Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

How Western Bureaucrats Stirred Putin’s Petulance into a Cold War Crisis

In recent days Russia has revealed the gambit that opened with a $15 billion bailout for a client in Kiev and morphed into the seizure and annexation of Crimea, all part of Vladimir Putin’s risky defense of what he sees as Moscow’s privileged “sphere of influence.” Putin’s bellicose rhetoric proclaiming a right to intervene militarily wherever ethnic Russians are threatened suggests that the territorial integrity of Ukraine and other neighbors remains at serious risk. As the Western alliance inevitably responds with tougher sanctions and further efforts to draw Kiev westward, leaders must now decide if 21st century soft-power and economic sanctions trumps 19th century hard power and Putin’s decidedly zero-sum worldview. 

It’s instructive to remember how the tug-of-war over Ukraine’s orientation escalated into the worst East-versus-West crisis in more than three decades. From the beginning all sides have been guilty of faulty assumptions and strategic miscalculation. Putin has made clear that his proposed creation of a Russian-led trading bloc called the “Eurasian Union” is a legacy issue, a milestone in his long project to restore Russian prestige and regional power. He has publicly admitted that such a union is largely meaningless without Ukraine’s participation, given that country’s size and close business and cultural ties to Russia. And yet Putin seems oblivious to the fragility of an economic edifice built more on naked coercion and bribes than on shared business interests.

With Putin distracted in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, and the United States focused on crises in the Middle East and a “pivot” to Asia, European Union bureaucrats saw an opportunity to steal a march on Moscow by concluding ambitious “Association Agreements” with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia. These agreements seem benign to Western sensibilities, but buried in the minutia of their “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” language is the essence of democratic capitalism, with its emphasis on transparency, the rule of law and protection of minority rights. They are the chief instruments of European soft-power, and Putin unsurprisingly views them as a threat to the Russian model of authoritarian capitalism, with its focus on centralized state power, cheap energy bribes and crony kleptocracy.  

In the run-up to an “Eastern Partnership” summit in Vilinius, last November, European Union officials reportedly made clear to the expected signatories that the “Association Agreements” were incompatible with Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. They thus played into Putin’s zero-sum mindset and the fear of encirclement of someone who lost an older brother in the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. When Putin, the former KGB case officer, cut a $15 billion deal with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to scuttle the EU agreement, he was predictably outraged that violent street protests in Kiev forced his very expensive client to flee for his life.

(Related: Wake Up NATO, You’re No Deterrent to Russia)

In danger of being outmaneuvered, Putin looked West and saw an initially disengaged and war-weary America, and a pacifist Europe weakened by the monetary crisis yet meddling in Russia’s near-abroad. Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar and coauthor of the recent book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” notes that at that point Putin fashioned a hard-power response that plays to type and resonates deeply in an aggrieved Russian psyche. The essence of his message to the West, she writes: “We thought we made it very clear in Georgia in 2008 that we are prepared to stand up for our interests, take the risks of military intervention. We can suffer sanctions…[and] have a higher threshold for pain than you do. Have you forgotten our national narrative and the siege of Leningrad? Do you want to go to war over Ukraine? We don’t, but we’re ready to if you don’t back down and back off!”

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama had no choice but to ratchet up the sanctions pressure to exact a higher price, and hopefully force Putin to eventually seek an off-ramp in the escalating crisis. In fashioning an economic bailout of a cash-strapped government in Kiev, Brussels expects Ukraine to finally sign its “Association Agreement” as early as Friday, continuing to draw Ukraine closer to the economic bosom of Europe. In determining whether to remain a somewhat neutral country or fling itself into the arms of the West, however, Ukrainians should understand there are tens of thousands of Russian troops on their border, a Russian red line that runs roughly down the center of their country, and a revisionist strongman in the Kremlin echoing his forebear Joseph Stalin, who was once warned that the Pope objected to Russia’s repression of Catholics.

“The Pope?” Stalin asked. “How many divisions has he got?”

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