News / Europe

Putin and Crimea: A New World Order?

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs legislation completing the process of absorbing Crimea into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony in Moscow on March 21, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs legislation completing the process of absorbing Crimea into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony in Moscow on March 21, 2014.
Catherine Maddux
With the stroke of his pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin deepened the divide between East and West by signing a document that officially made Ukraine’s Black Sea region of Crimea part of the Russian Federation.

Some Russia experts see that act as a marking of the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe that the world has known since the days of Reagan and Gorbachev. It is no less than a tectonic shift, “one defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence and territorial occupation," wrote Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, in an opinion piece for the New York Times newspaper this week.
 
Speculation over whether or not Putin has nursed a desire to grab Crimea - a region with deep Russian roots – has sparked debate among Kremlin observers.    
Ukraine, Russia, and the EUUkraine, Russia, and the EU
x
Ukraine, Russia, and the EU
Ukraine, Russia, and the EU


“This is not something that one could have predicted,” said Russian expert Thomas Graham, Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. “I think if you look at the record of the past few weeks – a month ago – Putin didn’t believe or know that he going to annex Crimea,” he said. “You know, a lot of this was a response to events that unfolded very rapidly.”

Those included street protests over ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to back away from a deal to form closer ties with the European Union. Putin also saw it as an opportunity to divert attention away from what is becoming a problematic economy in Russia, Graham said.

And when the European Union (EU) and the United States responded to his moves with tough talk and threats of economic sanctions, it drove him to seize territory to use as a bargaining chip with the West.

“But also, as he [Putin] thought about it, he began to see an opportunity that this very vigorous action would play into Russian nationalism, but would also bring him significant domestic political benefits – particularly in the short term,” he said.  

Motives debated

Considered by many as icy cold, Putin has often been described as a highly self-controlled, practical leader who does not rely on charm to get the job done.

"You see someone very intense, very focused, clearly a man with a mission, who believed that his goal was to rebuild Russia and to defend Russia's national interests,” said Graham, who met Putin when Graham worked in various posts as a Russia expert under the Bush administration.

“He was prepared to expend a lot of effort to do that. He was also prepared to suffer a lot of pain in order to achieve that goal," said Graham.  "And I think you see those same characteristics today.” Journalist Adi Ignatius, who spent time with the Russian leader in 2007 for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, wrote that Putin was prickly and humorless.   

But if Putin is unemotional in the political arena, he is passionate about restoring Russia to what he sees as its rightful place on the global stage.

The annexation of Crimea fits neatly within that worldview, according to Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “He views this action in historic context of correcting the wrong of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he [has] called the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century,” Cohen said.  

And Putin has been open about his concern for the plight of the estimated 25 million ethnic Russian’s who ended up living outside the borders of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Putin’s past

But to really understand how Putin operates, one must keep in mind his KGB career, Cohen said.

“Mr. Putin is an intelligence officer and his specialty is what is called ‘human intelligence,’ so he had experience recruiting and running agents when he was in Germany and having these agents working for the Soviet intelligence apparatus,” he said.

“As such, I think he considers himself a judge of human character, and he took an assessment of [President Barack] Mr. Obama, [German Chancellor Angela] Mrs. Merkel and others and decided that this is a team he can play against and win,” Cohen said,

And that comes after years of engaging with three American presidents to work on U.S.-Russian relations, including with President Barack Obama on the administration's “reset” policy, said Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky.

“I think Putin slowly, this took him several years, moved from a period when he was trying to be friendly with the West and be a partner with the West…to a period when he is trying to recreate the empire,” Felshtinksy said.

“Whether this is going to be Soviet empire or mini Soviet empire or Russian empire, it’s difficult to say because probably Putin doesn’t know himself what this empire is going to be,” he said.

Felshtinsky also believes, that Putin has calculated that Western leaders like President Obama and Merkel are politically unable to prevent Russian expansion.  
 
Putin is photographed riding a horse in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region on August 3, 2009.
Putin is photographed riding a horse in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region on August 3, 2009.


A greater Russia

To understand what is driving Putin with regard to Ukraine, just think back to the days when former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, weakened both physically and politically, plucked Putin out of the KGB to become his successor in 1999.  

“It was very clear that he believed that Russia had gone through a period, -- a decade -- of socio-economic decline, national humiliation in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union,” said Graham.

Fast forward to 2014. After spending years successfully engineering a remarkable economic and military comeback, Graham says Putin revealed his intentions only days after Crimea was officially annexed.

His message, according to Graham: Russia’s period of geo-political retreat is now over.  

The Ukraine drama has sparked Cold War jitters – and a revisiting of an era of deep political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and ‘60s, when fears of nuclear war were at their highest.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy meet in Austria in June 1961.Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy meet in Austria in June 1961.
x
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy meet in Austria in June 1961.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy meet in Austria in June 1961.
But unlike Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who squared off with former President John F. Kennedy over the Cuban Missile Crisis, Putin is no communist.

“He doesn't believe in state ownership of all the industrial assets,” Cohen said. “But he is a great Russian nationalist. He believes that the Crimea, for example, and possibly other places in the former Soviet Union, like Northern Kazakhstan, possibly Belarus, possibly Ukraine, belong to [a] greater Russia.” he said.

But despite reports of Russian troop buildups on the Ukraine border, Graham predicts that Putin will not grab more territory.

"He gains very little by absorbing Eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population,” Graham said. “Because what he needs is all of Ukraine... he's not going seize territory,” he said. “What he wants to be able to do is project confidence, the ability, the capacity to use power and hope that those levers give him increasing influence in the states along Russia's borders."

And if Ukraine moves closer to the West, as its new government wants to, Putin will have lost strategically.

Since 2008, Ukraine has been a candidate to join NATO, said Henrik Larsen, post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“There is still a formal promise on the table they will eventually become members of NATO. So from a Russian perspective what happened in Kyiv was a new ‘orange revolution’ that over time could maybe lead to NATO membership,” said Larsen. “And for the Russian perspective, the prospect of U.S. or NATO troops in Ukraine is unthinkable.”

Correction:
An earlier version of this story had a map that incorrectly labeled several nations as members of the EU. VOA regrets the error. 

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
 Previous    
by: rbockman from: Philly
March 30, 2014 9:14 AM
Vlad has given the world the finger and no one has the nerve to do anything about it.
In Response

by: bronko billy from: usa
March 31, 2014 10:12 AM
I like this debate , but the World needs melody. I do not think Putin is any worse than George W Bush of yesteryear. It is quite Rich for the US to now talk about international law when they have broken it as many times as they wish. Panama, Grenada, Iraq etc etc - The list is endless. They encourage Isreal to break international law willy nelly and now they have found peace with international law. How amazon....This is a satan condeming sin.They even undermine the united nations. Those that live in glass houses........ it insults the world and there are many out there that neither respect the US not listen to the blame game they are now engaged in. Countries that seek to be World leaders should do so by example. Mr. Putin has thrown the guntlet and he awaits anybody with guts to pick it up. This world is in danger indeed.
     

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs