Putin’s Risky Improvisation in Ukraine

Russia’s president is now seen by many in the West as an international outlaw for his actions in Crimea, and his intervention could still expand, says CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich.

March 10, 2014 2:54 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, says Russian president Vladimir Putin’s dramatic steps in Ukraine have been improvised as part of a visceral response to the downfall of president Viktor Yanukovich. "It’s a kind of a broken play," says Sestanovich. "He’s been mad as hell and is flailing around for some way to get even." Sestanovich, the author of a new book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, says Putin’s image in the West has gone from a loss of prestige "to a real crystallization of Putin’s image as a kind of international outlaw." He notes the growing talk by Western states of helping Ukraine economically, adding: "the question, of course, is how much it will be sustained even six months from now."

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A woman walks by a poster calling on people to vote in Crimea’s upcoming referendum, in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol March 10, 2014. (Photo: Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters)

What does the Ukrainian crisis tell us about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy

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It’s wrong to assume that we’re seeing here the playing out of any sort of long-term plan. Putin’s Ukraine policy has not gone as he had hoped. His goal was the integration—but not territorial integration—of Ukraine into his customs union. He was able to take advantage of Ukraine’s economic difficulties to try to bring it into a group that it had earlier been unwilling to join. This effort blew up in his face completely, and the primary responsibility for that was the brutal and incompetent handling of demonstrations by Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich, egged on, incidentally, by Putin himself. And what happened when Yanukovich fell was an extreme effort at retaliation by Putin, more extreme than we’ve ever seen from any Russian leader. Russia has never expressed support for detaching territory from another former Soviet state and incorporating it into Russia. So it’s kind of a broken play. We’re seeing Putin improvise, but improvisation often reveals something of a leader’s deeper instincts and goals. He’s been mad as hell and is flailing around for some way to get even.

Get even with whom? With the new Ukrainian leadership? With the West?

He tends to group all of those adversaries into one single phalanx of enemies of the Russian state, of Russian civilization and of him personally. He has talked about fascist thugs taking over Ukraine and accused the West of complicity in supporting them. This ignores the fact that while there have been extremists in the demonstrations and their influence was, in fact, growing as the confrontation escalated, the center of gravity of the opposition has actually always been the comparatively moderate opposition that existed before the crisis. There are Ukrainian neo-Nazis, but Ukrainian neo-Nazis did not bring down Yanukovich. Yanukovich was ousted from power by a unanimous vote of the parliament that included every single member of his own party. You haven’t heard Putin mention that.

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But clearly Putin must be bothered by the growing unhappiness by all the Western countries, including the United States, Germany, France, Britain. They’re all talking about imposing sanctions on Russia. President Obama has invited the interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to come to Washington on Wednesday to discuss economic cooperation. This is building up, right?

Putin is probably a little surprised by the extent of this reaction and stung by the charges that he is a Hitlerian aggressor [made by Hillary Clinton]. But he has a certain kind of contempt for the ability of the Western states to impose real penalties on him. He remembers how quickly the Western reaction to his war against Georgia dissipated in 2008. People are surely telling him that he can ride this out. Outside the government—we don’t know about inside—many people are commenting on the haphazard nature of Putin’s crisis policymaking. There is, to me, a surprising stream of leaks even among insiders talking about the poor coordination of policymaking, bad information. There is a lot of finger pointing. This suggests some disagreement about how this is going to play out and an effort by people inside the bureaucracy to position themselves if it goes badly. Putin can’t be sure that these measures taken by the United States and Europe will dissipate as quickly as they did after the Georgian war.

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Do you think Putin will be satisfied with just annexing Crimea?

Russia’s goal has always been to make Ukraine a friendly and subordinate partner. That goal seems further out of reach than ever.

He has talked about threats to Russian speakers in Crimea but also in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. He has got to be a little bit nervous about the prospect of a breakdown of order and communal violence in territory just across the Russian border, where the support for secession and incorporation into Russia will not be nearly as strong as it’s been in Crimea. But the logic of events may force Putin’s hand. He may begin to see a growing contest for power in those eastern provinces and decide that this is an opportunity that he can’t pass up, particularly if he fears that he’s otherwise going to see the consolidation of a strongly anti-Russian government in Kiev.

One of the critiques made of Putin in Russian commentary on the Ukraine crisis is that by detaching Crimea, Russia will make a permanent enemy of Ukraine. Russia’s goal has always been to make Ukraine a friendly and subordinate partner. That goal seems further out of reach than ever.

Why would the merging of Crimea into Russia cause animosity in Ukraine?

It [would have been] done without the kind of legitimate consensual process that international agreements call for. It [would have been] done by inserting Russian military forces into Crimea. Remember, this is the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet. There’s an enormous advantage for the Russians in being able to operate from the base. Just imagine what the Russian reaction would have been if there had been similar kinds of calls to secede from Ukraine in the Western provinces after Yanukovich made his decision to accept Putin’s offer of assistance. If at that point, you had had military units from Poland moving across the Ukrainian border and lining up with their co-religionists, fellow Catholics, and saying that Western Ukraine would secede, Putin would have gone totally nuts and denounced this as the most despicable kind of international banditry. And, in fact, almost all of Europe would have done exactly the same thing. The United States would have denounced its Polish ally for doing this. But Putin seems to think he can get away with this kind of action in reverse and not bring down international censure.

The United States has many things going with Russia right now. Russia is part of the P5+1 negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program; we have the Syrian peace talks, which are going nowhere; the arms control talks, which are also going nowhere. I guess the Russians want to keep the Iranian talks going.

There’s no reason for Putin to back away from business as usual in U.S.-Russian relations if the United States and Europe will be prepared to go along. The impact on Russian-American relations of this event is likely to be pretty strong, though. So far the Obama administration has undertaken the usual short-term responses: verbal condemnation, visa bans, suspension of meetings, suspension of preparations for the G8, suspension of military-to-military contact. There have been some measures that go a little bit beyond that—the expansion of NATO over flights in the Baltics, reinforcing the alliance’s aviation detachments in Poland. There’s more serious discussion of energy measures to try to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia. And of course, now, belated support for financial measures to help the new Ukrainian government succeed—that presumably is on the agenda for Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s visit this week. That’s a good initial cut at the problem, but the question, of course, is how much it will be sustained even six months from now, much less two to three years from now.

The biggest setback for Russian-American relations is probably a psychological one, rather than an issue-by-issue impact. We’ve now seen the most thorough-going alteration of Putin’s image and standing in the West. This has been underway for a long time, but it has gone from a kind of loss of prestige to a real crystallization of Putin’s image as a kind of international outlaw. And while I don’t expect that to lead to a breakdown of the P5+1, for example, or a cessation of contact over Syria, you’ll see a much greater scrutiny of these so-called cooperative areas and a greater questioning of what it is exactly that the U.S. and Europe get out of them. How much does Russia actually contribute?


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