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Power Delusions: U.S.A., Russia Face Off Over Ukraine

Opening Remarks

By Romesh Ratnesar

March 06, 2014

(Clockwise from top left) Photographs by Fernando Llano/AP Images; AP Images; Yves Herman/Reuters; Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images; Achmad Ibrahim/AP Images; Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters; Allauddin Khan/AP Images; Sana/AP Images; Kyodo News/AP Images

During the Cold War, Vladimir Putin manned the KGB’s post in Dresden, East Germany, recruiting local journalists, scientists, and engineers to spy on the West. 

It was a cushy job for a while: Putin took his family on weekend trips to Saxony, ate lunch at home, and drank the finest beers East Germany had to offer, straight from the keg. 

After the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Putin and his fellow agents in Dresden burned so many secret documents that their furnace broke. At one point, a mob of locals surrounded the office, preparing to ransack it. 

When Soviet troops stationed nearby refused to help, Putin pulled out a pistol and warned the trespassers in German that he would open fire if they came closer. 

The crowd dispersed, but Putin recounted in his memoir that he viewed the USSR’s demise as a personal humiliation. 

“The whole country no longer existed,” he lamented.

“It disappeared.”

A quarter-century later, that experience goes some way toward explaining Putin’s decision to launch a military adventure that has pushed Russia to the brink of war with neighboring Ukraine, a country of 46 million; sent the Russian stock market plunging and the ruble to record lows; and provoked the most bitter clash between the Kremlin and Washington in a generation. 

Putin has long seen his role in epochal terms—to restore Russia’s imperial glory and reclaim the sphere of influence the nation surrendered after the collapse of communism. 

The Feb. 22 overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was as much a blow to Putin’s self-image as to Russian national interests. 

In ordering troops to assert control over Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, Putin dispelled any doubt about his willingness to use force to advance his ambitions.

The Ukraine crisis is both an old-fashioned great-power showdown and a reminder of the volatility and messiness of a multipolar world. It’s suddenly become the defining foreign policy test of Barack Obama’s presidency, at least until the next one comes along. Before the crisis erupted, the U.S. was attempting to negotiate a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, restart the Middle East peace process, conduct an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, contain the bloodbath in Syria, and defuse tensions between China and Japan. Going to the mat with Putin over Ukraine wasn’t on the president’s second-term agenda. But if the U.S. and Russia can’t figure out a way to resolve their differences, their standoff could overshadow everything else.

The Obama administration has threatened Russia with a range of diplomatic and economic punishments, from visa and asset freezes aimed at members of Putin’s inner circle to suspension of Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight industrialized nations. Visiting Kiev on March 4, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine’s provisional government, while the European Union is mulling over an aid package to Ukraine worth as much as $15 billion over the next two years.

It’s doubtful such measures can persuade Putin to pull his forces out of Crimea. Although European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have expressed frustration with Putin—he’s “in another world,” she told Obama, according to the New York Times—they are reluctant to isolate Russia, which provides Europe with 30 percent of its gas supplies. During a press conference on March 4, Putin said Russia has no desire to intervene in Ukraine beyond Crimea, though he didn’t rule out “using all means at our disposal” to protect Russian-speaking people in other parts of the country.

Critics of Obama’s handling of Putin want him to bring more pressure to bear, up to and including threatening NATO intervention if Russia sends troops deeper into Ukraine. “Putin thinks we’re wussies and the president is the wussy-in-chief,” says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That perception has got to be altered.” Few experts think a war between Russia and the West is desirable or likely, but “we are bound for a significant deterioration of the relationship” that could last years, according to Eugene Rumer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Though hawks in Washington and Moscow might welcome it, a prolonged U.S.-Russian standoff would be damaging to both countries. The Ukraine crisis has awakened the ghosts of the Cold War, but it also shows why neither side can afford to relive the past. 

Putin justified his invasion of Crimea by claiming that the region’s Russian speakers were under threat from the new authorities in Kiev. But his true motives had more to do with vanity, vindictiveness, and fear.

In the eyes of Russian hardliners, Yanukovych’s overthrow amounted to an extra-legal coup d’etat, carried out by anti-Russian, nationalist hooligans and financed by the U.S. and the EU. 

The prospect of an EU-aligned Ukraine is intolerable to Putin, who has designs on absorbing his western neighbor into an economic union of regional client states.

 Kathryn Stoner, a Russia expert at Stanford University, says the Kremlin bristles at what it perceives as American and European meddling in Russia’s historical backyard

“They see it as an erosion of their buffer zone, a further Western incursion into their natural sphere of influence. It would be like Russia going to Mexico and saying to the Mexican president, we stand with you against the U.S. That’s the way they see it. They don’t see what possible interest we could have in Ukraine.”

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