WASHINGTON — While Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been described by Western nations as illegal and illegitimate, longtime Russian watchers say there is compelling history and motives behind it.
Columbia University professor Robert Legvold said for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the annexation is a question of legacy.
“From his point of view, it would be a far more substantial legacy than the Sochi Olympics, which everybody has been talking about as something that he wanted to be his legacy,” said Legvold. “But to have brought Crimea back into the historical place that it has had in the fold of Mother Russia, I think he sees this as probably the single most important thing that he will accomplish as president.”
Legvold said Putin believes by annexing Crimea, he rectifies what he sees as the historical injustice of 1954, when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.
Putin defends Russians
Wilson Center analyst Matthew Rojansky said by taking over Crimea, Putin has destroyed the image of Russia as being a responsible partner on the international stage.
“But there is another image that he may care much, much more about, and that is his image at home as not only defender of the Russian people, which certainly the argument about defending Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine would help,” said Rojansky, “but also as a defender of a greater Russia, of a vision of Russia which is more powerful and bigger and which is taken seriously, perhaps more out of fear than love.”
Putin sees Russia as strong power
Brent Scowcroft was national security adviser to two U.S. presidents, Gerald Ford (1974-77) and George H.W. Bush (1989-93). Before Crimea’s annexation, Scowcroft told VOA Putin wants Russia to be seen as a strong power.
“Putin nurses a grudge, because what he says is that at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was flat on its back, we walked all over them. And we did it because they were weak. Technically he has a point,” said Scowcroft. “We pushed the borders of NATO right into the former Soviet Union. We denounced the ABM [anti-ballistic missile] treaty and so on and so forth. We didn’t do it to weaken the Russians; we did it because we thought it was useful. But - that gnaws at him.”
The United States and its Western allies have imposed economic sanctions on Russian officials as a result of Crimea’s annexation. Russia responded by placing travel restrictions on U.S. officials.
US-Russia cooperation in the balance
Columbia University’s Legvold said the crisis over Crimea could affect U.S.-Russia cooperation in such areas as Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria.
“In Syria, they have been a problem all along the way. They helped in an important way on chemical weapons,” said Legvold. “But the notion that somehow we can find common ground for achieving a political outcome grows more remote, because again, the Russians have no desire to seem like a cooperative partner when they are defining us - not merely as misguided in our policy - but even malevolent in our policy; that is, beginning to think of us as an adversary, not simply a difficult interlocutor.”
Legvold and others believe if tensions rise between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and other issues, it could reignite a new Cold War.