Friday, October 31, 2014

Putin’s Calculus

CAMBRIDGE – By most accounts, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the winner in the Ukraine crisis, at least so far. His annexation of Crimea, which Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred to Ukraine in 1954, has been widely applauded at home, and he has largely shrugged off Western governments’ responses. But, from a longer-term perspective, Putin’s victory is not quite so certain.

The current crisis in Ukraine began with President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a European Union Association Agreement, opting instead for a deal with Russia that included desperately needed financing. This outraged Ukrainians in the country’s more pro-EU western regions, spurring protracted popular protests that ultimately toppled Yanukovych’s corrupt but democratically elected government.

But not all Ukrainians were averse to pursuing closer ties with Russia. Indeed, Yanukovych’s decision pleased many Russian speakers in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. And it was to Russia that Yanukovych turned when, after months of peaceful demonstrations in Kyiv, violence broke out and demonstrators were killed, spurring him to flee Ukraine.

For his part, Putin not only provided sanctuary for Yanukovych and refused to recognize the new government in Kyiv; he began to help organize – and incite – resistance among Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority. By deploying Russian troops (often masked and without insignias) from the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol, which Russia had leased from Ukraine, Putin was able to take control of the peninsula with no loss of life.

When Western leaders expressed outrage over the forced changes to European borders, Putin remained unfazed, citing NATO’s use of force in Kosovo 15 years ago, and their subsequent support for its formal secession from Serbia, as an example of their hypocrisy. The West shot back with targeted sanctions against a few high-level Russian officials, to which Putin responded with sanctions of his own, barring entry to selected Western politicians.

All in all, a few Russian banks have had their accounts frozen; some shipments of sensitive goods have been halted; and the ruble and the Russian stock market have suffered losses. But the overall impact of the West’s response has been moderate.

The West’s reluctance to intensify sanctions stems largely from European countries that retain strong economic ties with Russia. While the United States – which trades little with Russia – and the EU have vowed to develop a framework for additional sanctions, to be activated if Putin sends forces into eastern Ukraine, designing them in a way that does not hurt Europe will not be easy.

Nonetheless, Russia has paid a high price for its actions in terms of its international standing. The goodwill and soft power generated by the Sochi Olympics were immediately depleted, and Russia has now been all but expelled from the G-8. In the United Nations General Assembly, Russia had to face an embarrassing vote in which 100 countries condemned its actions. And, at the end of the nuclear security summit in The Hague, US President Barack Obama cited Russia as a regional power whose aggressive policies toward its neighbors displayed weakness.

Does any of this matter to Putin? The answer depends on what his objectives are.

If, as some observers claim, Putin’s aggressive actions stem from feelings of insecurity, he has had mixed success. By this account, Putin feared diminished influence in a neighboring country with which Russia shares deep historical ties. But, despite Russia’s obvious influence among eastern Ukraine’s Russophones, the overall impact of the annexation of Crimea has been to reduce Russia’s influence in the country, while reinvigorating Putin’s bête noire, NATO.

Putin may also have worried that a successful revolution in Ukraine might encourage a revival of the protests that caused him so much trouble in 2012, when he re-assumed the presidency from Dmitri Medvedev. In the wake of his annexation of Crimea, Putin’s domestic approval rating has soared, and the chances that any protest would succeed in genuinely undercutting – much less toppling – his administration are very low.

Others claim that Putin’s primary motivation was to restore Russia’s global “great power” status. After all, Putin, a former KGB agent in East Germany, has lamented the Soviet Union’s dissolution as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.”

In fact, Putin often has been described as angry with the West, beset by a sense of betrayal and humiliation from what he perceives as unfair treatment of Russia. For Putin, gestures like including Russia in the G-8, the G-20, and the World Trade Organization, and inviting a Russian ambassador to NATO discussions in Brussels, could not make up for NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, the placement of anti-ballistic missile sites in Eastern Europe, or the dismemberment of Serbia. The overthrow of Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi and ongoing efforts to undercut the Kremlin’s client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have only made matters worse.

If status was an important motive for Putin’s actions in Crimea, the West’s response may have a greater impact than many now believe. Before the Winter Games in Sochi (where the G-8 was scheduled to meet in June), Putin cited increased soft power as an important goal for Russia – an objective that his use of hard power in Ukraine has made much more difficult to achieve.

In this sense, Obama’s declaration that Russia is a regional power acting out of weakness, no less than Russia’s suspension from the G-8, may have hit Putin where he is most vulnerable. His actions in Ukraine have undoubtedly brought Russia tangible gains in the short term. But they also imply less obvious costs. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s bold move was worth it.

Read more from "Cold War II?"

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (7)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedDavid Morgan

    Putin has shot himself in the foot, he will be forced into cooperation with China which is hungry for his fossil fuels. Europe will sort out other gas supplies and energy needs in the near future Russia's best customer will wean itself off Russian gas. The US will have a space vehichle to deliver aastronaughts to the space station and another valuable saurce of income will be lost. Welcome to China. They make very hard deals when a country in weak, and Russia is weak and bleeding.

  2. CommentedStephen K.

    Mr. Nye conveniently elides from his potted descriptive 'history' of the Ukrainian Crisis, the role of Neo-Con Victoria Nuland and the subversive front group, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in fomenting the 'Crisis' by spending five billion dollars in the first instance and one hundred million in the second? It is possible to confirm your bourgeois political respectability, by parroting the American Party Line on Ukraine, instead of exploring the freely available evidence of the demonstrable mendacity of the American Government: President Obama and the indigenous Neo-Con Nuland and R2P zealot Samantha Power. We are in trouble, as a polity, because public intellectuals like Mr.Nye refuse to confront, mush less consider, the reality of American mendacity. World War III approaches at a gallop ridden by Cold War Nostalgics. Inexcusable!

      Commentedray johns

      So, Stephen K , you agree with Putin that American 'meddling ' in Russia's traditional sphere of influence , the Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Libya, etc. are only devious ploys by President Obama to push Russia out of the world picture and show-up Putin as a weak leader and embarrass him at home ? American preaching on human rights and meddling during the Carter Administration were also a major irritant to Russian's oligarchic leaders . This time around, President Obama has made efforts to include Russia as much as possible as a Great Power partner in maintaining world order .

  3. CommentedJean-Louis Piel

    I see Putin ans his political allies as the losers with Crimea. For at least three reasons. The first is that the majority of Ukrainian citizens will see this Russia as their main enemy . And Putin could invade the rest of Ukraine, take all or a part of it, in the long term he will be the loser because simply Ukrainians , in their great majority, will refuse to be under the Russian control and will do all they can to resists, even to fight to get back their country in one piece - even Crimea.
    Second Putin is reinforcing the Atlantic Alliance - NATO - but also the European Union - on the basis of Security against Russia, of Energy independence, on Economic partnership with North America.
    Third Putin wimp be put Russia more and more dependent of China which will swallow easily these 110 millions of Ethnic Russians.

  4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Nye is right that "President Vladimir Putin has been the winner in the Ukraine crisis", yet it had more to do with sheer luck than strategic genius. He capitalised on the chaos in Ukraine to annex Crimea. It was meant to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand he was determined to take revenge on the new leadership in Kiev for toppling the pro-Russian government. One the other hand he wanted to make up for the mistake Nikita Khrushchev made in 1954 - the loss of Crimea to Ukraine.
    It all depends on what Putin's moves are in the coming weeks and months. His gains may well be a Pyhrric victory, if Russia's former vassal states now step up their security measures to counter the Kremlin's threat. Their Nato-membership has always been a thorn in the Kremlin's side and Putin never ceases to lament, that the breakup of the Soviet Union was "the biggest disaster of the twentieth century". Indeed, Putin never hides his anger "with the West" and always feels "a sense of betrayal and humiliation from what he perceives as unfair treatment of Russia". As long as he doesn't put the past behind him and as long as he remains in power, Russia will not move forward.
    Some 80% of Russia's population live in the European part of Russia. It would have been more than natural that the Kremlin seek closer ties to Europe. The EU and Nato would open its gate, should it want to join. Yet as a former KGB officer Putin he is very wary of these two institutions. Moreover he is a nemesis and sees that "gestures like including Russia in the G-8, the G-20, and the World Trade Organization, and inviting a Russian ambassador to NATO discussions in Brussels, could not make up for NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, the placement of anti-ballistic missile sites in Eastern Europe, or the dismemberment of Serbia".
    Putin reminds of Thomas Hobbes - a distrustful person and a political realist. Hobbes believed that a world without central authority would find itself in a state of a "war of all against all" and lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".
    Hobbes had once said: "my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear". He was born prematurely in 1588 while his mother was said to be hearing the coming invasion of the Spanish Armada. Here we see a similarity with Putin's biography.
    Putin was born in October 1952. In this year there were two events that would later come back to haunt him. The European Coal and Steel Community was established, which was the predecessor of today's EU. Nato set up a permanent headquarters in Euope. First exercises were held in autumn the same year, involving 300,000 military personnel engaged in maneuvers from the Artic to the Mediterranean.

  5. CommentedFetewei Tewoldemedhin

    so u have told us literally nothing apart from writing to write!! Surely from a well sought after Thinker of our time i expected the most ....

  6. CommentedPaul Daley

    Actually, I think Russia's gain from the crisis in the Ukraine came from its success in drawing attention back to the dangers inherent in entangling alliances (such as those that underpin western Europe) and the lessons of World War I, when those alliances led to war. Alliance structures tend to empower small states and to encourage risk taking by those states. That can be controlled in the long run only by moving to a more perfect union or by dissolving the alliance. Putin has simply brought those points to the foreground.