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Putin’s Reckless Gamble

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
March 29, 2014
New York Times


President Obama's meetings with European leaders last week made clear how much they hoped Russia, having seized Crimea, would call off any further dismemberment of Ukraine. They may get their wish, whether or not President Vladimir V. Putin's telephone call Friday to Mr. Obama bears diplomatic fruit. But to assure Ukraine's survival, the United States and Europe need a more ambitious strategy. To avoid a new Cold War, we must learn the right lessons from the old one.

The best reason to think President Putin is in fact seeking a break in the action is that his policy to date has been one improvisation after another. For weeks, he urged Ukraine's leaders to crack down on protesters. When doing so brought down the Ukrainian government and created still more disorder in Kiev, Mr. Putin's original goal — to draw the whole country into his orbit — seemed hopelessly out of reach. His impulsive response — grabbing Crimea, the one piece of Ukraine already under de facto Russian control — has brought him a quick 10 percent jump in popularity at home (and given him a new tool, nationalist hysteria, with which to control dissent). It has also produced the most extreme international isolation Moscow has felt since Leonid I. Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan.

Mr. Putin needs a breather. If he forswears further territorial aims in Ukraine, he will get no early rollback of the sanctions Europe and America have imposed. But he can probably avoid new ones. So much discussion has focused on the risk of a Russian blitzkrieg into eastern Ukraine that, when it doesn't happen, many Western policy makers will breathe a sigh of relief. Mr. Putin could then work to cool European and American indignation, and get our leaders bickering with one another about the next step. With that, he — and we — might think the worst was over.

Would it be? Russian actions have been so shocking that their impact will certainly linger. Mr. Putin has won himself a reputation as a wrecker of international norms. He'll have to live with that for a while. Yet the real damage to Russian diplomacy goes far beyond the question of personal trust.

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