News / Europe

What Prompted Putin's Annexation of Crimea?

FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federation Council in Moscow's Kremlin, March 18, 2014.
FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federation Council in Moscow's Kremlin, March 18, 2014.
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.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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Comment Sorting
by: Jeff
March 27, 2014 10:40 AM
Taking by by force of arms must have been well planned in advance by the Russian Government. No military commander could have unilaterally authorized this on his own initiative. A dateline would illustrate how quickly this was action-ed. Russia acts independently of the UN and the world when it is in their best
interest. The West should have realized this by now.

by: Igor from: Russia
March 26, 2014 10:46 PM
The West, especially the USA destroyed their own image as being a responsible partners on the international stage long ago when they attacked and invaded Iraq, Afganistan, Lybia, former Yugoslavia and many other coutries despite the opposition of international community.
In Response

by: meanbill from: USA
March 27, 2014 10:51 AM
Hey Igor, Putin is using (the NATO rules), for intervening in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine, or wherever? The NATO rules for invading Yugoslavia (Serbia), were for "Humanitarian reasons" to save Albanian lives, and take land from the Serbs to form the independent state of Kosovo? NOW Putin and Russia are using the exact same (NATO rules), to intervene in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine, for "Humanitarian reasons" to save innocent Russians in those countries?
BLAME NATO? ... and the (NATO rules?)

by: Lev Havryliv from: Sydney, Australia
March 26, 2014 8:48 PM
Putin and his supporters suffer from a psychological post-imperial syndrome. That is an inability to accept that formerly Russian-controlled countries should and deserve to decide their own destiny.

Claims of protection of Russian-speakers have no basis, and are a smokescreen for the ideology of a "greater Russia" ie. an expanded Russian empire.
In Response

by: Jim Miller from: Virginia
March 27, 2014 6:47 AM
You make a wonderful point here. My wife is from Lithuania and we visit her family every two or three years during the summer months. They have no love for Russia, calling them occupiers right up front. Permit me to share an anecdote that I believe will help define what you noted in your message. We were visiting the seaside resort town of Palanga and strolling the boardwalk. Two ladies were walking in front of us and, although I don't understand the language, I recognized it to be Russian. Listening to them, my wife became gruff and muttered something quite unpleasant. I asked what was wrong and she said "Russians!" I asked what they said. She said the one lady asked the other how she liked Palanga. She replied that it was alright but there were too many Lithuanians there. Keep in mind Palanga is Lithuanian. My wife described the attitude as one of "Big Brother" that she had grown up with while they were in the Soviet Union. These folks are fiercely independent despite the fact they are only 3.75 million in number. So yes, the Russians can't accept that folks don't want to be controlled by them.

by: DaveInSacramento from: Sacramento, Ca
March 26, 2014 6:18 PM
As Russia, is the largest country on the planet with extremely limited ocean access, is it possible that Mr. Putin is interested in Ukraine for sea port access for trade and defense?

That would make sense to me, considering they have little more than St Petersburg to the North and Vladivostok to the East
In Response

by: Cranksy from: USA
March 27, 2014 12:32 PM
I have the same question. It seems to me the discussion in the article and comments are misdirected to legacy and ego.

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