Putin’s folly in Ukraine

By Lawrence J. Korb, Katherine Blakeley | March 6, 2014

An oft-repeated maxim of foreign relations holds that “[n]ations do not have permanent friends or enemies. They have permanent interests.” The realism of this insight, and the permanence of certain of Russia’s interests, is on display in the current crisis in Ukraine involving Russia, the European Union, and the United States.

While it is impossible to know exactly why Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian special forces into the Crimean Peninsula, the primary reason appears to be a feared loss of Russian influence in Ukraine. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, while not the most reliable of allies, was generally aligned with Russian interests and widely supported by the eastern half of Ukraine, which has close ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia. Maintaining Russian influence in Crimea, in particular, is critical to Putin for both psychological and strategic reasons.

Crimea became part of Russia when it was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783.  In 1954, it was given over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Nikita Khrushchev, whose mother was Ukrainian. Now, the Crimean port of Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, is home to 170 Russian ships and is their only warm-water port. Ukraine is also the largest of the former Soviet Socialist Republics in Russia’s near abroad, with a population of about 46 million—one third the size of Russia. For Russia to lose influence over Ukraine would be a major blow to Russian self-perception as a global power. As the old saw goes, Russia with Ukraine is an empire; Russia without Ukraine is just a country. In short, Putin sees a Ukraine in Russia’s orbit as a vital national interest.

Last November, Putin was so concerned about the prospect of diminished Russian influence in Ukraine that he offered Yanukovych $15 billion in economic assistance to become part of his Eurasian Customs Union, rather than continuing to move toward a relationship with the European Union.  Accepting this arrangement—which many saw as a bribe—led to Yanukovych’s ouster. The abrupt departure of Yanukovych from the presidency and the country and the formation of a new interim government has thrown the relationship with Russia into grave doubt. In Crimea, facts on the ground have changed swiftly, laying the groundwork for maintaining lasting Russian influence in Ukraine. Last week, Sergei Aksyonov was installed as prime minister of the autonomous region after armed men surrounded the Parliament buildings and raised the Russian flag. Russian troops without insignia have appeared in Crimea, bottling up Ukrainian soldiers in their bases, while Russian ships block Ukrainian ships from leaving their berths. The stand-off continues, with the interim government in Kiev alarmed by the prospect of war with Russia. The Crimean parliament has called for an accelerated referendum on joining the Russian Federation—a referendum that the government in Kiev decries as illegitimate.

In many ways, Putin’s response to the Ukrainian situation can be seen as similar to the response of Kremlin leaders to challenges in countries that they believed they have the right to control. In 1956 and 1968, Soviet leaders sent tanks and thousands of soldiers into Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to prevent these countries from overthrowing their Communist bosses. In 1982, the Kremlin used their allies in Poland to crack down on the Polish Solidarity movement; just six years ago, Putin sent Russian troops into Georgia and annexed the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Georgia made overtures to the West.

These prior situations are not, however, good analogues to understanding the current situation in Crimea. By sending troops into Ukraine, Putin has certainly violated international law, but he has not yet behaved as mercilessly as his Soviet counterparts did in repressing civilian protests. Moreover, the wider geopolitical context of 2014 is quite different from the knife-edge nuclear tension of the Cold War. The greatest difference from earlier incursions involves the situation on the ground. While serious, the Russian invasion of Crimea is far less overwhelming than the show of Soviet force that brutally repressed uprisings in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Russia’s de facto physical control over Crimea can be seen as a bargaining chip that can be used to maintain persistent Russian influence in Ukraine. A weakened and destabilized Ukraine is also more vulnerable and less likely to escape Russia’s orbit.

Ironically, Putin has undermined Russian interests with his actions. By invading Ukraine, he ensured that the majority of the people in that country—many of whom, even in European-leaning western Ukraine, had been skeptical about closer ties to the European Union—will now support a closer relationship with the EU. Moreover, even if control over Crimea is returned to Ukraine, any future Ukrainian president will be disinclined towards a closer relationship with Russia. By overreaching in Crimea, Putin has also alienated many eastern Ukrainians, who voted overwhelmingly for the pro-Russia Yanukovych and who, absent an invasion, would have been more likely to support closer ties with Russia. Finally, the effect of the $50 billion Putin spent on the Sochi Olympics to enhance his image as a responsible statesman has been neutralized. He is now seen by much of the world as a thug.

President Obama, for his part, must balance both moral and strategic considerations. From a geopolitical perspective, Obama does not want fighting to break out in any part of a country that borders US allies and NATO members Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, and Romania. Open war between Ukraine and Russia—and the prospective involvement of the United States—is an even less appealing prospect. At the same time, Obama does not want to be seen as allowing Putin to invade an independent country that has a significant Russian population and that used to be part of the Soviet Union, lest the Russian president be emboldened to take action against the Baltic countries or other former Soviet Socialist Republics. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Crimea crisis puts American credibility on the line. In the 1994 Budapest Accord, Ukraine agreed to return its nuclear weapons to Europe in return for a guarantee from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom that Ukraine’s territorial borders and independence would be respected. 

President Obama’s critics have lost no time in making absurd claims that Obama has shown weakness in not taking hasty, provocative action. For example, the Washington Post’s editorial page has claimed that Obama’s foreign policy is based on a “fantasy” of wishful thinking. Some, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have argued that it is Obama’s “feckless” foreign policy that emboldened Putin to illegally invade Ukraine—even though McCain has conceded that “there is not a military option that could be exercised now.”

To date, the President and his foreign policy team have handled the Crimea crisis adroitly. Since Obama issued a warning to Putin about the consequences of remaining in Crimea, the administration has suspended military ties with Russia, including exercises, port visits, and planning, called off trade talks with Russia, and cancelled participation in the upcoming G-8 meeting in Sochi.  Following the administration’s warning to Moscow that it must withdraw its forces from Crimea, the US has threatened visa bans and asset freezes for those deemed involved in destabilizing Ukraine. While it is not clear that the European Union will mirror these steps, the US sanctions threat has caused Russia’s stock market to drop by about 10 percent, while the ruble has fallen to a record low against the dollar. Meanwhile, the US has also provided $1 billion in loan guarantees to help stabilize Ukraine's shaky financial situation.

The US response to the Crimean situation stands in stark contrast to the ham-handed US reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, when then-President George W. Bush was unable to get European support on efforts to stop Putin from annexing two provinces of the Republic of Georgia. In Ukraine, on the other hand, Europeans brokered a deal to get Yanukovych to step down, and in the Crimean crisis, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who spoke by phone with Putin. The European Union has offered a loan and grant package of $15 billion to Ukraine. These steps offer a prudent combination of carrots and sticks, rather than rash statements that would further escalate the crisis.

Although President Obama would doubtless like to see Putin pay a price for his illegal invasion and occupation, the United States has bigger fish to fry with the Russian government, namely, the need for continued Russian support for the sanctions against and negotiations with Iran and the implementation of the new START agreement. The United States also needs Russian buy-in for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict, including the continued destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, as well as for the transportation of supplies into and out of Afghanistan via Russia and former Soviet Republics.  

These considerations are more central to US interests than what has happened in Ukraine, and President Obama should deal with Putin much as his predecessors dealt with the Kremlin. Three years after the Soviet crackdown in Poland and Hungary, Dwight Eisenhower invited Nikita Khrushchev to tour the United States. A little more than a year after the Kremlin crushed the opposition in Czechoslovakia, Richard Nixon began the SALT I arms control negotiations with Leonid Brezhnev. Ronald Reagan’s negotiations with Yuri Andropov and then Mikhail Gorbachev, which began just a few years after the Polish Solidarity movement was destroyed, led to the Reykjavik Summit and the eventual signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

So what is the end game in the Crimea? Where is the diplomatic off-ramp for the crisis?  The United States and Russia need to negotiate a solution that allows Putin to withdraw his forces from Crimea while saving face, as President Kennedy and Khrushchev did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A possible political solution could involve making the interim Ukrainian government more inclusive of all Ukrainian ethnic groups, to be followed by early elections, perhaps overseen by international observers, and an international peacekeeping force in Crimea. Ultimately, any solution needs to minimize posturing, acknowledge Russia’s strategic interests, and support Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea.

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