approval rating chart 2

To really understand why Russia is invading eastern Ukraine, you have to go back to December of 2011. That's when everything changed for Vladimir Putin. It's when his popularity plummeted, and, fearing for his hold on power, he adopted a new and dangerous strategy that has wildly succeeded at boosting his popularity. But it also led him to his disastrous August 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine.

For the 11 years of his rule up to December 2011, Putin had an unspoken deal with the Russian people: he would provide strong economic growth (plus protection against terrorism), and Russians would let him build an authoritarian state. For a long time, it worked — until the economy staggered under the 2009 recession and never fully recovered.

The new Putin

Russia GDP growth putin

(Ed Dolan/Economonitor)

In late 2011, after a few years as prime minister, then-Prime Minister Putin announced that he would run for a not-quite-legal third term as president (Russia, like the US, has term limits), and his party won big in fraud-heavy parliamentary elections in December 2011. Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that's not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

It did not work, at first. Putin sounded more and more nationalistic, he arrested activists and threw some of them in Siberian labor camps, and Russia became openly hostile toward the West. But the protests continued, and his approval ratings drooped into the low-60s, which is dangerously low for an authoritarian leader.

Putin's opportunity

Russian President Vladimir Putin cries while addressing supporters in March 2012 on being reelected (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty)

Then the Ukraine crisis began in late 2013, as Ukrainians protested to replace their corrupt pro-Russian government with a clean pro-European leader, and it was a gift to Putin. He used state media, which he had put under his thumb, to create a parallel universe in which American-backed fascists were toppling Ukraine's rightful pro-Russian leader. He worked his citizens up into a nationalist fury at the West's meddling and stoked a very real fear that literal Nazis had returned in Ukraine and were threatening their Russian-speaking, Slavic brethren. Russians rallied around the flag, and Putin's approval rose.

In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine's ethnic Russians — and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port — when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea, which he annexed. His popularity soared. This wasn't just Putin's popularity recovering from years of doldrums — his approval rating skyrocketed to 80 percent, a high he had not seen in years.

This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin's control. After Crimea, he stirred up rebellions in eastern Ukraine, a part of the country historically more sympathetic to Russia and where Russia has concrete economic interests. He likely just wanted to create a perpetual crisis there, to make sure that he would always have this uprising as a gun against the head of Ukraine's new pro-European government. But the nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin's propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world. So he kept escalating, including arming rebels with powerful surface-to-air missiles that they used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing 298 innocent people and infuriating the world.

Putin loses control

Rubble in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where rebels are fighting government troops (Alexander Ermochenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Putin had backed himself into an impossible position. By early August, Western sanctions over his meddling had pushed Russia's economy to the point of recession, making Putin more reliant than ever on maintaining the nationalistic fervor over Ukraine. But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

What makes this so scary is that it means that Putin does not have a rational strategy in Ukraine, because he is not invading for rational strategic reasons. If he had a specific objective, then the West could make some concession or find some way to meet him halfway. But he does not. He is invading because the momentum of the crisis he himself created is careening beyond his control, and there's nothing that he or Ukraine or the United States can easily do to stop it.