What if Putin Has the Best Idea Here?

Uncle Vladimir on a charm offensive at Sochi a week before seizing Crimea.
Uncle Vladimir on a charm offensive at Sochi a week before seizing Crimea.

Putin Personality Disorder?

The events since last August have played out with an almost surreal quality as Vladimir Putin – often in tandem with his foreign secretary/ 2nd in command Sergei Lavrov – has seemed to hold all the right cards, or at least pull off all the right bluffs, in a high-stakes game of international poker.

On August 21, 2013, the Syrian government [presumably, rather than opposition forces] unleashed a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Ghouta, near Damascus, that left an estimated 1,700 people dead. Employing chemical weapons is serious stuff, to state the obvious. [Why chemical weapons are considered more of a transgression than say a conventional bomb dropped from the air is a separate matter worth exploring perhaps.] In any event, several weapons conventions outlaw the use of chemical weaponry and President Obama had famously declared it crossing “a red line” if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

Obama then bumbled and fumbled his way out of a retaliation attack on Assad – again for reasons that would suffice for a doctoral dissertation on their own – and here’s where the Russkies under Putin-Lavrov made their first surprise overture. Remember, Russia had been consistently blocking any moves toward collective action against Syria through its veto power in the UN Security Council. But now, the Russians offered a way out, a plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under international scrutiny. The fact that Assad agreed to the proposal might promote some skepticism, but the idea that he’d rather disarm than be attacked and defeated seemed plausible enough to carry the day. Armed crisis averted, the world breathed a collective sigh and Vladimir Putin managed to look pragmatic if not magnanimous.

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The Sochi Olympics became the next act in Putin’s theatre of the absurd. But again – he pulled it off…. For now, at least. Making Sochi into a thriving tourist resort has been the wet dream of Russian/ Soviet leaders dating back to the czars. Stalin was particularly enthusiastic about the project, but it took Putin to get it done- at a tremendous cost. The Olympic Games avoided all the dreaded terrorist scenarios involving Chechens or other disaffected groups from the Caucuses. What’s more, the Russians shined athletically, winning more gold and more overall medals than any other country. The closing ceremony witnessed a paternalistic and understandably smug Putin, with Soviet-era anthem booming in background, waving the goodbye to the world. The controversy surrounding the anti-GLTG legislation passed by the Russian Duma prior to the Olympics also failed to smirch the Russian Olympic games.

The day before the Winter Olympics ended, Viktor Yanukovich was deposed as Ukraine’s president following months of popular protest. Sparking the tumult, Yanukovich had sided with Putin in late-2013, signing a massive Russian aid agreement as opposed to moving westward toward the European Union. The west viewed Yanukovich’s ouster as a welcome and just end to a corrupt and brutal regime. Putin saw it differently, noting that Yanukovich was elected and considering the coup that deposed him to be illegitimate and illegal.

Only five days after the Sochi Olympics ended, Russian troops had moved into the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. On March 16, a reported 95.7 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia rather than remain as part of the Ukraine via a shotgun referendum, sponsored by the Russian government. The west viewed the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops and the resulting referendum as illegitimate and illegal.

The Russian claim to Crimea is based on the fact that 59 percent of its inhabitants are ethnic Russians. The Soviet Union ceded the territory to Ukraine back in 1954 and Russia under Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed this status by a 1994 treaty.

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What is about the Olympics and Putin? In 2008 as the Beijing Summer Games were kicking off, Russia invaded Georgia. The main result of that war was that two northern provinces in Georgia were weakened from federal control. Given that Putin was a former KGB figure, his ambition to rekindle at least remnants of the former Soviet empire with Russia seems apparent.

The Sochi Olympics possessed a tinge of the Berlin 1936 games, where Hitler attempted to appear humane and paternalistic, while overseeing a big national victory. As in Sochi where the Russians mopped up the medal count, the Germans took ten more gold medals and 36 more total medals than the US.

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If Crimea is all Putin wanted, he got it. He simply caught the world napping, massed troops across the border, got the desired referendum result, and Crimea rejoins Russia.

In the long run, this move may bite a Russia a lot more than short-lived nationalistic boost Putin enjoyed at home in the immediate aftermath. For one, Russia has to pay to defend and govern Crimea now. Internationally, the G8 [Group of Eight leading economic powers] has already reverted to its previous, long-held G7 status, booting Russia out. [Putin had planned a G8 summit for Sochi this June, which is now kaput.] Removed from the G8, Russia loses global status and influence. Serious economic sanctions remain a possibility, but to the extent they would punish Western Europe, they remain in doubt.

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I wonder if Ukrainians, given the opportunity on their own, would have voted to send Crimea packing anyway. Without that heavily-Russian region, the remaining portion of Ukraine is much more westward looking and more likely not to elect a Yanukovich – with Crimea, he would have lost the last election badly – and thus to be free to pursue closer relations with the EU rather than with Moscow. This assumes Putin wouldn’t invade Kiev, but unlike the Crimean situation, the world – especially Ukraine itself - is wide awake now, No ‘midnight massing of troop at the border’ seems possible, let alone likely. Would the west fight for Kiev? Good question. It didn’t ultimately dispense one soldier, bomb, or bullet for the multitudes killed by chemicals in the suburbs of Damascus.

I realize the precedent of allowing Russia to annex Crimea feels wrong. But if Ukraine is more united and westward-looking as a result, why not? The precedent of allowing chemical weapons to be used without punishment seems far worse to me, and it hasn’t resulted in any copy-cat scenarios thus far, knock on wood. The long-held political science paradigms concerning issues like Crimea’s annexation and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, appear to be changing. The common denominator in the change is Russia and more specifically, Vladimir Putin. It’ll be interesting to see what his next act is.



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