Putin’s End Game: Play the Trump Card

Putin’s End Game: Play the Trump Card

REUTERS/Yekaterina Shtukina/RIA Novosti

Vladimir Putin sends Russian troops into Ukraine’s Kherson province and seizes a gas terminal. He orchestrates Russia’s annexation of Crimea through a bogus vote. John Kerry tweets. Seriously. As tens of thousands of Russian troops surge along the Ukraine border, our Secretary of State tweets “We believe this referendum violates international law and is illegal under #Ukraine's constitution.” Quelle horreur! Don’t blame Kerry; the 140-character thing is so darned limiting. 

The bad news for the Obama administration is that the Ukraine crisis is taking place during an unusual lull in American sports. No Olympics or Super Bowl to distract us, March Madness still a few days away. People are actually paying attention—and we don’t like what we see. John McCain calls the president’s foreign policy “feckless.” Most of us don’t see any policy at all. Which is unfortunate since it is clear that Vladimir Putin does have a policy, as well as plenty of strategic cunning. 

Related: Putin’s Oligarchs Are Key to War and Peace in Ukraine 

What does Putin want? He wants, as many have suggested, to rebuild the Soviet empire and to protect himself from revolution. In today’s terms, that means creating an economic block of friendly nations that can help rebuild Russia’s economy through advantageous trade and investment. A block large enough and powerful enough to stand up to the EU and demand consideration. He clearly does not want to see neighboring countries like Ukraine spun out of Russia’s orbit into the welcoming embrace of the West. The fall of his handpicked vassal Viktor Yanukovich alarmed the maniacal Putin; it threatened his plan.

Right now, Putin wants to prove (again) to the world that he can take what he wants. The Ukraine adventure follows very closely the pattern of his 2008 takeover of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Georgia elected a pro-western leader. In both cases, Putin argues that ethnic Russians are under attack and that he must protect them; in both cases, Moscow ends up grabbing portions of a former ally. In both cases, the West decries the incursion but in the end does nothing. 

Putin knows that President Obama is all bluster and no bite, and that he has the EU over a barrel (or, really, a pipeline). On the other hand, he has to resolve this current showdown in a way that gives the West some cover. Provoking serious sanctions or God forbid a military encounter is not in Putin’s best interests. The Russian economy is already sputtering and the oligarchs would not be amused.

That is why Putin is playing what I will call the Trump card. When a real estate magnate like The Donald plans a vast new development, he will often propose much more than he actually intends to build. That is, he will propose to the local community six condo towers, three malls and five golf courses, horrifying residents.

Related: Russia’s Provocative New Act of Aggression in Ukraine

Many confrontations, town halls and press conferences later, Trump withdraws his original proposal, agreeing to a much-reduced plan that’s pretty much what he had in mind all along. Town officials can pat themselves on the back for averting chaos and calming alarmed citizens, those in on the deal are triumphant, and Trump emerges the conciliator.

In the Ukraine, Putin is likely to annex the Crimea in word or deed, despite howls from the West. By further threatening to slice off an even larger portion of the Ukraine, and then being convinced to back off, all parties will stand down. What had appeared illegal and unconscionable just weeks before – that Russia would take Crimea by force – becomes a reasonable compromise as Russia troops withdraw from incursions into Kherson province.

The western media has already laid the groundwork for this endgame by reminding us that Crimea used to be part of Russia and that people in the region speak Russian. Also, the bogus referendum conducted under the watch of Russian troops will undoubtedly conclude that locals are content to realign with Moscow. To most of us, that will be the end of it. Crisis averted.

President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel will congratulate themselves that an emasculated and weakened Ukraine remains independent, and allied with the West. The IMF, United States and the EU will spend a fortune inadequately propping up a friendly government that in time may fail when the people notice that their standard of living is crashing. At that point, they may again turn east, and Putin will be ready. 

Related: Crimea Votes 93 Percent to Quit Ukraine

The Obama White House will have been bruised by yet another foreign policy fiasco and the president will further shrink in stature. The U.S. has listed various important figures – like the defense minister and the head of Rosneft -- who may be barred from traveling in the EU and U.S., and whose assets overseas may be frozen, but at the moment it is only junior echelon-types who are actually being punished. 

The New York Times explains that we are holding off on whacking senior officials so that we can exert more pressure if diplomacy fails. Heads up diplomacy has failed. Russia now includes the Crimea in its sphere of influence and nothing is going to shake it loose. 

The good news for Obama? March Madness is about to start; very soon Americans’ attentions will have strayed from the Ukraine. The bad news? An emboldened Putin will strike again.   

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