Putin Has Won on Ukraine: Is He Savvy Enough to Seize Victory?

Putin’s gains are an embarrassment for Obama, though U.S. options are few.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow on March 5, 2014.
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
March 5, 2014, 4:27 a.m.

Vladi­mir Putin has won. Of the most likely out­comes in Ukraine, the one most per­plex­ing to the United States and most dam­aging to Pres­id­ent Obama’s leg­acy is the status quo.

Putin could ac­cept Obama’s dip­lo­mat­ic “off-ramp:” shift his troops back to their Crimea bases, per­mit in­ter­na­tion­al mon­it­ors, and open re­la­tions with the in­ter­im gov­ern­ment. He also could es­cal­ate, push­ing troops in­to east­ern Ukraine.

But he has little in­cent­ive to either pull back or push for­ward, be­cause the cur­rent state of af­fairs fa­vors Putin in two ways.

First, his troops are de­ployed throughout Crimea, a boon to his ex­pan­sion­ist do­mest­ic polit­ics and an em­bar­rass­ment for the West — par­tic­u­larly for Obama who, as the U.S. pres­id­ent, is Putin’s de facto stop­gap.

Second, Rus­sia’s geo­pol­it­ic­al ad­versar­ies are di­vided on how to re­spond, with Obama push­ing for in­ter­na­tion­al sanc­tions and many of European lead­ers balk­ing over their de­pend­ence on Rus­si­an fuel.

Putin knows that with­draw­ing his troops from Crimea would be a vic­tory for Obama, and that es­cal­at­ing ag­gres­sion would strengthen Obama’s case for mega-sanc­tions. If Putin is savvy, he’ll stay put and seek from this self-cre­ated crisis what he gained in Geor­gia, where Rus­si­an troops have oc­cu­pied north­ern sec­tions of the na­tion since 2008, when he put then-Pres­id­ent George W. Bush in a sim­il­ar box.

How hand­cuffed is Obama? Read this para­graph from Peter Baker’s ana­lys­is in the New York Times:

“For the mo­ment, the White House was fo­cused on pre­vent­ing the con­front­a­tion from es­cal­at­ing. While dis­mayed if not sur­prised by Mr. Putin’s bel­li­cos­ity and jus­ti­fic­a­tion of his ac­tions, Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials took some solace that he said he saw no need at this point for in­ter­ven­tion in Rus­si­an-speak­ing areas of east­ern Ukraine. They were also en­cour­aged by his seem­ing ac­cept­ance of elec­tions in May as a way to le­git­im­ize a new Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment and by his de­cision to can­cel a mil­it­ary ex­er­cise near the bor­der. And they de­tec­ted no new in­flux of troops in Crimea.”

When you find “solace” in a Putin prom­ise and en­cour­age­ment in his “seem­ing ac­cept­ance” of demo­cracy, you’re los­ing — big time.

As I wrote the oth­er day, Obama shoulders some blame for mis­judging Putin, just as Bush did be­fore him. Also, Obama’s al­lergy to per­son­al re­la­tions is ex­posed dur­ing a crisis like this, when the pres­id­ent needs to make a tough sell to al­lies like Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. His re­la­tions with much of Europe were strained already over is Bush 2.0 policies on sur­veil­lance and ter­ror­ism. Fi­nally, Obama’s pen­chant for mak­ing threats he can’t or won’t back up (see: “Syr­ia, red line”), while less of an is­sue in re­cent days, is no doubt a factor in Putin’s cal­cu­la­tions.

But the Bush-Geor­gia les­son is in­struct­ive. Re­gard­less of the man or wo­man oc­cupy­ing the Oval Of­fice, Putin will do what Putin does, un­til the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity re­duces its de­pend­ence of Rus­si­an oil and gas, and, when he acts out, unites be­hind tough sanc­tions and/or mil­it­ary ac­tion.

As things stand now in Ukraine, Putin has suc­ceeded to di­vide his en­emies and re­claim So­viet-era ter­rit­ory for Moth­er Rus­sia. Status quo is a vic­tory for him. The ques­tion is wheth­er he’s smart enough to seize it.