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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.