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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.

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