In 1967, the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson wrote in his epic account, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917, "If there is one single factor which dominates the course of Russian history, at any rate since the Tatar conquest, it is the principle of autocracy." He goes on to explain how the nations of Western Europe were formed by a long struggle between "the monarchial power and the social elite." In England, the elite usually won, and that was a key to the development of parliamentary democracy. But in Russia it was generally agreed that rather than granting special privileges to an elite, "It was better that all should be equal in their subjection to the autocrat."
This profound anti-democratic tradition of Russian political culture has its roots in geography, or as Seton-Watson prefers to explain it, in military necessity. Between the Arctic ice and the mountains of the Caucasus, and between the North European Plain and the wastes of the Far East, Russia is vast and without physical obstacles to invasion. Invasion of Russia is easy, and was accomplished, albeit with disastrous results, by Napoleon and Hitler, as well as by the armies of the Mongols, Sweden, Lithuania and Poland. As Seton-Watson argues, "Imagine the United States without either the Atlantic or the Pacific, and with several first-rate military powers instead of the Indians," and you would have a sense of Russia's security dilemma. Whereas in America the frontier meant opportunity, in Russia, he says, it meant insecurity and oppression.
Because security in Russia has been so fragile, there developed an obsession about it. And that obsession led naturally to repression and autocracy.
Russia's brief and rare experiments with democracy or quasi-democracy were failed and unhappy ones: Witness the governments of Alexander Kerensky in 1917 that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s that led to Vladimir Putin's neo-czardom. Truly, Russia's fare has been autocracy, and given the utter cruelty of czars and communists, Putin is but a mild dictator. When Western pundits and policymakers say they are unhappy with his autocratic arrangement, they are basically making a negative judgment on Russian history. For by Russia's historical standards, Putin is certainly not all that bad.
Putin now represents an autocrat in crisis, a familiar story in Russia. His problems are, for the most part, unsolvable, like those faced by Russian autocrats before him. And there are many of them.
Controlling the ultimate destiny of Ukraine is of paramount importance to him, for reasons both geographical and historical. Russia grew out of ninth century Kievan Rus, located in present-day Ukraine. Ukraine's population density (compared to immense tracts of Russia) and geographical position make it a crucial pivot for the Kremlin, if it wants to permanently dominate Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Yet, Putin finds that he cannot wholly control Ukraine or further undermine its sovereignty. There is simply a very substantial element in Ukrainian politics and society that demands a shift closer to Europe and the European Union. Putin has various tools to undermine Ukraine, such as erecting trade barriers and rationing deliveries of natural gas. But it is hard work, and he probably can never achieve an outright victory.
Putin fears the westward, pro-NATO and pro-EU stirrings inside the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova. He fears unrest in former Soviet Central Asia, where reliably autocratic, Soviet-style regimes may soon face increasing turmoil at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists -- the very force Putin fears could destabilize Russia itself. Russia needs stability and compliance in its near abroad, and both will be increasingly at risk in Central Asia: Witness Kazakhstan's recent currency crisis. Putin not only worries about Russia's possible deteriorating position in world energy markets in the long term, but of the rising demographic weight of Muslims in Russian society over the long term, too.