Tue, Apr 15, 2014 - Page 9 News List

If status is Putin’s motive, Crimean adventure fails

By Joseph Nye

By most accounts, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the winner in the Ukraine crisis, at least so far. His annexation of Crimea, which former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred to Ukraine in 1954, has been widely applauded at home, and he has largely shrugged off Western governments’ responses. However, from a longer-term perspective, Putin’s victory is not quite so certain.

The current crisis in Ukraine began with former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject an EU 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.

However, 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 Kiev, 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 Kiev; 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. However, 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 US — 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 G8. In the UN 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 his objectives.

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. However, 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 bete noire, NATO.

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