Putin’s Gamble: Crimea Land Grab Will Be Met With Western Inaction

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an awards ceremony for Russian Olympic athletes in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 24 Photograph by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

It’s not clear whether to call Russia’s mobilization of military forces in Crimea a war, invasion, or occupation.

For the moment, none of those descriptors seems quite right: Russian soldiers don’t appear to have fired a shot, even if their very presence is designed to be theatrically provocative both to the new government in Kiev and to Western capitals.

Much of the local population in Crimea, which has longstanding cultural and historical ties to Russia, has welcomed the arrival of the troops. And for his part, Vladimir Putin, who kicked off the latest and most dramatic round of crisis in Ukraine by ginning up a vote in Russia’s upper house of parliament to authorize military force over the weekend, has remained silent.

That silence—rather odd, considering he is potentially calling for armed intervention—means it’s possible only to guess at Putin’s motives and ultimate aims when it comes to Crimea and Ukraine, writ large.

Over his 14 years in office, Putin has been a reactive, cautious leader, if one who seeks to centralize his hold on power at every turn—he is better at tactics and the manipulation of events than at coming up with a sustained, long-term vision. He is now testing that paradigm as never before.

In pushing Crimea—and depending on how events unfold, perhaps eastern Ukraine—to the brink of conflict, he is making an emotional and incredibly risky bet, perhaps with the highest stakes of his time in power.

He has already thrown away whatever international goodwill he bought with the estimated $51 billion Russia spent for the Sochi Olympics. If the country’s isolation continues, he may face growing discontent within the ranks of the political and economic elite, who depend on financial ties to the West and would be loath to see Putin’s adventurism affect their own business dealings and bank accounts.

A poor showing for Russia in the resolution of the Crimea crisis could cost him public support, just when the economy is stagnating and the ruble is tanking. Why, then, would Putin gamble in this way?

Trapped by his own cynicism and paranoia, Putin saw the fall of Viktor Yanukovych—a leader he detested yet paid handsomely to prop up—as the living manifestation of his worst geopolitical nightmare.

In Putin’s interpretation, what has taken place is an extralegal coup midwifed by the U.S. and Europe that would have the effect of moving Ukraine forever out of Russia’s orbit and remaking it into a Western-oriented state hostile to Moscow.

That would be intolerable, for starters, because it would effectively kill Putin’s visions of an economic union that would require Ukraine’s membership to get off the ground. Putin considered it acceptable if Ukraine were not a pure Russian puppet, but seeing it on the path to any sort of integration with the EU or NATO was impossible to fathom.

Beyond that, Putin doesn’t trust the anti-Yanukovych opposition, seeing in Ukraine’s new government a band of anti-Russian nationalists who will be antagonistic to Russia’s interests for years to come.

Trust, already sinking, was further eroded when, as Putin sees it, the Ukrainian opposition and its backers in the West did not live up to the terms of a agreement they negotiated with Yanukovych on Feb. 21—it was as if once that agreement fell apart, Putin decided Russia would be free of its obligations, too.

Putin needed to salvage something from the disaster of seeing Yanukovych, an incompetent if controllable quasi-ally, replaced with politicians who, having seen Putin’s aggressive and desperate moves to quell the Maidan protests, would quite likely want nothing to do with him or Russia’s foreign policy priorities.

Most important, rightly or wrongly, he saw nothing that would stop him. Certainly not the Ukrainian military or security forces: They were too disoriented after the whirlwind events of previous days. And he bet on Western disorganization and inaction.

After all, Russian troops remain beyond their legally mandated borders in Georgia, and no one mentioned a word of this as Russia prepared for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Four years after Russia’s short war with Georgia, Putin bears no real deep costs.

If anything, he sees an EU that is disunited and slowed by diverging priorities. Putin, not without merit, figures that many EU members care more about economic ties and access to natural gas than about chastising Russia for bad behavior.

And Putin, a strongman who bends his country’s parliament to his will, took for a sign of weakness Barack Obama’s decision to back away from military strikes against Syria last year in the face of wavering domestic support. In sum, Putin figured that whatever his designs in Ukraine—creating a rump state in Crimea, stirring up street fighting in the east—he cared more about getting his way than the West did about stopping him.

What makes this moment so dangerous is that Putin seems to be living in the world of his own propaganda. He insisted on a long telephone call with Obama of “the real threat to the lives and health” of Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, according to local press reports. German Chancellor Angela Merkel heard a similarly dire warning.

At the unanimous vote to authorize military action, members of Russia’s Federation Council spoke of victims of anti-Russian violence in Crimea. Yet little evidence for any such attacks exists. The same goes for talk—repeated by Putin and propagated without pause on state television—of Nazis and ultra-nationalists taking power in Kiev.

The anti-Yanukovych protests did have a worrying contingent of far-right activists, but neither the opposition in the streets or the new government was so radical as to be branded anathema in their entirety.

This is the real danger of Putin’s brinksmanship: By taking the most extreme position possible, he makes it harder to come back from the edge. He compounded one loss (the fall of Yanukovych) by raising the stakes for himself even more dramatically (the deployment of Russian troops to Crimea).

His country now faces international sanctions and is on the verge of being kicked out of the G-8. The trick for the U.S. and Europe will be to convince him that’s he has entered into a game he can’t win, but that the costs of quitting now are more advantageous to him than in playing all the way to the end. One can only hope that Putin, in whatever version of reality he’s now in, recognizes this, too.

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