When Russian president Vladimir Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, his approval ratings were at record lows and the world was watching the Sochi Olympics. When he went to war with Georgia in 2008, the world was consumed by the Beijing Olympics.
Now, Russia has seized three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, and detained 24 sailors who were on the ships. While both sides are blaming each other for the incident, the timing is perfectly Putinesque: The west is distracted, he badly needs a boost at home, and Ukraine is approaching an election.
Putin’s ratings are dire
On the back of controversial pension reforms, Putin’s ratings are again in a deep trough. In fact, they’re at the lowest point since 2014. After the seizure of Crimea, Putin’s ratings climbed dramatically and he rode extraordinary levels of support for four years.
One of Putin’s chief foes, opposition activist Alexey Navalny, said Russia’s Nov. 25 seizure of Ukrainian ships was directly tied to Putin’s current low levels of support. The activist predicted “30 talk shows a day” on state television criticizing Ukrainian war-mongering.
The West is distracted
More conflict in the east is the last thing Europe needs. Among European countries, the UK is traditionally the most hawkish on Russia—but Brexit negotiations are at their busiest point in two years, consuming both Britain and the continent. Amid all that, Britain and Spain are having their own territorial dispute over Gibraltar.
When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the US and Europe coordinated heavily on sanctions and a reasonably robust diplomatic response. This time, European countries, Canada, and NATO have condemned Moscow, but Donald Trump instead spent the morning tweeting about special counsel Robert Mueller and Central American refugees.
The only high profile Trump administration figure to comment has been UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who called the move an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.” Haley said the statement reflected Trump and secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s views, but her condemnations carry little weight—she is stepping down at the end of the year and has made a point of breaking with the White House on Russia and other key national security issues.
What’s more, the world’s top powers will meet in Buenos Aires at the G20 summit at the end of the week, and Putin loves seizing the spotlight before global events. Last time he spoke at the UN General Assembly, he had just cornered the US into agreeing on a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, instead of invading.
Ukraine is heading for elections
Now is a good time to mess with Ukrainian politics. It’s just four months until the 2019 election, and polls for president Petro Poroshenko—a Putin foe—are looking dire. The Kremlin is unlikely to be happy with whoever wins—former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who has a long and bitter history with Russia, is in pole position at the moment.
Sowing chaos around the election and thereby weakening the eventual victor is a favorite Kremlin tactic. Poroshenko initially responded to the boat seizure by calling for 60 days’ martial law, without really explaining why he thought it was needed. Parliament has to approve the call, and Poroshenko has now reduced the proposed window to 30 days to avoid interfering in the official election campaign period. He has leaned heavily on fear of Russia in his campaign; declaring martial law could allow him to restrict the media and postpone the election, but it also opens him up for criticism from traditional allies.
As former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst notes, it would be a masterful move for Putin to seize Ukrainian ships and end with criticism focusing on Poroshenko.
Update (Nov.26, 3:30pm EST): Ukraine’s parliament voted in favor of introducing martial law in Ukraine’s border regions for 30 days.