As Crimeans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to quit Ukraine and join Russia, Vladimir Putin continued his calibrated campaign to increase the Russian presence in and around Ukraine. The famously taciturn president once again earned his adjectives: He is enigmatic, indecipherable, a Sphinx with a silent gaze that always comes over as menacing.
What does Putin want? Best to begin with what Putin does not want. The Russian leader joins most others in concurring that war would be the least desirable—and least effective—path to resolution in Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister and point man in contacts with the West, has made this credibly plain on numerous occasions.
Russia’s interests on its southern flank, which all sides recognize, are non-negotiable—Lavrov has been unequivocal on this point, too. But it is evident by now that Russian troops are deployed in Crimea under orders to fire nothing more than warning shots skyward. Late last week the first casualty since the Russian buildup—a protester favoring the provisional government in Kiev—was stabbed in the eastern city of Donetsk, and it was at a pro-Moscow rally that involved no soldiers.
No firing is good tactics. If a bloodless deployment were to flip into a forceful invasion, the calculus in Ukraine would shift instantly—and drastically to Putin’s disadvantage. A full dress takeover is not on his dance card here, shrill claims from Kiev notwithstanding.
As to Putin’s intent, two recent moves suggest a strategy. One is his shift of focus from Kiev (from which he has withdrawn his ambassador) to Crimea more or less instantly after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed on February 21. The other is the massing of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.
Crimea has been a hot-button point of vulnerability for Russia since Britain and France fought the Czar’s army and navy there in the mid-1850s to contain the expansion of Russian influence as the Ottoman Empire weakened. Ever since, it has been a vortex in what many Russians (and many Westerners) view as a confrontation between East and West, primarily because it affords Russia key access to the sea.
Conclusion One--degree of certainty 9 ½ on a scale of 10: Putin’s primary game in Ukraine is strategic and geopolitical. This tells us something big: He has no intention of allowing a new government in Kiev, chock-a-block with anti-Russian nationalists, to tilt the nation westward such that it could eventually prove hospitable to NATO, the American military, or the influence of any other Western security organization.
It is not too late for American leaders to turn the tables and imagine some circumstance wherein Russia might gain an analogous foothold in the West. Check that: No need to imagine if you consider Cuba, Guatemala in 1954, or Nicaragua more recently.
The danger is obvious: Putin would go to the nerve-wracking edge of a major conflict if he thought he had to, even as he desires war least. With this in mind, we can adjust our expectations radically downward as Washington and the Europeans plan sanctions as early as this week in response to the Crimean referendum.
The troops along the eastern border appear to tell us more of Putin’s plans to stabilize Ukraine long term as against what he wants to prevent now. This requires a map.
Western Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment is strongest, juts into Europe up to the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, all of which have decisively entered post-Soviet relations with Europe. The eastern regions sit squarely under the Russian frontier.
Putin has little hope of winning the western regions’ support after a political shift he cannot reverse. And hence he will never regain what he recently lost in Kiev. In hindsight, bringing his ambassador home after Yanukovych fell looks like a tactical retreat more than a diplomatic pout.
But the story does not end there. It begins.
Putin may be lining up his chess pieces to encourage a division of Ukraine into western, eastern, and southern regions that would not disturb sovereignty. Such a move would produce a radically federalized polity that would derive stability from the regions’ autonomy: One nation but separate languages, police forces, educational regimes—and relations with the northern neighbor.
Conclusion Two--degree of certainty 7: Putin will accept close relations with that portion of Ukraine where heavy industry and resources are concentrated while living next door to a nation whose power is sufficiently diverse as to render it a minor leaguer. The latter will have no coherent voice in conversations having to do with big-power politics, East vs. West, or any other vexing foreign policy question.
Is Putin considering what amounts to a carve-up to Russia’s economic advantage? Too soon to tell, but this is perhaps the way to view Russia’s takeover at the weekend of a gas-pumping station on a sandbar off the Crimean coast. Small beer, possibly large portent.
This weekend, Al Jazeera America published an excellent analysis comparing the potential for this outcome in Ukraine with the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among others, it quotes Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria: “Putin’s current strategy is not one of land grabbing but one of state rebuilding.” Krastev elaborates his views in Prospect magazine.
American leaders, from UN Ambassador Samantha Power to Senator John McCain, who has just returned to Kiev for the second time since December, do not appear to be anywhere near this kind of thinking. They continue to insist on the fiction that the provisional government in Kiev speaks for all Ukrainians when they favor the westward tilt.
This blinds them to the logic of possibilities, whether or not they may be Putin’s. At the weekend, McCain spoke in Kiev to urge the White House to authorize arms shipments to Kiev’s tiny army.
Consider it. Is the Arizona Republican O.K. with the thought of war as the nearest alternative in Ukraine? Not even Putin and Lavrov think this holds water.
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